Every time I see him he calls me boy. He calls everybody “boy.”
“Hey boy, it’s good to see you,” is how Bobby Bowden greeted me Saturday night after his FSU Seminoles dismantled an overmatched BYU team. It’s a comfortable sound, hearing Bowden’s voice call after you like a long lost friend. Bowden probably knows most of the names, but it is his nature to be homey, comfortable and friendly.
Detractors (Gator fans) like to think it’s an act, a long involved syrupy act to cover up the ills and win over the media. Knowing Bowden for twenty years, I can tell you, it’s not an act. At a restaurant in Tallahassee, in his office on the FSU campus and in stadiums from Gainesville to Arizona, Bowden is the same. “Hey boy!” he says over and over to familiar faces, friends and family.
That’s not to say everything Bowden has done is right. I think he’s needed a more firm hand with discipline in recent years. He’s been asked about that, rather pointedly prior to the National Championship game last year, and he had a well thought out response. Part of it was about giving players a second chance, particularly those from single parent families who perhaps didn’t know any better. Part of it was his feeling of responsibility toward the players’ entire family, having been trusted with the safety and well being of a teenaged son. Having not been privy to the inside workings of the problem situations at FSU, I’ve relied on my confidence in Bowden to accept his decisions. I really don’t think the man can be devious.
Does he take advantage of the rules? Absolutely. Ask him about it and he’ll say emphatically, “change the rules!” “I’ll play by the rules, whatever they are.” Did his team get a break in 1993 when they dropped only one spot after losing to Notre Dame? Bowden says “probably, but we’re just following the system.”
Bowden has been working the system, whether it’s getting a break from the media because he’s generous and gracious with his time, or getting kids in school who are marginal because the system allows it. He thinks many parts of college football are flawed, but is sensible enough to know he’s not going to change them alone.
There have been National Championship chances gone by the boards with loses in bowl games or an errant field goal costing the Seminoles a shot. The pictures of Bowden in the instant following those disappointments are not of him stomping on his hat, or yelling at some assistant. Rather the resignation and understanding of the moment, a moment he has no control over, a moment ruled by teenagers trying their best, and perhaps coming up short. That’s a parental instinct taking over, something learned or inherited as a coach and something in this day of the “win or else” mentality in sports could be hard to understand for the uninitiated.
Bowden’s not one of my favorite coaches in the country, he’s one of my favorite people. I’ve asked him general questions about football, and extremely technical questions about his team, all met with an easy manner and a plain explanation.
If you think he’s removed himself from running his team, think again. He might not wear the headsets on the sidelines, but he’s in charge. Magically, those headsets appear and he’s making calls in crunch time.
The recruiting, the game planning, the game day coaching, talking to the media, greeting the boosters, they’re all part of Bowden’s repertoire, one with many moving parts, but with a constant positive outlook. I account much of that to Bowden’s faith. He doesn’t flaunt it, but you’ve seen him speak at a Billy Graham crusade. His even temperament follows a certain trust in a higher authority.
I’ve played golf with Bobby Bowden in the past. We rode together in the cart and talked and played for 5 hours. He played well. I think you can learn a lot about people playing golf with them. How they handle adversity, and good fortune, all the while trying to compete. You might not know if Bowden made birdie or bogey by watching him walk off a green.
Perhaps the most underrated part of Bowden’s coaching career is his adaptability. From his days as the “riverboat gambler,” Bowden showed his willingness to take a chance. Why? Because he had to. Bowden knew he didn’t have the horses to beat the big schools, so he had to scheme to compete with them. Remember Octoberfest? Bobby was part of that five game road trip that helped put FSU on the college football map.
Using a two quarterback system Bowden has won. He’s won coaching a Heisman Trophy winner. He’s won with defense, wild offense and a dominant kicker. Whatever he’s presented with, he’s used. At 70 years old, even Steve Spurrier said Bowden looks better and healthier than he has in a decade. I guess winning will do that to you. More than that, winning at life’s game keeps you young.