by Diane Roberts | March 1, 2017
Dadgummit, Bobby Bowden!
Fresh off the heels of his documentary film’s media blitz, the sometimes controversial—but always pecan-pie ready—retired FSU football coaching legend Bobby Bowden still believes that people deserve second chances on the real gridiron called life. Bring it in for a huddle!
It’s “Bobby Bowden Day” at Doak Campbell Stadium. Every Saturday during the fall in Tallahassee used to be Bobby Bowden Day, but this one, October 26, 2013, is official: the first time the coach has been back to the field named for him since his forced retirement three years before. He waits near midfield, wearing his civilian clothes: beige khakis, beige sport coat, garnet shirt and Oakley sunglasses, waiting for the horse and rider. In the stands, we point: “There he is! There’s Bobby!”
Everybody calls him Bobby, like we know him, like he’s kinfolk. Back when he was coaching at FSU, we’d call him Ol’ Bobby, according him the Southern honorific that denotes both amusement and profound affection. Seminoles, sportscasters and other coaches (well, perhaps not his arch rival, the perpetually sour Steve Spurrier) would laugh and say “that’s Ol’ Bobby” whenever he uttered some down-homey one-liner, like how Charlie Ward, a Heisman Trophy winner, was “so quick he could pick the hubcaps off a passing car.” We’d call him “the Riverboat Gambler” whenever he hatched some spectacular play, one of his trademark “rooskies” or that crazy, beautiful thing at the 1998 FSU-UF game when QB Marcus Outzen pitched the ball to running back Jeff Chaney, who handed off to wide receiver Peter Warrick, who finally threw the ball to Ron Dugans for a touchdown. His Seminoles won two national championships, 12 ACC championships, two Heisman trophies and various Johnny Unitas Awards, Dick Butkus Awards, Jim Thorpe Awards and Walter Camp Awards. He coached dozens of All-Americans and scores of NFL standouts. He beat Nebraska on the road (back when the Cornhuskers linemen were the size of combine harvesters); he beat Ohio State on the road; he beat LSU, Florida and Notre Dame, too, and mighty Miami.
This late October afternoon is too warm to be genuine football weather, but the light is a clear, pale amber, and the garnet and gold war paint on the face of Osceola, a student dressed as the leader of Seminole resistance to the U.S. government in the 1830s, looks sharp even from Row 45. Dressed in a historically correct cotton shirt, leather moccasins and ostrich feathers, all blessed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Osceola dismounts from Renegade, his elegant (but historically incorrect) Appaloosa horse. He hands the flaming spear he carries to the coach, and Bobby Bowden plunges it into the logo painted on the grass. The crowd howls, stamps, claps with nostalgic approval. Bowden beams. For a minute, he’s again at the center of the football world, the second most victorious coach—after Joe Paterno—in college football, even without the 12 victories the NCAA took away as punishment for an academic cheating scandal. In a minute, the team will soon come running out, the cheerleaders leading the way with pom-poms pumping. But for now, he’s the man, not head coach Jimbo Fisher, not hotdog quarterback Jameis Winston. He pauses a moment, then waves and walks to the sideline.
The 80,000 in the stands cheer once more, but their attention has shifted to the game against the North Carolina State University Wolfpack, a team with a bad habit of beating FSU. Seminoles don’t really want Bobby Bowden back, not as head coach. It was hard to see him go, yes; it was at least as hard to convince him to go, though almost everybody agreed it was time. They like his handpicked heir. Jimbo Fisher was once known as the “coach-in-waiting,” kind of a football version of the crown prince. Nobody wants to relive the nastiness of his long, painful removal. Everybody wants to remember the good times. At halftime, the Marching Chiefs spell out B-O-B-B-Y and then his trademark swear word: D-A-D-G-U-M. Seminoles might want Bowden around as Team Grandfather or Wise Elder—beaming from a luxury box, uttering a sporting bon mot or two to the cameras after a big win or shocking loss, inhabiting the position of football demi-god, close but not too close, just enough to show that we’re not mad at him anymore, and he’s not mad at us—but not as head coach.
Bobby Bowden blew into Tallahassee in 1976, glad-handing and back-slapping and yes ma’am-ing like a cross between school board candidate and Baptist preacher. He replaced Darrell Mudra, who aroused suspicions for coaching from the press box instead of the sideline. Seminoles found Mudra too cerebral, too aloof, too un-Southern. Bobby Bowden talked about Jesus and Mamas and pecan pie. When he read a book, it was the Bible or something about a famous general, Douglas MacArthur or Erwin Rommel. Even better, Bowden reminded Seminoles of Bear Bryant, the lordly coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, who liked to say, “I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.” Seminoles wanted a winner.
Bowden idolized the Bear and the University of Alabama. Born in Birmingham in 1929, he loved Alabama football so much that he’d cry when the Tide lost and hum the Alabama fight song to calm himself down. He dreamed of playing the trombone in the university’s Million Dollar Band—he was a pretty good musician, too, first chair in his school orchestra. He also dreamed of playing football for the Tide. That seemed a longer shot. Bowden was a sickly kid: at 13, rheumatic fever sent him to the hospital for nearly a year and kept him in bed for months after he came home. He would lie there listening to Alabama football and, the rest of the time, news reports from the Pacific and the European Theater. As he told Julie and Jim Bettinger, authors of The Book of Bowden, “I basically listened to a play-by-play of World War II for a year.”
Bowden recovered, eventually becoming a standout halfback for Woodlawn High School, which won him a scholarship to play football in Tuscaloosa. By then, Bowden had a serious girlfriend, a Miss Julia Ann Estock of Birmingham. In the fall of 1948, Bowden found himself on the horns of a dilemma: Ann or Bama football? He stuck it out in Tuscaloosa for one semester, playing for the Tide’s freshman team, then hightailed the 55 miles back to Birmingham after transferring to Howard College (now known as Samford University). A few months later, on April 1, 1949, he and Ann eloped to Georgia. He was 19, she was 16. Six children, six college coaching gigs and 68 years later, they are still together.
BOWDEN AND BEAR
The University of Alabama would remain a end-all-be-all for Bowden. Even while he was building a magisterial football program at Florida State in the late 1970s, the sports intelligentsia figured that, one day, “Mama Alabama” would call and he would ascend the throne of Bear Bryant. Bowden modeled his football manners on the Bear, a tough old cuss who earned his name by wrestling a bear at the Lyric Theatre in Fordyce, Arkansas, when he was a kid. Whenever some sad cupcake of a team, some homecoming-cannon-fodder school, lost to the Tide by 50 points, the Bear would growl compliments into post-game microphones about the Tide’s vanquished opponents: Them boys sure played us hard–we ‘bout lost that game. And that quarterback/running back/receiver/secondary they got is real talented, I mean them boys are going to win some games this year—they’re just a play or two from beating anybody in the country. Bowden performed the same routine, especially in the 1980s and 1990s: When FSU would whip the bejesus out of otherteams, he’d praise them to the skies and name-check their coaches and any player with an atom of talent.
In other ways, however, Bowden was the Bear’s opposite: he didn’t smoke as if he owned stock in RJ Reynolds, didn’t drink bourbon by the jug and didn’t cast lustful eyes (at a minimum) upon women who were not his wife. The Bear was not exactly a model of Christian rectitude. He resisted welcoming Jesus into his locker room and wasn’t keen on the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, either, fearing that his boys would play for the Lord instead of the University of Alabama. Bobby Bowden, in contrast, wanted his boys playing for the glory of God. As he told Beliefnet in 2013, “The Bible is big in my teaching. It’s a wonder the ACLU didn’t get after me pretty good.”
Bowden prayed with his FSU players, exhorted them to live a Christian life and occasionally took players to church; and brought recruits to church twice—once to a church with a mostly white congregation, once to a church with a mostly black congregation. As an employee of a public university, he was probably violating the separation of church and state. Nevertheless, the ACLU left him alone.
Bowden’s Seminoles kept on winning. If Jesus was helping, okay—this is, after all, the South, where football is the largest Christian denomination. As for the coach himself, few, even on a progressive campus, doubted his sincerity. In the shiny new feature-length documentary The Bowden Dynasty: A Story of Faith, Family and Football, he says, “I am concerned about where my players spend eternity.”
Bowden’s strict, old-school Protestant morality had a profound influence on many of his players. Clay Shiver, the center on FSU’s 1993 National Championship team, turned down an invitation to be on Playboy’s All-American team. Andre Wadsworth, an All-American and first-round draft pick who played for Bowden in the 1990s, told ESPN, “Coach Bowden was a father figure to all of us. The first day, he told us he didn’t want us sleeping with women because he thought sex should be saved for marriage. He told us he didn’t want us drinking, even after we turned 21.”
Alas, not all Bowden’s boys were such upright fellows, and his reign was blemished by scandal. Deion Sanders, who Bowden says was the “best athlete I ever coached,” didn’t bother to attend class or take exams during the fall 1988 semester at FSU, which you might think would fall afoul of NCAA rules. Yet Bowden let him play in the 1989 Sugar Bowl, where he grabbed the game-winning interception. In 1999, Tallahassee cops arrested receivers Peter Warrick and Lavernues Coles for theft after the pair colluded with a clerk at Dillard’s department store to get illicit discounts on Polo shirts. Polish-born kicker Sebastian Janikowski risked deportation for possession of a date-rape drug in 2000 as an NFL draftee—he’d already been busted for fighting a male cheerleader at a campus dive. Then there was the $6,000-worth of shoes bought by sports agents for players, inspiring snark-meister Steve Spurrier to dub FSU “Free Shoes University.”
Bowden was big on second chances, even third chances, but he didn’t always let his boys get away with breaking the rules. In 1995, Randy Moss, one of the best wide receivers of all time, blew his chance to play for Notre Dame. As a senior in high school, he’d gotten into a fight over a racist taunt and pled guilty to misdemeanor battery. Lou Holtz, then the head coach of the Irish, recommended Moss try FSU, where he wowed everybody with his speed and athleticism.
But when Moss tested positive for marijuana while on probation, Bowden kicked him off the team. Sent to solitary confinement in the Charleston, West Virginia jail, he taped an apology to Bowden and his former teammates, saying, “Before thinking about doing drugs, Coach Bowden, he’s gonna talk to you and tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. And for my sake, please listen to him.”
Moss went on to play for Marshall University, winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award (named for the great Seminole wide receiver of the early 1960s), and was then drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings.
Most disturbingly, despite Bowden’s emphasis on right and wrong, he seemed to be too forgiving when it came to sexual assault. In 2004, he defended Colorado Coach Gary Barnett, who was under fire for minimizing allegations that Katie Hnida, the Buffs’ pioneering female kicker, was raped by a player. “Ol’ Gary Barnett,” Bowden said, “has got good morals.” Clearly, Bowden failed to learn from the case of Michael Gibson, a former FSU running back for less than a season who, in 1993, broke into a young woman’s apartment, shot her twice, raped her and left her for dead.
When he was sentenced to six life sentences (he had raped and brutalized three other women, too), Bowden wrote a letter for him in an attempt to have the sentences reduced. Perhaps he felt this was the Christian thing to do. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine this happening to either of daughters or his wife. Perhaps he couldn’t admit that a game which teaches that violence solves everything might not always be the best model for the Christian life.
FSU’S RISE AND FALL
He never got that job with the Crimson Tide. Almost, but not quite. When the Bear died in 1983, the University of Alabama promptly hired Ray Perkins, who had played on the Bear’s 1964 and 1965 National Championship teams. When Perkins resigned in 1986 to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bowden was given to understand that he was the frontrunner to replace him. But University of Alabama President Joab Thomas insisted on a formal interview. Bowden felt disrespected—dadgummit, Bama knew him and he knew Bama! It did not go well. The Tide hired Georgia Tech’s Bill Curry. When Curry left in 1990, UA reached out, but Bowden said no. He’d stay at FSU. Three years later, the Seminoles won their first national title.
Bowden had Bear-like status at FSU—minus the scowl and the vices. Seminoles put “Hail, St. Bowden!” bumper stickers on their cars. They bought Fords because he advertised them. They ate Golden Flake potato chips at tailgates because he sold them on TV. Bobby said Osmose treated lumber was good stuff, so they built their decks with it, at least until everybody discovered that it was full of arsenic. He was a master recruiter, delighting players’ mothers with a little flirting and a lot of compliments on their cake, pie, cookies and fudge. His just-an-old-country-boy routine, Southern performance art designed to charm and disarm, would occasionally give way to barbed humor: During a pregame brawl at a 1998 FSU-Florida game, a Gator (allegedly) hurled a ball at Bowden’s head—and missed. When asked if he’d ever order one of his players to throw a ball at Steve Spurrier next time, Bowden said, “Naw. But my quarterback would have hit him.”
At the turn of the 21st century, Bowden was on top of the football world, adored and successful. But as fans of Shakespeare know, that’s when the king falls victim to hubris. Bowden’s sons Tommy and Terry had become big-time head coaches at Clemson and Auburn, but youngest son Jeff hadn’t demonstrated much talent on the field or the sidelines. His father leaned on FSU’s administration to finesse state nepotism laws so he could hire the boy as offensive coordinator when Mark Richt left to take the head coaching job at Georgia—a fatal, prideful mistake. Jeff inherited a gleaming Maserati of an offense and, in four years, ran it off the road and into a ditch. FSU embarrassed itself in losses to N.C. State, Clemson, Maryland and Florida. When Miami whipped the Seminoles in 2003, Jeff blamed the rain. Somebody put up a big billboard on Tallahassee’s main drag that read: “JEFF, A POOR EXCUSE IS WORSE THAN NONE AT ALL.” A few years later, his daddy, insulted, dug in, calling critics “cowards” and warning Seminole fans that they “had better be glad I’d like to keep this job.”
Three days after losing to Wake Forest 30-0, Jeff resigned. The next three seasons, with FSU going 7-6, 9-4, and 7-6, confirmed what many had been thinking: Jeff was a problem, but not the only one. Maybe it was time his dad went, too. In October 2009, chairman of the FSU Board of Trustees Jim Smith told reporters, “My hope is frankly we’ll go ahead and…let the world know that this year will be the end of the Bowden era.”
Ann Bowden, Lady Macbeth to her husband’s Duncan, was enraged, sniffing, “We don’t need the university as much as they need us, as much as they need him and his connections and reputation and everything. If they want to pull that trick, we’ll just shake the dirt off our feet and go to Europe or go on a long cruise or something.” FSU offered Bowden the title of “Ambassador Coach” if he’d turn the real coaching over to Jimbo Fisher, his designated successor, and become a sort of figurehead. He refused, calling the offer “something below my dignity.”
IMMORTILIZING THE COACH
Finally, the university and the team’s boosters had to force him out. FSU had named its playing field for him, erected a larger-than-life bronze statue and installed a three-story stained-glass window—one of the biggest stained glass windows in the country—in the athletic complex. The stadium had practically been turned into a cathedral in his honor. Yet Bowden felt betrayed by the university he believed he had put on the map—never mind that FSU had had great football teams in the 1960s, long before he arrived, never mind that the university had (and has) some pretty good academic departments, too. He felt betrayed by FSU President T.K. Wetherell, a friend and one-time Seminole player whom Bowden had coached early in his career. Wetherell said of Bowden, “He set records of achievement on the field that will probably never be equaled…It was his sterling personality and character that personified this university.” Still, for a long time, the praise wasn’t enough. The old coach sulked and stewed.
The detente began in 2013, when FSU’s new president invited Bowden to attend two home football games. FSU had a budget line for Bowden, too: He signed a two-year marketing and fundraising deal to the tune of $250,000 a year, plus half the net royalty income from licensing. Even Ann Bowden unbent a bit, attending the homecoming game wearing FSU’s colors and an aggressively large gold tomahawk brooch on one lapel.
Bowden was never going to be the kind of retired coach who spent his sunset days doing nothing but tooling around the golf course or hitting a Quarterback Club luncheon every once in a while. His seventh book, The Wisdom of Faith, came out in 2014. The old coach isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Stumping for Donald Trump in Florida this past election season, he compared Trump to America’s righteous forefathers, “men who depended on God.” Maybe Bobby missed the part about Trump famously declaring that he never asks God for forgiveness because he doesn’t need it. Or maybe Bobby’s Christianity has evolved. He’s stumbled into some controversy, even when you wish he wouldn’t. On ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” in January, he tried to get witty about football players lacking father figures: “I used to kid about this, they grew up wanting to be like their momma. They want to be a man like their momma, that’s why they wear earrings.”
The joke didn’t go over well with everybody. The Root, an African American news site, castigated him and compared him to Paula Deen—well-meaning but clueless. But for the most part, Bowden is enjoying renewed acclaim, relishing the limelight. In 2015, Christian Ponder and his sportscaster wife Samantha named their new baby daughter “Bowden.” The coach was tickled: “I’ve never had a girl named after me. I’ve had everything else I can think of. I’ve had horses, I’ve had dogs—I’ve even had pigs.” At the premiere of The Bowden Dynasty documentary at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on January 8th, he moved through the crowd like a red-carpet veteran, waving and hugging. The film’s more hagiography than exposé, with Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks, Coach Lou Holtz and actor Bert Reynolds (who played at FSU in the 1950s) lauding Bowden to the skies. Bobby Bowden is, after all, a star. His coaching career is over but he’s still a football sage, an icon. He may be 87, but he’s still in the game.