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NO Quit In This Soldier
Tim Layden
December 28, 1998
Though the years may be gaining on Florida State's 69-year-old Bobby Bowden, he's still wily and driven to win—and he'd like nothing better than another national title
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December 28, 1998

No Quit In This Soldier

Though the years may be gaining on Florida State's 69-year-old Bobby Bowden, he's still wily and driven to win—and he'd like nothing better than another national title

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Offensive coordinator Mark Richt took over the principal play-calling from Bowden in 1996. After an emotional win at Miami that fall, Bowden stated publicly that he was no longer calling plays because Richt had asked him to stop "messing him up." It was a startling admission for Bowden, whose reputation had been forged on offensive creativity, and seemed to foretell his retirement. Except that it wasn't true. Bowden has continued to call plays occasionally, with Richt's blessing and encouragement. Bowden called the 46-yard pass that All-America wideout Peter Warrick threw for a decisive touchdown in the Seminoles' 23-12 win over Florida on Nov. 21, the victory that kept their title hopes alive. "He didn't call the formation and personnel group and all that," says Richt. "He just started saying, 'Run that thing with Peter! Run that thing with Peter!' But it was the right call at the right time in the right place."

Three days after the losses by UCLA and Kansas State, Bowden sat in his office overlooking the field at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee. The old man in him sniffled and coughed, fighting a cold and craving sleep. His secretary brought him soup. The old man still mourned over Terry's suffering and despaired of the trustee's power play that father and son insist left Terry no choice but to resign. "I always thought there was a system in America where if you're doing good [Terry's record at Auburn was 47-17-1] and have a bad year [the Tigers were 1-5], you get another chance," Bobby said. "That's what I got at West Virginia in 1974. But this dadgum coaching profession...."

The young man in Bowden is sitting in his office, holding a clicker in his right hand, watching tape of Tennessee-Florida, breaking down the Vols' D. "This is where I get my biggest thrill, looking for a flaw in the other guy's defense," he says, stopping and starting the tape. "It's like you're in a writing contest and you find out the other guy doesn't dot his i's. You say to yourself, I got him. I dot my i's." Stop. Start. Stop. Start.

If drawing up a strategic blueprint enlivens Bowden's brain, the recruitment and motivation of players touches his soul. Recruiting drives many coaches out of the game, but it excites Bow-den. "I like to visit kids, like to talk to them and talk with their families," he says. His work in the homes of prospects is legendary. Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler tells the story of Bowden's coining into the Jacksonville projects in 1986 and turning a menacing environment into The Bobby Bowden Show just by pointing to the Seminole on his shirt pocket and saying, "We came to see LeRoy." In 1991, when Bowden went to Pensacola, Fla., to visit Derrick Brooks, now a linebacker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he held Brooks's five-year-old sister on his lap until she fell asleep. Brooks's mother started to move the child, but Bowden said, "Don't you move this gal; you let her stay here until I leave."

The endings aren't always happy. In the winter of 1995 Bowden begged Florida State president Sandy D'Alemberte to allow him to give a scholarship to a West Virginia kid named Randy Moss, who had been sentenced to 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of battery during his senior year of high school. Though the university is reluctant to admit students with criminal records, D'Alemberte agreed to a compromise suggested by athletic director Dave Hart: Moss would be admitted but would be redshirted for his freshman year. "[Moss] sat right where you're sitting," said Bowden, pointing across his office desk. "I told him, 'Son, I like to give boys second chances, but you've already got two strikes. You can't make a mistake.' " Moss spent the fall of '95 playing on the Seminoles' scout team, torching the first-team defense for touchdowns. In the summer of '96, however, he tested positive for marijuana, and Florida State dropped him. "He begged me to take him back, offered to pay his own way," says Bowden. "I was crazy about that young man, but I had to tell him no."

The Moss incident cuts close to the heart of Bowden's greatest frustration. He is old-fashioned in his insistence that he can quietly save the most incorrigible youth. Instead, the public mistrust of college football demands noisy suspensions and floggings in the square. Bowden's program was put on five years' probation (with no loss of scholarships) in the wake of the infamous Foot Locker shopping spree, funded by a recruiter for a sports agent, which took place in the fall of 1993. The seven players involved had already used up their eligibility, but Bowden insisted that they make restitution before they received their national championship rings. "I just hate to punish a kid to satisfy the public," Bowden says. "Time was when I could just take his scholarship away or what we call 'break his plate'—take him off training table. We could handle things inside. I try to look at it like I'm their daddy, or their grandfather."

This is the role he fills when he addresses his team, especially on the Friday nights before games. He keeps the outline of every one of his Friday talks in a drawer on the left-hand side of his desk, and on this afternoon, he pulls out a copy of his notes from the night before this year's Florida game. He runs his finger across and slowly down the page. The words are written in a mix of printing and script, tidy and legible.

This game is for men, NOT boys....
'97 Fla. O.L. whipped our front 7....
NO SACKS! Fla. ARROGANCE....
SRS. won't let us lose!

"When the man speaks, it is pure inspiration," says Outzen. Bowden's voice is that of a man who preaches 30 Sundays a year in churches all across Florida, rising and falling to fit the moment, connecting with people young enough to be his grandchildren. "When I can't talk to kids, I'll get out," says Bowden. It is the voice of a man getting older, but refusing to get old.

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