Make no mistake: FSU just fired a legend without explaining why
Neither FSU's president nor AD offered comments on Bowden's retirement
Imagine if John Wooden or Joe Paterno had been fired without explanation
We know why Bowden had to go, but it defies logic that FSU didn't speak
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The second-winningest coach in the history of Division I-A football got fired Tuesday, and the men who fired him sent a pair of 21-year-olds to explain everything. Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder and linebacker Dekoda Watson were thrown in front of a wall of cameras Tuesday afternoon, the only flesh-and-blood spokesmen for a once-proud program that had just axed the man who built it.
The press release that announced Bowden's ouster didn't include the words "fired," "resigned," "retired" or the phrase "not retained." It included glowing quotes from FSU president T.K. Wetherell, who made the decision to fire Bowden and then declined all interview requests. It included no quotes from athletic director Randy Spetman, who stood in for Ponder and Watson's presser and then ran like a scalded dog when reporters tried to ask about the decision. Orlando Sentinel beat writer Andrew Carter and I followed Spetman to an elevator, where Carter finally got fed up and asked Spetman once and for all when he might address the dismissal of his department's most famous employee. "In a while," Spetman stammered. "Great leadership," Carter said as the gold doors closed.
We were told later that it was Bowden's wish that Spetman didn't speak, probably because Spetman has no real power. But Wetherell and Spetman didn't honor Bowden's wish to coach the Seminoles in 2010. Seems they get to pick and choose which of Bowden's requests they grant.
Make no mistake, Bowden got fired. He wanted to coach Florida State in 2010. He said as much in a teleconference Sunday night. "Right now, I would like to come back," Bowden said then. "I've got bosses. I've got people who have to approve it." That option was not presented to Bowden in a meeting with Wetherell and Spetman on Monday. If you have Job A, and you'd like to continue doing Job A, and your boss offers you a choice of Job B or nothing, you've been fired from Job A.
Wetherell didn't make the wrong decision. The program had slid too far under Bowden, who kept trying unsuccessfully to raise it back to the heights he reached from 1987-2000, when the Seminoles finished every season ranked in the top five. Wetherell, a former Florida State player and Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, had little choice once prominent boosters began calling for Bowden's resignation.
Wetherell, who has been FSU's president since 2003, will step down soon himself. The presidential search committee met Tuesday, as a matter of fact. It's too bad few will remember anything Wetherell did on the academic side. For eternity, he'll be the president who fired Bobby Bowden and then refused to explain himself.
Bowden opted not to take questions Tuesday, instead sitting down for a brief interview with a sports information official. To his credit, associate athletic director Rob Wilson asked Bowden the questions we would have asked, and Bowden answered them. Even if he hadn't, it would have been fine. Bowden has filled enough notebooks to last 10 lifetimes, and he's earned the right to leave quietly. He's the one who got forced out. Besides, he'll have more chances to talk before the Seminoles' bowl game.
When Ohio State fired Woody Hayes for hitting a Clemson player during the 1978 Gator Bowl, athletic director Hugh Hindman appeared at a hastily called news conference. Hindman, who had played for Hayes, tearfully explained why he had fired the best coach in school history. Bowden was Wetherell's position coach at FSU in the '60s, but Wetherell never came forward Tuesday to explain his decision, and that's just wrong.
Can you imagine if John Wooden had been fired without a word from the athletic director or university president? What if Joe Paterno had gotten canned when Penn State slumped earlier this decade? You don't dismiss a legend without an explanation.
You don't even dismiss a mediocre coach without an explanation. When Notre Dame fired Charlie Weis on Monday, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and president John Jenkins fielded reporters' questions and explained their actions with class and grace. When Florida fired Ron Zook to bring in the man (Urban Meyer) who would more than any other help hasten Bowden's retirement, athletic director Jeremy Foley and president Bernie Machen answered questions for almost an hour.
What did Florida State officials do? They sent Ponder and Watson. The two players handled the situation flawlessly. Their coach would have been proud. But they seemed a little shocked when a reporter asked how they felt being the only spokesmen for the program. "It's weird," Ponder said.
To dismiss a coach with 388 career wins without so much as a syllable of public explanation simply defies logic. We joke often in stories that if a coach pulls off some improbable feat, his university will build a statue of him. Florida State built a statue of Bobby Bowden in 2004. Five years later, Florida State fired Bobby Bowden, and Wetherell never said a word.
I called the office of Frank Murphy, who handles public relations on the university side, to try to set up an interview with Wetherell. Murphy's poor assistant's head nearly exploded as she tried to come up with more excuses for why Murphy wouldn't call me back. I went to Wetherell's office, but he was gone. I would have gone to his house, but we have a "shoot first" law here in Florida, and no one would miss another nosy reporter.
Besides, he had made it clear he didn't want to explain his actions, even though his salary is paid by the citizens of the state, and he had just made the monumental decision to fire one of the most successful public employees in the state's history.
Bowden said his conversations with Wetherell were cordial, but they couldn't have been pleasant for the legend. He had made it abundantly clear he wanted to return. Those who wonder why, at 80, he wanted another spin on the tilt-a-whirl need to understand Bowden's personal history. His father, Bob Pierce Bowden, was a Birmingham, Ala., banker who retired at age 64. "He died at 64," Bowden said in an interview last month. "Six months later." His professional idol, Bear Bryant, coached his final game Dec. 29, 1982 in the Liberty Bowl. Bryant died Jan. 26, 1983.
Bowden's personal and professional heroes each passed away within sixth months of retiring, and it would be foolish to think he doesn't fear suffering the same fate. That's why Bowden sounded like he was only half-joking Tuesday when he said this: "Now, you know I have to go out and get a job? Can you believe that? I've got to go get a job. I ain't had a job in 55 years."
Bowden probably will stay busy by helping raise money for the university he served for the past 34 years. He also may take a few trips with his wife, Ann. Their previous travels have been adventures. Ann Bowden tells a great story about her husband charging up a hill in Europe to see Hitler's birthplace. Soon, the Bowdens plan to tour the holy land. "She's tired of Hitler," Bowden cracked last month. "We're going to see the big man now."
He'll have plenty of time to do that now. It's just a shame Florida State's big man didn't have the guts to stand up in public and explain why.
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