As he prepares for FSU return, Bobby Bowden reflects on his career
SARASOTA, Fla. -- About 10 seconds into a conversation on Friday, Bobby Bowden proved retirement hadn't dulled his keenest sense. "If you've got good health, retirement ain't bad," Bowden cracked. "Every day is like Saturday. I don't have to get up if I don't want to."
But the 83-year-old Bowden, famous for doing his best work on Saturdays at Florida State, does get up. He plays golf. Or he speaks at churches or corporate functions. Or he helps his friends raise money for great causes. Last month, Bowden joined Alabama coach Nick Saban and current Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher in Birmingham, Ala., to raise money for the Kidz 1st Fund, the foundation Jimbo and Candi Fisher set up to help fund research into Fanconi anemia. On Friday, Bowden traveled to Sarasota for a gala to help ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale raise money for The V Foundation for cancer research. In eight years, Vitale's annual gala has raised more than $10 million.
On Oct. 26, Bowden will make another trip. Though it will be one of the shortest of his recent journeys, it will not lack for baggage. That Saturday, Bowden will return to Doak Campbell Stadium for his first game since he was fired following the 2009 season. Oh, Florida State officials called it a retirement, but everyone knows better. Bowden, officially the winningest coach in FBS history (377 wins) after NCAA president Mark Emmert stripped Joe Paterno of 111 wins, was chased off by former Florida State president T.K. Wetherell, a former Seminoles player who didn't even have the guts to answer questions on the day he axed a legend.
Bowden said he'll return for that game against NC State -- where he'll be honored -- and for the Nov. 16 game against Syracuse -- where his 1993 national title team will be honored -- because the university asked. Bowden intended to wait even longer. "I wanted to stay away about five years," Bowden said.
Bowden did not want to physically or metaphorically hang over the shoulder of successor Fisher. So he has steered wide of the Seminoles these past three seasons. "It hasn't been hard being away," Bowden said. "I always felt like that coaching as long as I have, whoever followed me, it's going to be tough. Not because I'm such a good coach, but because everybody was raised on me. I saw it happen with Bear Bryant. I saw it happen with Vince Dooley. Coach after coach. What's happened to the guy who followed? Every one of them has been lost. I didn't want to put that burden on him."
Bowden feared that if he remained active in the program in some capacity, Fisher would hear "That isn't how coach Bowden did it" so many times his head might explode. He did not want Fisher to suffer the same fate as Ray Perkins (Bryant), Ray Goff (Dooley), Frank Solich (Tom Osborne) or Ron Zook (Steve Spurrier). Each of those men was effectively handicapped by the accomplishments of the legend he replaced. Fisher always knew Bowden would maintain a respectful distance. Fisher, who played for and worked for Bowden's son, Terry, at Samford, remembered the elder Bowden saying in the 1980s that when he left Florida State, he would make a clean break. "Whenever he retired," Fisher said, "he wasn't going to hang around."
Fortunately for Bowden, retirement hasn't been as awful as he envisioned when he coached. Because Bowden did not leave at the height of his powers, Fisher is viewed less as the man who replaced a legend and more as the man who got the program back on track. In three seasons at the helm, Fisher is 31-10. Last season, he led the Seminoles to their first ACC title since 2005. More importantly, Bowden is still around to be honored in Tallahassee. When he coached, Bowden feared retirement would hasten his demise. He came by this fear honestly. His professional hero, Bear Bryant, had died less than a month after coaching his final game. Bowden's father, a Birmingham banker, died six months after his retirement.
But Bowden wasn't struck down when he stopped coaching. He has continued to inspire and entertain. On Friday, he held the crowd at The V Foundation in his palm as he told the story of his time as football coach, basketball coach and athletic director at South Georgia College in the late 1950s. "I had to take the basketball job to get the football job," Bowden told a crowd filled with hoops luminaries such as Jim Calhoun, Bill Self, Billy Donovan and Tom Crean. "I didn't think 8-8 was that bad. Eight losses on the road, and eight losses at home. I was the AD, so I fired me."
In September, Bowden will return to the place from which he actually was fired to celebrate a career that looks more amazing as each year passes. "You're talking about the guy I revered," Fisher said. "That's my guy. I think it's great that he's being honored the way he should be honored." What's amazing is that Bowden never planned to spend so long in Tallahassee. When he came to the school in 1976 to replace Darrell Mudra, Bowden had one goal: win enough games to move one state north. "When I went to Florida State, I was not planning on staying at Florida State," Bowden said. "I went down there to get back home. I'm going to go back to Alabama. Those were exactly what my thoughts were."
In fact, Bowden already had an exit date chosen. He had looked at Florida State's future schedules shortly after taking the job, and in 1981 he saw the following five-game stretch: at Nebraska, at Ohio State, at Notre Dame, at Pittsburgh, at LSU. "By 1981," Bowden thought, "I'd better be gone." And he almost left. Before the Seminoles traveled to Baton Rouge for LSU's homecoming game in 1979, Tigers athletic director Paul Dietzel offered Bowden the LSU job. Bowden was torn. At the time, the Seminoles were 6-0. Bowden had turned the program into a contender, but he wasn't sure if he could keep it at that level. So he let the game make his decision for him. He told his wife, Ann, that if he won, he would stay at Florida State. If he lost, he would go to LSU. "If we can beat LSU, we're going to stay here," Bowden said. "Because that means we can do it. If they beat us, we need to go. Because that's a better job."
Bowden switched quarterbacks that day, starting Jimmy Jordan over Wally Woodham. So when Jordan found Hardis Johnson for a 53-yard touchdown late in the first half to put Florida State ahead for good, he may have altered college football history. "We won it," Bowden said, "and I came back home and signed a five-year contract."
Bowden would go on to win national titles in 1993 and 1999, but those two titles don't begin to explain how dominant Bowden made Florida State. Saban has built a dynasty in Tuscaloosa with three national titles in four years, but his 2010 team finished No. 10 in the AP Poll. That means Saban would need 12 consecutive years of top-four finishes to match the run Bowden's Seminoles had between 1987 and 2000. A younger generation that only remembers the waning years of Bowden's tenure doesn't understand that Florida State put together some of the baddest teams in the universe with virtually no letup. Before SEC Speed, there was FSU Speed, and Florida's annual attempts to chase it helped lead to the renaissance that created the monster league that now dominates college football. Bowden's teams would play anyone, anywhere, anytime. They sometimes fell short -- the phrase "wide right" still causes cringing in Tallahassee -- but they were always in contention. "I cannot explain it," Bowden said. "There were so many years we came down to our last game of the year 9-2 and won it. And ended up in the top dadgum four."
During that stretch, Bowden went head-to-head on the recruiting trail with another coach who routinely has his team in the top four. As Bowden worked on his 1996 recruiting class, he chased a quarterback/defensive back from Flint, Mich., who fancied himself another Charlie Ward -- right down to his skills as a point guard. His name? Mateen Cleaves. One night, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo called Cleaves at home. Bowden was there on an in-home visit. Bowden was the Michelangelo of the in-home visit, but he didn't land every recruit. Izzo eventually won the Cleaves recruitment -- and won a national title with Cleaves in 2000 -- but locking horns with Bowden on the recruiting trail allowed him to get in contact with a coach he'd always admired from afar. "I just started calling him after that because I enjoyed him so much," Izzo said. "He was so cool." And Izzo, who has led Michigan State to six Final Fours, isn't sure everyone grasps just how great Bowden was. "Some guys we don't appreciate as much as others," Izzo said. "All those tight losses to Miami didn't dampen him. The way he handled them all was the classiest thing. ... He probably doesn't get his just due."
Asked if any coach can duplicate or surpass the dominance of his teams at the end of the 20th century, Bowden laughed and suggested "that guy in Alabama."
"There are hardly any records that aren't eventually broken," Bowden said. "Will it happen? I'll say yes, but not in my lifetime."
Some have suggested that Bowden should have some control over which schools play in football's final four beginning with the 2014 season. The selection committee for the upcoming playoff hasn't been populated, and Bowden is an obvious choice if the powers that be choose to use a few ex-coaches. But Bowden isn't sure he'd want the job. "I don't even feel like I could be fair," he said. "If it's me, and Georgia and Oregon are tied, I'm going with Georgia. I can't help it. My boy [former Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt] is coaching there."
Besides, Bowden is pretty busy now. He's got golf, because he can't imagine chasing a tennis ball at 83. He's got his speeches, which pack houses across the country and leave audiences cheering, laughing and crying -- often at the same time. He's also got a school where the people love him more than his ouster suggested. He'll find out just how much in October when he walks onto the field that bears his name and they properly thank him for a career that may never be equaled.