Bobby Bowden: Dadgum Icon

By RICH CIRMINIELLO

It’s been a long time since Bobby Bowden called Birmingham, Ala. home. And yet, Birmingham is never far from the legendary head football coach who first became synonymous with Tallahassee, Fla. at the early stages of his fabled career.

Wherever life has taken Bowden, the lessons learned in Birmingham have always accompanied him on the journey. Faith, family and football have long been the guiding principles of a man whose impact on the lives of literally hundreds of young men is incalculable.

After one season at the University of Alabama, Bowden transferred to nearby Howard College, now Samford University, where he graduated in 1953. A love of football still coursing through his veins, Bowden set forth on a coaching career that would someday make him a national household name, both in and outside of college football circles.

Bowden’s first of three major head coaching jobs was at his alma mater, Samford, where he went 31-6 from 1959-62. After three years as an assistant on Bill Peterson’s Florida State staff, Bowden left for West Virginia, where he spent a decade, first as Jim Carlen’s offensive coordinator and then as the head coach. Over six seasons, he went 42-26, capped by a 9-3 mark and a Top 25 finish in 1975.

But a swirling Morgantown climate—both meteorologically and within segments of the fan base—prompted Bowden, his wife Ann and their six kids to relocate to the Florida Panhandle. It was a fateful decision that not only shifted the course of his career but also changed Florida State University forever.

When Bowden arrived in Tallahassee in 1976, the Seminoles were a shell of the powerhouse they’d soon become. From predecessor Darrell Mudra, Bowden inherited a comatose program that had gone 4-29 over the previous three years and hadn’t won a bowl game since 1964. The FSU roster was depleted and the psyche of the holdovers was fragile after three consecutive losing seasons. However, Bowden, armed with his Southern charm, glib one-liners and bedrock Christian faith, was undeterred by the challenge in front of him. And the ‘Nole players, sensing the dawn of a new day, began rallying around their charismatic coach.

“You know, I wanted my guys to be great players, but I also wanted them to be great people in life,” says Bowden about his management style. “I would constantly bring in former All-Americans and current pro players to talk about what helped make them achieve greatness. They got tired of hearing me preaching, so I’d bring in new voices, and they’d always sit up and listen to the life lessons from those speakers.”

Florida State set the table in 1976, going 5-6 in what would be Bowden’s only losing season at the school. From then on, the Seminoles feasted on the opposition in a remarkable three-decade run of prominence and prosperity.

It wasn’t long before Bowden helped permanently weave garnet and gold into the rich college football tapestry. His second team in 1977 became the first in school history to win 10 games, including a Tangerine Bowl blowout of Texas Tech. The Seminoles were off and running, and gifted Sunshine State players started seeing Doak Campbell Stadium as a destination spot for their college careers. The 1970s marked the advent of Florida as a powerhouse pipeline of football talent, and Bowden, along with Miami Howard Schnellenberger, was one of the state’s pioneering architects of the movement.

Under Bowden, Florida State developed a familiar brand, even as the seasons began to roll up. Year after year, the Seminoles were littered with elite, next-level playmakers on both sides of the line. The offense was perennially prolific, spearheaded by talented pocket passers and dynamic wide receivers. The D was scary-fast at every level, a group of runners and hitters that flew to the ball, especially after Mickey Andrews was hired in 1984 to coordinate the unit. Bowden’s ‘Noles were a complete squad, which was reflected in the final tally of a most remarkable career on the sidelines.

When all was said and done at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign, Bowden had amassed a treasure chest of achievements that spoke to his steadiness as a coach and a leader of men, both athletes and assistants. Over the span of 34 memorable seasons in Tallahassee, he won 304 games, transforming a struggling mid-major Independent into a dynasty of national proportions. In the long and storied history of college football, only three coaches at all levels have won more games than Bowden.

Bowden was also supremely consistent, successfully warding off complacency in his locker room. The College Football Hall of Famer was the first coach to ever win 10 games in 14 consecutive years and the first to take 27 straight teams to postseason games. From 1987-2000, not one of his teams finished the year outside the top 5, an incomparable feat, and the Seminoles captured the league championship in 12 of their first 14 seasons as a member of the ACC.

“The biggest enemy to success is complacency,” offers Bowden. “How do you keep the kids motivated? I watch Nick (Saban) these days, and he never let’s success go to his players’ heads. The key for us was to recruit players who were not only great athletes, but were also level-headed, hungry and never content with mediocrity.”

As a postseason coach, few have ever been better than Bowden, who once went 13-0-1 during a torrid stretch of bowl games from 1982-1995. Of course, the peaks occurred in 1993 and 1999, when Florida State toppled Nebraska and Virginia Tech, respectively, to win the school’s first two national championships.

With Bowden in charge, Tallahassee became the place where top-flight athletes went to get noticed, particularly by NFL types. During Bowden’s tenure, more than 150 Seminoles were selected in the draft, while 26 were honored as consensus All-Americans. And in yet another stunning depiction of consistency, at least one of Bowden’s kids was taken in the NFL Draft every April from 1984-2009.

College football’s original riverboat gambler succeeded in building a machine at Florida State, with an open spigot of titles, accolades and next-level athletes routinely flowing through Tallahassee. But aligned with his deep faith and his upbringing, Bowden wound up being so much more than a coach to the kids who entrusted their futures to him. He was very much a father figure, a mentor and a teacher whose instructions held meaning far away from any hash marks, goalposts or cheering crowds.

“Coach Bowden epitomized the word Coach,” says Deion Sanders, who played for the Seminoles from 1986-1988. “He was a father figure to young men that left the love and comfort of their mother for the first time. He was present and active on and off the field in our lives, which provided the needed security to attain our dreams both academically and athletically. Coach Bowden is Florida State.”

What happens on Saturdays in the fall matters, even more so in the Deep South. What happens on the other six days, though, is the truest assessment of a coach’s value. Bowden excelled by every measurement throughout a distinguished career best described as a calling. For being a genuine American treasure who gave so much for so long to so many, Bowden is the recipient of this year’s
Francis Reds Bagnell Award for Contributions to Football.

Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.

Award Profile

Winner: REDS BAGNELL AWARD – Florida State University