They spent a wonderful week together last July. Bobby and Ann Bowden, married 49 years, parents to six children, grandparents to 21 and ensconced as the First Couple of Florida State football, up and left Tallahassee in the middle of the fierce Florida summer and went to Italy. The trip was sweet with nostalgia, because two decades ago, when Bobby would conduct summer football clinics at military bases in Germany, he and Ann would rent a car and tour the European countryside. They were tourists again, like any ordinary senior citizens shuffling about Rome. (At least as ordinary as any celebrity football coach with the means to stay in a five-star hotel and to hire a personal guide.) During a hike up from the catacombs, where Bobby had indulged his history jones by retracing the steps of the apostles, Ann teased her husband. "I hope you notice," she said, "that there aren't too many old people climbing these steps." As hints go, it was as subtle as pepper spray.
Bobby Bowden's life is like that of any other 69-year-old: a succession of reminders—sometimes loving, sometimes harsh—that he is not as young as he used to be. He once played basketball at lunchtime; now he takes a nap. He once worked until midnight; now he is at home for dinner, counting accursed milligrams of cholesterol and trying to fight chocolate urges. He longs for the days when film study was done with a noisy projector because nowadays he nods off while watching tape on a quiet VCR. In long, leisurely conversations with Ed O'Toole, a 61-year-old civil engineer from Birmingham who played for him at Howard College in the late '50s and is now one of his closest friends, Bowden will talk about golf, football and old buddies. "Some of whom," says O'Toole, "have passed away."
Bowden has not surrendered to this galloping mortality. He has struck compromises, though. Ten years ago he started observing practice from a metal tower instead of scrabbling around the field trying to oversee all the drills, and a year ago he began driving a golf cart from his office to the practice field instead of walking. He brings tape home instead of staying at the office for marathon planning sessions. "As you get to be my age, you look for new ways every year to hang on as long as you can," says Bowden. "I'm trying to prolong my career because I love it so much."
His coaching survival has enabled him to partake of an extraordinary season, which will finish on Jan. 4 when Florida State plays Tennessee for the national title at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. Since his team began the season ranked No. 2, Bowden has endured much. There was the 24-7 loss at North Carolina State on Sept. 12, which he called one of the most disappointing of his career. Then came the ugly resignation of his son Terry, as coach at Auburn on Oct. 23. Finally, a season-ending neck injury on Nov. 7 to 26-year-old sophomore starting quarterback Chris Weinke left the Seminoles' offense in the hands of sophomore Marcus Outzen, who was recruited expressly as a backup. After all that, on the afternoon and night of Dec. 5, as Bowden sat at home nervously eating Chips Ahoy cookies dipped in peanut butter and watching on TV, previously unbeaten UCLA and Kansas State both lost, sending Florida State—unexpectedly, magically—to Tempe.
The Seminoles have won at least 10 games and been ranked no lower than fourth for 12 straight years, a run of excellence unprecedented in big-time college football. However, the vagaries of the game have left Bowden with a single national title (1993) and one other opportunity in what amounted to a championship game (a 52-20 loss to Florida in 1996). It was no surprise that when Florida State athletic director Dave Hart visited Bowden late on the night of Dec. 5, Bowden looked like a child on Christmas morning, repeating giddily, "I can't hardly believe it."
Tommy Bowden, the third of Bobby and Ann's six children (the second of four boys), who guided Tulane to an 11-0 record this season and a berth in the Liberty Bowl before accepting the coaching job at Clem-son, says his father is "unquestionably the CEO of Florida State football." That's a nice title, but what does it mean? Elaborating, Tommy says, "He's a great delegator, incredibly good at handling staff." If these words weren't spoken by a family member, they could be interpreted as damning with faint praise, but Bobby doesn't dispute the basic truth of his son's evaluation, he embraces it. "I'm so lucky," says Bobby. "I've got such a good staff. They just handle everything. I have to answer mail and talk on the phone and go to press conferences. I would not have this job if I had a poor staff."
A question rises from this slightly disingenuous, white-bread explanation: When you are a nearly septuagenarian football CEO, resigned to golf carts, towers and mere celebrity after having once coordinated the offense and energetically patrolled the practice field, what, exactly, are you?
Lots of things, it turns out. You are a dinosaur with only a handful of contemporaries still coaching. You remain a coach at heart, wedded to the systematic deconstruction of an opponent, given to the selection of a killing play on Saturdays. You are a father to the players you recruited and to the children you raised with your wife, hanging on their successes and failures. You are a motivator, born to fill a room with the sound of your voice. You are human, mystified by the swift passage of years, recalling how, at age 26, employed in your second coaching job, as an assistant at South Georgia College, you grew out your crew cut to look older than your players. "I was always too young to be a coach," Bowden says. "Now I'm too old."
He was reminded of this on Nike's annual coaches' outing in Cancun, Mexico, in which he has participated since 1980. Back in those days Vince Dooley, Johnny Majors, Barry Switzer, Grant Teaff and Bill Yeomans were among the guests. They're all out of coaching. Bowden looked around at last summer's gathering and saw LaVell Edwards, Joe Paterno and a bunch of kids. "You say to yourself, Am I pushing this too far? Should I get out and let younger people take over?" he says. But he has always been competitive. When he and O'Toole briefly coached together at Howard in 1959, they would have at a batch of thick chocolate fudge made by O'Toole's wife and see which of them could eat the most before taking a drink of milk. Accordingly, Bowden's impulse to leave football to the younger coaches always dies quickly. "About the time I get ready to give it up, my conscience tells me, Nah, you can still kick 'em all on Saturdays," he says.
Conventional wisdom has it that Bowden kicks 'em without doing any real coaching himself, scuttlebutt that he does nothing to discourage. But the truth is that during practice he stands on his tower with a pencil and a tiny notebook, scrutinizing nearly every drill and rep. "You make a mistake, he'll see it and you'll hear about it," says Seminoles junior All-America defensive tackle Corey Simon.