Not again. Frank Cignetti's chest begins to burn, a vise crushing his heart. What can he say this time? He sits in his office, the football coach at West Virginia, the Mountaineers' final word on everything. He feels helpless. Here comes the boy—sure; he's a senior, but look at that baby face—stubby as a thumb, slow as pitch, armed with numbers that mean nothing. Here comes Terry Bowden through the door, insisting again. You have to start me, Coach. lean do it....
Five years Terry has been at West Virginia, begging for his chance. No one has given more of himself, worked harder, studied longer, listened better. No one has less to give. Who in Division I plays a half-pint running back with no quickness or power? His daddy, Bobby, sure didn't. Bobby left West Virginia in 1976, after Terry's second year, without the boy playing a down. It hurts Bobby still: The time Terry was knocked cold in practice, laid out on the field with blood pouring from his nose and mouth. Bobby wanted to hug his boy, wipe away the hurt. He couldn't. He had to treat him like any player.
"Growing up, you're always encouraging your kids, 'You can do it,' " Bobby says. "And there was Terry—five-foot-six, 170 pounds—and I was still encouraging him: 'You can do it.' I knew he wasn't fast enough, big enough. I knew he wasn't good enough, but...."
Look, today in practice I had 27 more yards than Walker.... Look, I should be playing. Why aren't I playing, Coach? Why?
November 21, 1994
How much of a beating can a boy take? Season after season some new talent would come in and pass Terry by. He had a 3.65 academic average, he was married; he had a life. But this was the thing Terry wanted to be: a football player. Every season he would come back, and sooner or later he would be back in this office.
Cignetti shakes his head. How much of a beating?
One spring afternoon a runner went down, and an assistant coach named Joe Pendry rasped, "Get me a back out here!" And Terry, four years on the scout team and just waiting, bulled out before anyone else could yank on a helmet. Pendry saw him coming and yelled, "No, give me a good back!" And there Terry was, frozen at midfield. "You do one of two things: Quit or fight," says Terry's older brother, Tommy, a two-year starter at West Virginia. "He fought. He played on special teams, and he was cold-blooded, a killer."
Cignetti tries: "You just can't make the play, Terry. You don't have the speed you need...." But it's useless. Terry stares at him, eyes wide, pleading. Cignetti knows what's coming. Terry asks, "Why?" and the room quiets because there is nothing words can do. And Terry's eyes fill with tears, and Cignetti wants to cry, too, because this is what a coach seeks, forever, the player who dies for the game.
"Terry...." Cignetti begins, but that's all he has. "Terry."
He loves to sing. Sometimes, after a win, the customers down at DeNaro's will look up from their plates to see Coach on stage, warbling Sister Goldenhair or some other such mush-pop from his youth. But not tonight. Out of the Lexus Bowden pops, the same way he shoots through doorways or shakes an offered hand on the sidewalk—always with an eye edging on to the next thing—moving like he was hurtled out of some fiery gun, Mr. Cannonball on an unstoppable roll.
"I don't think he's subject to the same shadows and fears that some men are," says Auburn athletic director David Housel. And as Terry pulls his three-year-old daughter, Erin, by the hand, and Jordan, 4, and Cori, 2, chatter and jump around, he doesn't seem shadowed at all. They finish the song they had going in the car.
"Ai-meee, whatchu gonna do-o?
I thi-ink I could stay with you
For a while, maybe longer, if I do...."
Their voices mix into a mellow, burbling alto, and the sound drifts up to the branches. The scene is as pretty as a picture: Night has stained the Auburn sky a glittering ebony, Terry is walking to his huge new house, and his wife, Shyrl, is waiting and his girls are in hand. Out back is the lake and the rowboat and the waterfall that never stops falling. He is 38 years old, he is the coach at Auburn, and he has yet to lose a football game here. The Tigers are 9-0-1 this year, one Saturday away from back-to-back unbeaten seasons. In just his second year as a Division I-A coach and despite Auburn's current exile from bowl competition because of NCAA violations that antedated his arrival at Auburn, Terry was still in the hunt for a national championship until last Saturday, when Georgia, a big underdog, tied Auburn 23-23. Has any coach ever had it so golden, so quickly?
"That irritates me," Bowden says, and all the good humor simply evaporates. He is in his office at home now, surrounded by the five Coach of the Year awards he gathered last winter and has shown off just minutes before. But the voice has an edge now, directed at those who sneer and call him Baby Bowden...Buster Brown. "Only it's Buster Brown, sir, now," he says.
"I'm a second-year guy, and it's like it can't be explained: I must be so lucky. But I'm not a second-year guy. What was I doing when you were out being someone else's assistant? I was out fighting like a thousand other guys in programs that'd never won before and for less money than these other so-called coaches, and I want people to say, 'That was coaching.'
"I'm sure other coaches in the SEC look at me and say, 'Look-it, the kid gets all this.' But, sir, did you ever wash the equipment? Did you lime the field? The entire first spring at Salem [W.Va.] College, I had no washer and dryer; I took every practice uniform pant, jersey, sock, every part of it, to the laundrymat. Got six machines and did every washing and drying every night—instead of going home to my wife—so we could practice the next day. That's why I don't apologize to anyone for the success.
"People say, 'Wait till he's been around awhile. He'll know it's not so easy.' But I know it's not. I know how it is to lose. I've lost before."
And it cost him dearly, because the stakes were unusually high. Never has college football seen a father-son tandem like Bobby and Terry Bowden or a family so prolifically pigskinned. Few coaches are more respected than Florida State's Bobby, who has spent 41 years writing his name all over the South but whose legacy goes well beyond wins. Bobby's four sons and two daughters grew up with their father preoccupied with other boys and working long hours, and he'd never wanted any of them to enter the profession. So much for Dad's advice; three sons became coaches, and a daughter married one, too. When Bobby was coaching at Samford University in Birmingham in the early 1960s, Terry and Tommy, now Auburn's offensive coordinator, would ride the team bus, clambering up to the luggage rack to sleep. Everything Terry learned, he says, is because he's his father's son.
The flip side is that from the first time he put on a headset, Terry has been cursed by comparisons with his dad. Many scoffed when Terry was hired in December 1992 to replace Pat Dye, the architect of Auburn's reemergence as a national power and the man held accountable when those assorted NCAA violations got Auburn put on two years' probation. Many Auburn folks felt Terry was replacing a hero. He had to laugh. On his first day in the Tiger football office he opened a package to find a pair of size-20 shoes and a note: "These are Coach Dye's. They're going to be hard to fill." Terry wrote back, "I've been filling big shoes all my life." "I wanted to say, 'Bigger shoes than those,' " Terry says.
The fact is, he had already fitted himself for the largest pair of all. One evening in late January 1983, Terry stood in a phone booth in Birmingham. He was 26, scouting some kid named Orlando Miles for Bobby's team at Florida State, and he had just been told by an official at Salem College that he would be the tiny West Virginia school's new coach. Salem had gone 0-9-1 the year before, and no one wanted the job, but...it was official! The youngest college football coach in America! Then the man put Terry on hold. And as he stood shuffling his feet in the cold, waiting, Terry looked down and saw a newspaper from days before: HEART ATTACK ENDS LIFE OF LEGENDARY BEAR BRYANT. There was mention, of course, of the Alabama coach's six national titles, but Bowden found his eyes resting on the Bear's NCAA-record 323 victories. He saw another story headlined, BRYANT: A WINNER'S JOURNEY, and he realized, My clock starts running now.
"I set my goal right there: I want to get 324," Terry says. "That's it. I was 26 years old; he was 69 the day he died. Now I've got 84 wins, and if I can win eight games a year and coach till I'm 69, I'll have 324. It's not a goal to win all my games or cut corners. It's a goal to learn football, try to be a solid coach. Try to stay in this business as long as he did."
Terry chose "Audacity" as his team's motto this year, and what could be more audacious than to stroll into the Bear's backyard and set the legend in your sights? It is something his dad would never do. "That's Terry," says Bobby. "In his first job, and he's already counting." So forget Pat Dye (236 wins) being a hard act to follow. "Forget Bobby Bowden," Terry chuckles. "This [goal] makes it easy to deal with big shoes."
There's a catch, though. Has such enormous ambition ever been realized without cost? Because even as Terry and Shyrl show you around their huge home, even as he presses a button and the voice of James Taylor drifts over the girls like a benediction—"Goodnight, you moonlight laa-dies, rock-a-bye Sweet Baby James..."—there is one crack in his pretty picture. In eighth grade, the moment Bobby became the coach at West Virginia, Terry saw what he wanted to be and moved toward it with rare fury. He wanted to start at West Virginia not just because he loved the game but because with his grades he could have been an Academic All-America, and that would have made some future employer take notice. He took classes in dynamic speaking and television-radio communications because a coach must know how to address the public. He majored in accounting because coaching is big business, got a law degree, from Florida State, because it would set him apart from other assistants. He had the highest grades on the team. "It wasn't so much that I loved my subjects," Terry says. "I was hoping to pad that rèsumè."
Everything was for coaching—for 324. The high school sweetheart he married in college, Twila, and the daughter they had when Terry was 26 got lost in the drive. In his first year at Salem, 1983, the Tigers began 0-6. His father had taught him: When the going gets tough, work harder. "It was very difficult," Terry says. "I'm the son of Bobby Bowden—I'm supposed to win. At that point he'd already gone 11-1 [at Florida State], gone to two Orange Bowls. He was becoming one of the top coaches in the country, and I couldn't win at all. The pressure was overwhelming. All my life I'd wanted to be a college football coach, and my first year it doesn't look like I'm going to make it. I'm thrust into this very adverse situation, and that was all I ever conveyed to my wife. I can't sleep; I'm working. She's left out."
Twila asked for a separation before the seventh game. Salem lost that one too. The next year, while Terry was on his way to a conference championship, the two were divorced; 12-year-old Tera Dawn Bowden now lives with her mother and stepfather hundreds of miles away. Bobby had taught Terry everything about coaching except the price. "It was sad. I was being like my father," Terry says. "And I assumed all wives handled it like my mother. She may be mad or happy, but she's got six kids in the house, and she's going to raise them by herself. That was the way I thought it was supposed to be: I was supposed to neglect my wife, work hard, and good things were going to happen."
He likes to think he's changed. He met Shyrl during his last year at Salem, and this time, Terry says, he thinks more about his family. He schedules them into his calendar; he plans four trips a year away from football. He tries, Shyrl says, but she's no fool. "I went into this marriage with my eyes wide open," she says. "I wasn't going to pretend that I could change him." And Terry knows no Auburn fan cares how good a family man he is. "The things they love about me are what cost me a marriage," he says. "I'm driven. I get up at 4:15 every morning in the season, I'm in the office by five, I work late, I like Mondays better than Fridays. Those are the things that caused me not to be a good husband the first time. People say I don't ever lose. But I did a lot of learning. You just weren't watching."
Pat Dye extends a creased, hard hand behind him, reaching for something without looking. He is indoors, but his eyes narrow in the permanent squint of a man who has spent his life staring across fields, measuring boys and cattle. His voice is thick, redolent of hunting dogs baying across a cool Alabama morning. He reaches to stroke the leaves of the potted palm, feels they are dead. He crushes them between his fingers and bits flutter to the carpet. "It's a funny place to coach, the state of Alabama," Dye says. "Football's important here."
He smiles thinly at this, a small joke with himself. As the former Auburn coach, he knows better than anyone: There is no place in America—not Texas, not Florida and certainly not California—where a mere game has more importance, where hatred between camps runs so deep. Auburn plays Alabama on Saturday. "For too many, the outcome of this game affects how people feel about themselves," says Auburn's Housel. "It affects people's lives more than any event in the state."
Dye can testify to that. In December 1992 his 12-year career as Auburn coach ended after one messy and bitter episode of NCAA violations and taped conversations by former player Eric Ramsey. He resigned, got a nice settlement after threatening to "bloody" anyone who tried to make him the sole fall guy, became an assistant to the university president. And though Dye admits he lacked proper control over his staff, he—like many Auburn loyalists—believes that Alabama boosters greased his slide. "At Auburn," says Bowden, "there's only one thing worse than losing to Alabama every year: beating Alabama every year."
"There's elements on both sides—Auburn and Alabama—that just want to destroy each other," says Auburn trustee Bobby Lowder, a key backer of Bowden's appointment. "It's unfortunate but true."
Bowden arrived in this jungle as a rank outsider and, as such, perhaps the best indication that Auburn means to change the direction of a football program that has been on probation five times. He's not the typical SEC hand, one of those many Bryant disciples who run smash-mouth offense and wink at the rules; Bowden's previous stop was Samford, where he turned a Division III program into a I-AA title contender. But he's no babe, either. Most coaches, especially those stepping into scandal, wipe the program clean, but Bowden recognized that a scorched-earth policy would create more enemies than friends. He retained three key members of Dye's staff, including defensive coordinator Wayne Hall—who had sought the head coaching job himself.
Terry also made it clear that he wanted to keep brother Tommy, a decision as admirable as it was sticky. The two had taken opposite paths to the same goal of becoming a Division I head coach—Terry electing to be the big fish at small schools, Tommy learning as an assistant at Florida State, Duke, Alabama, Kentucky and, since the 1991 season, Auburn. But Tommy, older by a year and a half, wasn't sure he wanted to stay. The family had a hierarchy: Oldest runs the show. Now Terry had turned that upside down.
"Who wants to work for his younger brother?" Tommy says, laughing. "I have the same goals, ambitions and dreams as he does. Mine got sidetracked. It's a pretty humiliating experience."
It's strange for Terry, too. "I'm not used to telling him what to do, and I'm not comfortable with it," he says. "Any other coach would have probably fired everybody on the staff. I told them I wouldn't come if I couldn't hire my brother. I'm not going to ruin a family for this job." And the funny thing is, the family order returns the moment football is done. "We walk out of the office, go to the beach, and all of a sudden the hierarchy comes back: 'Terry, go get the pool furniture, bring it in here.' And I will."
Now, both admit, Terry's success has made Tommy a hot property—Ole Miss reportedly has already contacted him—but the two clashed over offensive philosophy until Tommy gave ground. "I know who the boss is," Tommy says. "Sooner or later I'll be the boss." The phone rings, Tommy picks up. "No, you've got the wrong head coach," he says and hangs up.
"In our family it was no different from any father-son relationship: You definitely compete for his acceptance, his stamp of approval," Tommy says. "And Terry pretty much has his stamp, going 11-0 in the toughest conference. I've got to get me my own stamp."
Meanwhile, Terry made a point of making his predecessor feel welcome, knowing Dye still had the loyalty of many administrators and virtually all the players (18 starters this season were Dye recruits). He let Dye address the Tigers after last year's win over Alabama. He had the confidence—rare in a coach of any age—to move delicately. "I couldn't ask for any more," Dye says. "He's got a tremendous ability to listen, and a lot of times I suggest things."
Dye thinks Terry is meaner than Bobby, while still able to unsettle opponents with his father's unpredictable schemes and trick plays. "Bobby's not going to run the sweep down your throat," Dye says. "But Terry does both. He'll knock the crap out of you, and then he'll screw you."
For Dye, it's wonderful stuff. It allows him to share in the vindication rising out of the scandal. And now, this Saturday's game in Birmingham, rattling the Bear's cage—it's almost too much to hope for.
"I've got a lot of Alabama friends," says Dye, an assistant under Bryant for nine years. "A lot of people there felt that when they got rid of Pat Dye, they'd kill Auburn. But what it did was set Auburn up to hire the best young coach in the country." He says nothing for a moment, then lowers his voice as if he's speaking only to himself. "And it tickles me to death."
It is late, and Bowden has been going at it all day—practice, interviews, film, meetings, dinner with the team. He sags some, but this is what he wanted all along. "You know, the coach who understands this business secretly smiles after that eighth victory," he says suddenly. "You get this sigh of relief because you'll have a job next year. There's always that side of you that says, Hang on, hang on. Get your eight. Because then you'll coach all your life."
And then you'll have all the numbers lined up for the Great Bear Hunt. A win at Alabama will give Terry Bowden his 21st victory without a loss at Auburn. His father didn't start that way. Neither did Bryant. He is on track. "I'm ahead of track," Terry corrects. "I always thought I was going to get there. Even that first year, I doubted my circumstances but I never doubted I could coach at the top level. And I never said it had to be as wonderful as it is right here."
Wonderful as this house on the edge of town, lit up like a star. There are times, when Terry dips his head or places his hand near his face, that it's like watching the father, stripped of all his years. Then there are moments when Terry is bouncing from subject to subject, room to room, disengaged like Bobby never is, not even seeing his girls, not hearing Erin chanting, "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"
She is poised on the staircase—knees bent, arms back, ready to jump to the floor—and wants him to watch. "Daddy!" He keeps talking, pointing; he's in his own world, but Erin, a miniature Terry, is very smart too. "Coach Bowden!" she shouts, and Terry snaps to, like a man jolted from sleep.
"Yes?" he says. Everyone stops. The coach's daughter takes a deep breath and hops into the air.