Think you know Florida State's legendary coach, the man who's bearing
college football's all-time Division I-A victory record as he approaches
his 74th birthday?
By Steve Ellis
Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat
July 28, 2003 TALLAHASSEE The 200 youths attending Florida State's football camp hung on Bobby Bowden's every word under the sweltering July sun. They are too young to know that the legendary coach's 28-year reign began with a slip on the ice at West Virginia that sent him packing for Tallahassee. Only their parents might recall Bowden's line as he took over an FSU program that had lost 29 of 33 games before he arrived in 1976. At West Virginia we had bumper stickers that read Beat Pitt' or Beat Penn State,' Bowden was fond of saying. Here they read, Beat Anybody.'
Bowden, who built his first winning program at Howard College (now Samford) using idol Bear Bryant's scraps, beat anybody and everybody in racking up two national titles and 332 career victories just four behind all-time leader Joe Paterno. Bowden upset Nebraska and Ohio State, and soon the bumper stickers in Tallahassee read Bowden For President and Saint Bobby. And that was before he strung together college football's standard for consistency: 14 consecutive seasons (1987-2000) of at least 10 victories and top-five finishes in the Associated Press poll.
Look where the program was to where it is now, FSU athletic director Dave Hart said. I'm not sure he gets the credit he deserves regarding how he changed that landscape.
Beloved By Friends, Foes
In January, Bowden was formally granted another five years to coach at FSU when new university president T.K. Wetherell said it was time to end N.C. State coach Chuck Amato's recruiting tactics. The former FSU assistant, according to Wetherell, showed recruits a line in Bowden's contract that stated it ended after the 2003 season. Amato failed to show the passage that revealed it could be renewed at Bowden's request meaning it was basically a lifetime agreement.
Most of the camp youngsters, ranging from 10 to incoming high school seniors, won't play for the 73-year-old Bowden. That's a shame, said Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Brett Williams, who completed his five years under the coach last fall.
He's the role model every father would want his son to have, Williams said. You leave here better for having that contact.
Former Florida State and Miami Dolphin defensive back Terrell Buckley had his quarrels with Bowden but has come to embrace the memories.
Probably a thousand, two thousand have played for Coach Bowden, Buckley said. I guarantee you out of that, 10 of 'em might have bad things to say but they still like him. He has unconditional love for his players. He promised my mom and others he was going to treat us like (his) son. He has done that.
Although major college prospects were among the second-session campers, few will ever know how much it means to even play against Bowden, as it did for Vinny Testaverde.
I never wrote a letter to any coach before, Testaverde wrote days after his Miami team defeated FSU, 41-23, in 1986. But I felt I had to let you know that you are a great inspiration to a lot of young men around the country (including myself), and you set great examples to follow.
Testaverde's alma mater defeated Bowden three times on missed field goals. After Xavier Beitia broke tradition by going wide left rather than right last season in another FSU heartbreaker, Bowden waited at the foot of the team plane to console his kicker. It's a side rarely seen.
Fun, Approachable, Real
Bowden, after all, lost just eight of 51 games heading into the 2002 season. The nation knew the coach as a winner and someone who was entertaining to watch. The twinkle in his eyes could penetrate the thickest and weirdest pair of sunglasses.
Bowden brought us the puntrooskie a play introduced to him by a graduate
assistant and then used chairs to diagram to the media after that 1988 win
over Clemson to show how he gosh-dang pulled it off. He became King of the Road
in the early 1980s, and he opened his thoughts while a game was actually under
way when he permitted interviews during FSU's
14-7 victory over Southern California in 1997.
His favorite passage from the Bible is Psalms 42. It's the first one his mother, Sunset, taught him. The layman minister tithes to his church 10 percent of his annual income, and in a good year he can make $2 million. He grew up in the shadows of then-Howard College's Berry Field, where he later played as a Little All-American and then coached. He cried at his four sons' weddings but not at his two daughters'. He was mischievous in his youth.
I never got arrested, but I got shot at, he said of a childhood prank, in which he and his Birmingham buddies oiled a trolley track.
Bowden is a collector of rocks, with dozens from around the world. He keeps them in a tobacco pouch. He is a reader of books, especially about the military, and has more than 250 in his office. His most cherished victory came not in two championship games but against No. 3 Nebraska on the road in 1980. Before Bowden came on board, FSU had won three games against top-10 teams, and 37 since Bowden took over.
His most prized possession is a watch owned by his father, a banker, that he keeps in his office desk.
It's doubtful the participants at Bowden's camp would know any of that. But Bobby Bowden is a coaching legend standing in their midst, and even the youngest of the campers can grasp that. He wraps up a speech full of grandfatherly advice about working hard and studying to whoops and hollers. This is the way those close to Bowden want more than 50 years of coaching to end.
He is the single best person I know, FSU sports information director Rob Wilson said. To me, he is what college football is supposed to be about. He has always said national championships were not that big of a deal. But I think the consistent success of his program is important to him. For it not to end on this successfully consistent plane would be a travesty.
Priorities Maintain Balance
The ovation subsides, and in the distance the rumbling of an approaching thunderstorm can be heard. Ominous clouds hang over Tallahassee this day, and recently over its famous football program.
The Seminoles are missing from most preseason publications' top 10 for the first time in years. FSU has lost nine games in the past two seasons; that equals the total defeats of the previous seven campaigns. The Seminoles lost to Louisville in 2002. Louisville! And Amato's Wolfpack has beaten FSU the past two years.
Losses are hard on Bowden. It doesn't matter if it's 1976 when, with a 5-6 record, he posted his only losing season at FSU, or 2002. There is little difference if it's a loss to highly ranked Miami or a stunning defeat to Louisville.
I still had that same nauseated feeling when I woke up, Bowden said of his team's 26-20 overtime loss to Louisville last year. A loss is a loss, and it still hurts. I know this: Losses hurt more than a win makes you feel good.
The nation took notice of Bowden because of the wins. He gained the respect of those around him through the losses. Wilson said he'll never forget Bowden after a 24-17 loss at Florida in 1989. Bowden was sitting inside an escort vehicle waiting to leave the stadium when two Gator fans decked in Orange and Blue tapped on his window. Bowden stepped out and signed both women's T-shirts.
Bowden is optimistic that this season's team can be good despite an inexperienced offensive line and a quarterback whose leadership abilities are not proven.
We have talent, he said simply.
But if an improving league, and difficult nonconference dates with Notre Dame, Florida, Miami and Colorado, spells more losses, Bowden is prepared. He escapes through reading, or by getting out pictures from his family outings to Panama City. He walks every day. And he follows the advice he offered to his campers.
If you get priorities in order, you will have a successful life, he said. These are the priorities I talk to my players about: No. 1, God. No 2, family. And No. 3, make others a priority.
Family always has been a tough balancing act for Bowden. His wife, Ann, who was 16 when she married 19-year-old Bobby, raised the family. His sons kid that their father spent more time watching other parents' children play football than watching his own.
But Hart, a former coach, said it is Bowden's consistency in prioritizing his life that he admires the most.
I think it's extraordinary to be around an individual to reach this level of success and not change his priorities, Hart said. He takes things in stride, and I think it's because of his priorities his faith and family are in order. He's certainly (affected) when they are not going like they should. We've gone through a tough part, but he doesn't let that dramatically knock him off track. Again, priorities. He gives so much of his time, and he has a genuine interest in people. That's real.
Surprises: Concrete, Anger
The real Bowden was raised in a city.
They always call Bobby a good ol' country boy, but Bobby's never lived in the country in his life, Ann said. He was raised on concrete. Bobby always wanted to project this image. He wanted to hang around the guys, and he never wanted them to think he had more than they did.
The real Bowden is more at ease at home than before a crowded banquet room, although he can charm folks in either environment.
He likes to have his space, Ann said.
And the real Bowden gets angry.
Sometimes you wish somebody would say something, and you can smack 'em, Bowden said with a laugh, while discussing the losses last season. Which you can't do, but you feel that bad. I'd like to do some damage to something.
But he's not likely to show his anger by calling a player out publicly or displaying his emotions after a loss. Friend and Seminole Booster executive director Charlie Barnes believes he knows why.
He does get mad, Barnes said. The face that he shows you is who he really is, but he's not going to show you anything he doesn't want you to see. He is a very classic leader in that the way he acts and reacts is going to be the signal to everybody else how they should act and react. If he comes out and says, Oh, my God, we have all these problems,' that's the way everybody else is going to react.
He has to be strong and confident, especially when things aren't going well. It's easy to be Bobby Bowden when you are 12-0. It's tough being Bobby Bowden when things aren't going well. But this guy is a rock. He is a lot stronger than even people who like him think.
While losses eat at Bowden, he takes exception to the perception his program has fallen on hard times.
I'm not going to apologize for winning nine games, Bowden said. And, really, he shouldn't. A lot of ACC teams would call nine wins and a date in the Sugar Bowl a great season. But at FSU, and because of Bowden, standards are higher.
Critics Question Discipline
His critics believe it should be the same off the field, where stormy days found former quarterback Adrian McPherson on trial for sports gambling, and defensive tackle Darnell Dockett arrested for taking an illegal discount at a Tallahassee store.
Character, character, character, Bowden shouted so each camper could hear. Obey the law. Obey your coach. Obey your parents. Obey your teachers.
Not all FSU players have followed that advice. McPherson was scheduled to begin a second trial this time for check forgery the very day Bowden spoke at his camp. A hung jury on misdemeanor internet gambling charges led to McPherson, no longer on the squad, to plead not guilty to three charges. Another FSU football player, Travis Johnson, faces an August trial date after he was charged with sexual battery of a female student. That's three players arrested since December.
Bowden insists that when it comes to off-the-field problems, FSU is no different than other programs. He has said that the involvement of football players in wrongdoing is not proportionally out of kilter with other students. Former FSU president Sandy D'Alemberte concurs.
I don't think it's a program out of control, D'Alemberte said. I really doubt the players are much different. I doubt they are as bad as the student body in general. It's the nature of young people to make mistakes.
To Bowden's point, at least on the athletics front, nearly 10 universities had at least one player arrested from the time Chris Rix was suspended for missing a class to Dockett's suspension four days later in December. Four universities had players arrested during the 48 hours leading to McPherson's June trial. Since 1997, at least 19 Seminoles have been arrested. The number of archrival Florida football players charged with a crime also totals at least 19 during that span.
But it is not the sheer numbers that have turned up the volume on a familiar refrain from critics. They say Bowden, who will turn 74 in November, is too much of a grandfather and not enough of a disciplinarian. He gives too many second chances and hands out too few suspensions.
Bowden doesn't deny he's against suspensions. That philosophy has its roots in his last college game, when his coach suspended seven players for going to the fair that week.
We lost 14-0 to a team we should have beaten to end my career, Bowden said. That was always in my craw. That's why I don't believe in suspensions. Punish the person who did something take away his per diem or meals but why punish everybody? I've always disciplined. We do it in the family, not public.
Bowden has a different style, one his sons say differs greatly from the fiery approach he had at West Virginia. When former player Octavis Jackson reported to his first preseason camp with a head full of dreadlocks, Bowden called him up to the tower where he viewed practices. He asked Jackson what he saw out on the field. Then Bowden told him what he saw a group of players with neatly trimmed hair. And Bowden added, That's what I expect to see when you're on that field tomorrow. Jackson got the point.
He comes across as being a little more soft and not coming down so hard when a kid makes a mistake or bad judgment, Ann said. He was that way as a father, and he's that way as a coach. We've never had many problems with our children. There have always been rules to go by, but you got to give a little bit.
Media Darling Steps Back
From Bowden's perspective, there has been little give in the media's coverage of his team's recent missteps and the way he's handled those problems. It's not the first time Bowden has been criticized in print, radio and TV. And it's not the first time he's lashed back, but never has it been so public. When he told his campers to obey the law, he warned that the media will write about them if they don't.
That's their favorite part, he said.
At no school in the country does the door swing open wider for the media, at least in football, than at Florida State under Bowden. The coach allowed a camera to follow his every move during one season in the late 1980s, and last year he gave an ESPN crew access to everything but the meeting in which he told players McPherson had been kicked off the team. Once he allowed a pool reporter to conduct an interview during a night game because deadlines were looming.
After a win at Michigan in 1991, the team buses were loaded up and waiting for Bowden to join the entourage. Wilson was sent to find Bowden. The coach was naked, taking a shower while a reporter needing one more quote stood nearby.
Now Bowden, one of the last coaches to open his locker room after a game, may close it this season. Outside of the ACC Kickoff, his time with media has been limited this summer. An impromptu interview with a national writer in a parking lot, and a couple of questions after his camp speech, are two of three interviews he conducted in the month that led up to the league's annual meeting between coaches and sportswriters.
We've had a handful who not only went to the edge but over it, and said things not factual, Hart said. Has he been hurt and affected by it? Yes, he has. He's frustrated.
His career-long honeymoon with the national media is part of the Bowden legacy. Now it appears in jeopardy.
There's one thing about him, and that is he is sincere, Wilson said. He is angry at the media, and for him not to reflect that would be insincere. But he's also a guy who doesn't let things eat at him, and he doesn't hold grudges. He isn't a grumpy old man.
Still Going Strong At 73
Old, yes. But too old to coach? Bowden obviously doesn't think so. He insists he'll be on the job as long as it's fun and health permits. Bowden has type-two diabetes but regulates it without medication. He watches his diet and passes up on his beloved chocolate. He once said it would no longer be fun if he had to go through a losing season, and then joked that his definition of a bad year was just seven or eight wins.
Even before FSU collected more losses in a season than it had in 21 years, the rumors of Bowden's pending retirement were ripe around the edges. His mother had died of symptoms from Alzheimer. People watched and listened for the signs of old age taking its toll.
But with Bowden, they can be hard to detect. He calls everybody buddy. What may seem like a senior moment is just a Bowden moment. He's always confused names, recently referring to current back Greg Jones as Greg Allen, someone who hasn't played at FSU in nearly 20 years. Years ago, the coach spent nearly an entire halftime speech about the importance of Kez McCorvey returning the opening kick. McCorvey didn't return kicks that year. So focused was Bowden on an upcoming game that he once interrupted a post-practice interview by asking reporters why all the coaches' kids were wearing costumes.
Halloween, coach, was the reply.
But his memory for detail is sharp. He'd call McCorvey Ken and then proceed to talk in detail about some dessert his mother made years ago. His wit still delights. He once told a story in which the punch line was his player saying, Trick or Treat, (expletive, expletive). A reporter asked what he thought the missing words might be. Without hesitation, Bowden replied, knowing the quality of my players, it had to be pretty please.'
And forget about reading too much into Bowden's infamous power naps. He's taken them for years.
In 1989, prior to facing Miami before a national television audience, the 60-year-old Bowden sought the peace of the locker room for a pre-game doze. It was a critical game for his program, loser of six consecutive games to Miami. FSU also had lost the season's first two games, to Southern Mississippi and Clemson. The players were nervous as they poured into the locker room and crowded around Bowden for a pre-game speech. Bowden was sound asleep, and no coach or player had the nerve to disturb him. Finally, with kickoff just minutes away, Bowden was roused. He sent the players onto the field with one of his shortest speeches. FSU players, who said later they found confidence in Bowden's calm, answered with a 24-10 victory.
If the football world is waiting for Bowden to fall asleep on job, long-time friend Barnes said they can forget it. Already there has been a buzz among the players that Bowden will step down from his tower to have more personal contact with his team and a closer eye on his coaches. He has implored his assistants to push his players and be firm, the building blocks of FSU's old dynasty. Barnes insisted Bowden is in control of his team and legacy.
Winning and having the program in good shape are the most important things for Bobby, Barnes said. I think it would be terrible for him if he had to leave the program in anything less than top-notch shape. That's what drives him.
Steve Ellis, a sportswriter for the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, has been covering Florida State football since 1982.
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