Bobby Bowden, folksy coach of Florida St dynasty, dies at 91
Bobby Bowden did it all.
Not only did he put Florida State on the map by taking the Seminoles from afterthought to dynasty, he left an indelible mark on the game with a rare combination of coaching acumen, gracious demeanor and a compassion for those he coached and competed against.
The beloved, folksy Hall of Fame coach who built one of the most prolific college football programs in history died early Sunday at 91 at his home in Tallahassee, Florida, surrounded by his wife Ann and their six children following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Bobby’s son, Terry, called his passing “truly peaceful.”
And while he’s gone, Bowden’s legacy as a top-notch coach — and human being — will live on.
The numbers are staggering: Bowden piled up 377 wins during 40 years as a major college coach and his teams won a dozen Atlantic Coast Conference titles and national championships in 1993 and 1999. Perhaps the statistic that jumps off the page is his sustained success with Florida State, which finished the season ranked in the top five of The Associated Press college football poll an unmatched 14 straight seasons (1987-2000) under his tutelage.
Bowden’s legacy can’t just be told in numbers.
“This guy was probably the greatest ambassadors of all time because he had success coaching, but he was also one of the greatest people and set an outstanding example for everyone in our profession in terms of you don’t have to dislike somebody, you don’t have to discredit somebody that you’re competing against,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “That example of being a good person is something that can help us all professionally. He wasn’t always just about him; he was always about helping other people.”
Bowden, a devout Christian, said last month after announcing he had a terminal illness he had always tried to serve God’s purpose and he was “prepared for what is to come.”
“My wife, Ann, and our family have been life’s greatest blessing,” he said then.
Bowden added that he was “at peace.” Perhaps that’s because he had accomplished so much in what Saban called “a life remarkably well lived.”
Bowden was beloved by Seminoles fans, respected by his peers and throughout his life one of the most accessible stars in college football. His home number was listed in the Tallahassee phone book for years.
News of his death spread quickly. Flowers, many of them in Florida State’s garnet and gold color scheme, adorned the statue of Bowden outside of Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee and coach Mike Norvell addressed players about Bowden before a morning practice.
Assistant head coach Odell Haggins, who played and coached under Bowden, praised his friend for being a hard-nosed competitor, but also a compassionate coach.
“He never talked about winning the game. He always talked about saving lives. And that’s the thing I hope everybody sees (with) him,” Haggins said. “You know, they talk about how many football games he won. You talk about the national championships he won. But look at how many lives he won. Look at how many lives he saved.”
Bowden retired following the 2009 season with a Gator Bowl win over West Virginia in Florida State’s 28th straight postseason appearance, a victory that gave him his 33rd consecutive winning season. A month after he resigned, the NCAA stripped Florida State of victories in 10 sports because of an academic cheating scandal in 2006 and ’07 involving 61 athletes.
Still, only Penn State’s Joe Paterno is credited with winning more games (409) as a major college football coach. Bowden’s win total ranks fourth across all divisions in college football history.
Bowden was replaced in 2010 by his offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, who had been Bowden’s replacement-in-waiting.
“He’s one of the great human beings that’s ever coached and one of the great coaches that’s ever coached,” Fisher said.
Bowden won the national championship in 1993 with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Charlie Ward and again in 1999 with his second Heisman winner, quarterback Chris Weinke, and All-American receiver Peter Warrick.
The Seminoles were a contender to win the title every season for more than a decade. Florida State lost national championship games against Florida, Tennessee and Oklahoma and narrowly missed out on the playing for titles in several other seasons because of losses to archrival Miami.
Bowden, in fact, once quipped that his headstone would read, “But he played Miami,” a one-liner that came the day after the Hurricanes escaped with a 17-16 win in 1991 when the Seminoles missed a field goal wide right in the final seconds. Miami also won in similar fashion in 2002 when a field-goal try went wide left, much to Bowden’s chagrin.
Florida State dominated the ACC under Bowden, winning championships in 12 of its first 14 seasons after joining the league in 1992.
“Bobby Bowden has meant everything to Florida State athletics and so much to college football in general,” Florida State athletic director David Coburn said. “He is a part of the heart and soul of FSU, but it goes beyond even that — he is a big part of the history of the game.”
Bowden was also the patriarch of college football’s most colorful coaching family. Son Tommy Bowden had a 90-49 record at Tulane and Clemson, and Terry was 47-17-1 at Auburn. Another son, Jeff, served 13 years coaching wide receivers for his father at Florida State and six seasons as offensive coordinator before he resigned in 2006 after Florida State’s offense slumped to its lowest production in a quarter century.
Bobby Bowden left West Virginia to take over a Florida State program in 1976 that had produced just four wins the three previous seasons. The Seminoles went 5-6 in Bowden’s first year and never again experienced a losing season with him in charge.
“You face similar tasks of motivation, preparation, teamwork, discipline,” Bowden said. “I probably get the most satisfaction out of putting in the strategies and watching them play out.”
By 1979, Bowden had Florida State positioned for one of the great runs in the annals of college football.
Led by All-American nose guard Ron Simmons, the Seminoles enjoyed an 11-0 regular season but lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. In 1993, despite a late slip at Notre Dame, Florida State won its first national title after nearly getting there in 1987, 1988, 1991 and 1992.
Bowden’s lone perfect season came in 1999 when the Seminoles became the first team to go wire-to-wire in The Associated Press rankings, No. 1 from the preseason to finish.
“The first championship was more of a relief,” Bowden said. “I think I was able to enjoy the second one a little more.”
Success also brought a glaring spotlight and Bowden’s program was touched by scandal on a few occasions. The school was put on NCAA probation for five years after several players in 1993 accepted free shoes and other sporting goods from a local store. The episode led former Florida coach Steve Spurrier to dub FSU “Free Shoes University.”
Bowden prided himself on giving players a second chance, but critics said he was soft on discipline with an eye on winning games.
“If short hair and good manners won football games, Army and Navy would play for the national championship every year,” Bowden retorted.
Randy Moss, one of the most talented athletes to attend Florida State, never played a down for the Seminoles and was kicked out of school after a redshirt season for smoking marijuana. In 1999, Warrick was caught in a shopping scam that led to his suspension for two games and probably cost him the Heisman Trophy that year.
“There’s only about 6 inches that turns that halo into a noose,” Bowden was fond of saying during the good days, when he was often called “Saint Bobby” by the Florida State faithful.
The Seminoles won 10 or more games in 18 of Bowden’s 34 seasons at Florida State, but were a relatively mortal 74-42 on the field from 2001-09.
The cheating scandal that led to the loss of a dozen wins from Bowden’s final resume took place in an online music history course from the fall of 2006 through summer 2007. The NCAA said some athletes were provided with answers to exams and in some cases, had papers typed for them.
Bowden stayed in the public eye after retirement, writing a book, making speeches and going public with his treatment for prostate cancer in 2007. His fear of retiring from coaching resulted in part from the death of his longtime idol, former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who died within weeks of leaving the sidelines.
“After you retire, there’s only one big event left,” Bowden frequently said.
Bowden stayed active into his 80s, finally slowing down over the last year or so. He was hospitalized in October 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. The test came a few days after he returned home from a long hospital stay for a leg infection.
Born Nov. 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, Robert Cleckler Bowden overcame rheumatic fever as a child to quarterback Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, then attended Alabama for a semester before transferring back to his hometown Howard College, where he starred at quarterback.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Ann, and they stayed together for 72 years.
Bowden built the Florida State program by scheduling the toughest opponents he could find, and he’d play them anywhere, usually at their stadium. He was dubbed “King of the Road” in 1981 after playing consecutive road games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU — and winning three of the five.
His daring play-calling also earned him the nickname Riverboat Gambler in some quarters. Bowden’s most famous trick play came in 1988 at Clemson. He sent his punt team onto the field with 1:33 left in a tie game with a fourth-and-4 and the ball at Florida State’s 21. Florida State’s punter leaped high into the air and acted as if he were chasing down a high snap while the upback took the ball and slipped it between his legs where LeRoy Butler grabbed it and raced 78 yards to the Clemson 1 to set up the winning field goal.
“We were determined somebody was going to win that game,” Bowden said after the “Puntrooskie.”
Through Bowden’s career, Florida State won games in many of the nation’s toughest stadiums, including at Michigan, Southern California and, of course, rivals Florida and Miami. In 1987, the Seminoles crushed Big Ten champion Michigan State 31-3 at East Lansing and whipped Southeastern Conference champion Auburn on its home field, 34-6.
Bowden also was considered one of the best handlers of great individual talents, recruiting and developing the likes of Simmons, Ward, Weinke, Warrick, Butler and Deion Sanders, who earned the nickname “Prime Time” during his days as a Seminole.
“God bless the Bowden Family, Friends & Loved ones,” Sanders posted on Twitter. “I’ve lost 1 of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Florida State’s recruiting classes were nearly always among the top nationally. By the 1990s, the Seminoles poured star talent into the NFL on an annual basis, including four of the top 19 picks in the 2006 draft the same year Bowden was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Both coaches who birthed college football powerhouses in Florida during the 1980s have died this year. Howard Schnellenberger, who led Miami to its first national championship in 1983, died in March at 87.
Bowden is survived by wife Ann; sons Terry, Tommy, Jeff and Steve; and daughters Robyn Hines and Ginger Madden. Services were scheduled for Saturday at the Donald L Tucker Center, Florida State’s basketball arena.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Alabama, AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo in New York, AP freelance writer Bob Ferrante in Tallahassee, Florida, and former AP Sports Deputy Editor John Affleck contributed to this report.