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The message on Bobby Bowden's desk begged for an explanation. "Call Ann-Margret," it said.
"She's just a good friend," said Bowden. He was surprised that a reporter found it noteworthy that a married, 63-year-old Southern Baptist football coach is chummy with the siren once serenaded by Elvis in Viva Las Vegas.
This unlikely pair for a game of phone tag were introduced by their mutual friend, Burt Reynolds, who lettered at halfback for Florida State in 1954. When Ann-Margret injured her leg last year, Bowden sent her an inscribed copy of the book St. Bobby and the Barbarians. "I told her, 'Ya gotta be tough,' that sort of stuff," he says. "She ate that up."
No one can say exactly when Bowden transcended his status as a mere regional celebrity. But a change was noticed about two years ago by Charlie Barnes, executive director of Seminole Boosters Inc., whose members accompany the coach each spring on the six-week Bobby Bowden Tour. This pilgrimage to speak before scattered groups of the Florida State faithful once covered only the South, but now it makes stops in Washington, D.C., Dallas and Los Angeles. "It used to be just me and Coach driving around in a van," says Barnes. "Now he's mobbed wherever we go. It's 'Bobby, could you sign this?' 'Bobby, we love you!' 'Bobby, take my child and raise him as your own.' "
Although he's one of the best-known bridesmaids in sports—Bowden's Seminoles wound up ranked No. 2 in both 1987 and '92—and a favorite interview subject for TV sportscasters, Bowden owes much of his high profile to Reynolds, who has donated money to the school for, among other things, the athletic dormitories that bear his name and the shiny garnet pants that the players broke out for last season's Tulane game. (The new trou are believed to have given the Seminoles the mental lift they needed to squeak past the Green Wave 70-7.) Burt's munificence did not stop there: In the off-season he invited Bowden to appear, as himself making a recruiting visit, on Evening Shade, the situation comedy in which Reynolds stars.
The taping was last February, and Bowden didn't get around to reading the script until the night before his flight to Los Angeles. There's no way I can remember all this, he thought. I guess they'll have cue cards.
An absence of cue cards was but one of the surprises in store for him. "I didn't realize how big the whole thing was," says Bowden. "This is the old Republic Studio, where John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin used to make movies, and I'm intimidated. We get to the Evening Shade set, and cameras are everywhere. Fifty, 60 stagehands. But the worst of it was, they got gosh-darned bleachers! People sit and watch!" He grimaces at the memory.
A script coach sat Bowden down. "He's telling me how to say my lines," recalls Bowden. "I told him, 'I can't remember all that,' and he said, 'Just read your lines, get a feel for 'em, then just put 'em in your own words.' So I tried to do that."
Bowden had three scenes. The time came for him to make his first entrance. "I'm standing behind a wall, the cameras are rolling, and I'm fixing to open this door and walk in," he says. "I can hear 'em doing their lines, there's the sound of a knock on the door, and I hear 'em say, 'Oh, I bet that's Coach Bowden.' "
Coach Bowden froze. "I had not been that scared since I was 14, when I had to give piano recitals," he says. "My mind was a blank. I didn't have a clue what to say. I was just standing there thinking, Bowden, how did you get yourself into this?"