Writing about Bobby Bowden is easy. Not writing about Bobby Bowden is the hard part. He’s one of the most quotable people in the history of sports. He’s genuine. He’ll tell you what he thinks. He’s not going to hide his feelings and he’s not going to tell you what he thinks you want to hear.
There’s nothing about him I don’t like. He’s even a fraternity brother of mine (Pika). I’ve seen him at the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. That that’s where I’ve learned from Bowden and respected him more than any coach I can remember.
When FSU lost those “Wide Rights” and “Wide left” and when they came close and didn’t quite get there, he never lost his temper. He never lost his ability to look past the final score and to some kind of higher plane that the game meant to him. Of course, he’s a man of great faith and that’s something he’s relied on through his professional life. He seemed to always just figure out that “it’s just a game.” And in that spectrum of wins and losses, road trips and home games, somewhere, Bowden became one of, if not the best college football coach in the history of the game.
I haven’t covered his whole career but from 1978 on, I’ve been to his games, to his office, ran into him in restaurants in Tallahassee, talked with him on the field and in press conferences. On the practice field and in the airport, I’ve seen him in all kinds of situations. As many people have written, he, like Arnold Palmer and few others, has the ability to make you feel like you’re the only person on the planet when he’s talking to you. He looks you right in the eye. He’s polite but not gratuitous.
People seem to have forgotten how innovative Bowden was early in his career at FSU. Whether it was playing the “Octoberfest” of games on the road against the top teams in the country (honest, look it up) or coming up with the “fumblerooski” against Clemson, Bowden always had something up his sleeve.
I asked him about the “Riverboat Gambler” reputation once and he gave me the most thoughtful answer. “Used to be that way ’cause I had to,” Bobby reminisced. “We didn’t have the players to line up and play you so we had to come up with something! Now it’s different (about 10 years ago). We have the players so I don’t have to do anything crazy. But I will if I have to!”
And opposing coaches knew it.
Once I asked Bobby in his office overlooking the stadium if they couldn’t throw the fade in the Red Zone a little better. “We teach them to put that much air under it. Why?” I explained that the quarterback at the time (I think it was Danny Kannell) just wasn’t executing it the way he could. Looking back on that conversation, I was probably way out of bounds but Bowden made me feel so comfortable talking football that it never occurred to me that I was giving advice to one of the best offensive minds ever. But he didn’t blow me off. He didn’t scoff. He stood up and marched across the room pretending he was a wide receiver and asked me to show him what I was talking about. I laugh out loud when I think about that now, but here’s Bowden, arms flailing, looking over his shoulder saying, “You were a quarterback, show me what you mean!”
Who knows if he really took it to heart but every time they threw the fade and scored since then, I did crack a little smile.
Opposing coaches liked Bowden. That’s because they knew him. Steve Spurrier thought he could debunk the “Smilin’ Bobby” mystique, but he just came off as a bit petulant when talking about Bowden. “We don’t like losing to FSU,” Steve once told me after a loss in Gainesville, the words F, S, U coming out slowly and with disdain.
Nobody was ever surprised when the Seminoles threw a reverse in at the most unexpected time. Bowden kept everybody on their toes. He brought in the best players and had a staff second to none. The ‘Noles won two national championships and save for a couple of missed field goals, they’d have three or four more. But that’s not what anybody will remember about Bowden. They’ll remember the way he could relate to everybody on some level. How he could talk about their Mamma’s and their Daddy’s and how he knew everybody’s name, their parents’ name, their grandparents’ name, their high school coach’s name and their hometown.
Players who were on Bowden’s teams all say the same thing: “He taught me more about life than football.” That’s about as big a compliment you can get as a person let alone as a coach.
Bobby paid me one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received after we had played a round of golf together on a perfect afternoon. We were shaking hands standing next to the golf cart about to depart when he asked, “How come I didn’t recruit you?” and then he added, “You could have played for me.” He said it with that smile and that look that we’ve seen in post-games where he answers a question with another question that he really doesn’t know the answer to.
Maybe it’s my own vanity but I’m going to hang on to that memory.
I could have played for him.
And would have loved to.