This week, reminiscing with friends about things that happened in the thirty years I knew Bobby Bowden, there was story after story, one funnier than the next.
The one common thread in all of them?
Everybody talked about the man, not the coach.
And everybody has a Bobby Bowden story.
Rather than tell you mine, which you’ve probably already heard a hundred times, here are a few of those from friends who either had a chance encounter or spent their careers at Bobby’s side.
Perhaps no one outside of his family spent more time with Bobby or knew him better than Gene Deckerhoff. The Jacksonville native was part of the broadcast team for all thirty-four years of Bowden’s career at Florida State. Starting by hosting the pregame show and taking over the play-by-play in 1979, Gene was with Bowden through every up and down, on and off the field.
“I didn’t know it but when I first moved to Tallahassee, I rented the house Bobby built when he was an assistant here under Bill Peterson,” Deckerhoff said this week.
As you can imagine, my conversation with Gene, whom I’ve known for forty years, went on for a while talking about Bobby. But I was able to nail him down to one story that really stuck with him.
“I had asked Bobby to go to Jacksonville early one morning to do some commercials for our sponsors on the radio broadcast. He left here at six on a plane to get there by eight. But when he arrived, nothing was set up, so he took a nap on the couch and waited. I had told him he’d by home by two.”
In the meantime, Deckerhoff was in Tampa and had been offered a chance to do the play-by-play for the Buccaneers. The Bucs realized they needed a well-known, recognizable voice to connect with the fans after a lot of losses in their history. He had gotten permission from Hootie Ingram (the athletic director) and Andy Miller (the head of Seminole Boosters who ran the radio network) but felt like he needed Bobby’s permission before he could take the job.
“About seven o’clock that night I called his house,” Gene recalled. “I was thinking he’d be home and Ann answered and said he wasn’t there, but she heard some commotion in the driveway, and she thought it might be Bobby. I heard her say ‘Gene’s on the phone,’ since I rarely called him at home.”
“He told me the story of the day and I thought based on that kind of day it was this might not go well. But when I told him about the offer he said, ‘Can you still do ours?” I told him I could, based on the Bucs schedule and being able to drive and fly from the Seminole games on Saturday to Bucs games on Sunday. Then I explained that it meant that sometimes with FSU playing night games we’d have to tape his coach’s show at two or three in the morning at the TV station.”
“Well, that’s no problem,” Bobby said. “I’ll just be asleep on the couch over there and you wake me up when the commercials are over, and we’ll tape the show.”
“I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. I’ve never met anybody who was as honest and faithful as Bobby Bowden. I’ve been blessed to work with him and with Tony Dungy in Tampa for six years who was the same way. One guy born in Michigan and the other in Alabama, but they were two peas from the same pod. No way Bobby has that kind of success as a coach, the enduring love of his players, and a marriage that lasted seventy-two years without being as honest and loving as he was.”
If you know anything about the Seminoles and you live in Jacksonville, you know Max Zahn. Max has had a variety of positions with Seminole Boosters and got to know Bobby over the years, especially when he was asked to run Bowden’s ‘Spring Golf Tour’ for a while throughout the state. Max didn’t hesitate when I asked him for his favorite Bobby story.
“It was 1988 when we went up to play South Carolina in Columbia,” he explained. “I drove up in a van with some guys including Tom Turnage, John Martin, and Bob Cosgrove, who recruited Edgar Bennett and LeRoy Butler, and a couple other guys.
“We beat them 59-0 and one of our guys knew somebody from South Carolina who had a tailgate in the parking lot after the game. We had one van from Jacksonville in the middle of the parking lot and we thought no way they’d welcome us there, but they didn’t care. We were having a great time when two state trooper patrol cars and two buses went by.”
“One guy had a rubber chicken, and we were all getting ready to take a picture with the chicken. A highway patrolwoman stopped and wanted to know what was going on. That’s when Bobby jumps out of one of the patrol cars and comes running over and says; You guys from Jacksonville have all the fun.’ And asked to get in the picture. He was such a fun and humble person. He had integrity and character. He changed people’s lives just by living the way he did.”
With a daughter at Florida State, my friend Leon Crimmins was just being a ‘Seminole Dad’ one weekend in Tallahassee as he and his wife were visiting. His daughter had heard that Bobby was going to do the sermon at a local church on Sunday and suggested they go.
“We went to the Celebration Baptist Church the next morning,” Leon explained. “And Bowden gave the sermon, a combination of motivational football coach and Baptist preacher. He was awesome! The congregation was so fired up they looked like they could go play a game. He ended by glancing at his watch and said, “Hey, let’s have a quick prayer and get out of here and beat the Catholics to breakfast.’ The place cracked up, but it was obvious they loved him deeply.”
As a football player at FSU, Todd Fordham spent five years in Tallahassee under ‘Coach Bowden.’ He was a redshirt his first year, played some as a redshirt freshman and started the following three season, being named captain his senior year. In that role he met with Bobby regularly and said Bowden always listened and usually was supportive of whatever request the players had adding, ‘As long as we do it as a team.’
In all his time with the ‘Noles and with Bowden, it was an off-the-field, moment that has stuck with Fordham when I asked him for a Bobby Bowden story.
“When I was coming out of a small Georgia town to play football (Tifton, Ga) I was in awe of FSU and what they were about. We’re going through football camp my freshman year, and it wasn’t easy under coach Bowden. It was hot and tough. We get to Saturday after a hard practice and he got the team together and said “Men, tomorrow is one of the most important days of the year. I want everybody on those buses tomorrow morning and on time.’ We got on the busses Sunday morning and went to two different churches. The first one we went to was Bethel AME. We all got off the busses and Coach Bowden was adamant that we’re going to go do something together. He wanted us to sit as a team. We’d be there together. You didn’t miss that. Every year. Only if you had some family issue and then your mom or dad had to call him to talk about it. I’ve never forgotten that.”
“A majority of people who talk about Coach Bowden, they talk about what kind of man he was. They talk about his faith. He was a great coach but to see what kind of man he was . . . it was always about other folks.”
Bowden earned Todd’s respect early and it carried through his senior year.
“I was a captain in fall camp of my senior year. It was hot, and it got a little chippy. I was egging on a couple of guys who were having a little skirmish on the goal line. Coach Bowden came over and grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘Todd, don’t encourage that.’ He really got on me, and I didn’t even know he saw me!”
For the forty years I’ve known Dan St. John he’s been one of the biggest Seminole fans I know. It makes sense since he went to school there, played some baseball there and stayed close with Mike Martin. With his success in the advertising business, he’s supported the University in a lot of different ways.
In the late 1970’s, early in his advertising career, Dan had negotiated a contract with the regional Ford dealers. He had the idea to regionalize the Ford sponsorship thinking college football was the way to do it.
“It’s big in the south of course,” he told me this week. “But we had to get all of the coaches involved. So, we got Bobby, Charley Pell, and Vince Dooley onboard. The hardest thing was to work around the three of their schedules. We decided we needed to get out of town, or we wouldn’t have a moment’s peace if people found out we were going to have the three of them together.”
“We ended up shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina and we had some location shoots out of town. It was a big production. We had wardrobe, make up, grips, sound people, lighting guys. We had a motor home for the coaches to get out of the heat and relax.”
“Everybody’s going in and out of the motor home to check on them when a couple of the make-up people came over and said, ‘Charley is up front, Vince and Bobby were in the back yucking it up, having a big time. Why isn’t Charley involved?”
“I laughed and said, ‘Because Vince and Bobby don’t play each other.’ But that was pure Bobby. We worked with him for ten years and he was the most generous and thoughtful and kind person and big celebrity I ever worked with. People talk about being a great coach, but he was always humble about it.”
While Matt Kingston was a student at Florida, I was lucky enough to have him as an intern in the TV station’s sports department before he graduated. His internship was a rousing success and we jumped at the chance to hire him as soon as he finished school. We worked together for eighteen years, traveling all over to cover sporting events and he remains one of my closest friends. But it was before we met that his Bobby Bowden story happened.
“I was working at a TV station in Gainesville while I was in school and they sent me to the FSU football media day on a Saturday morning in Tallahassee,” Matt said. “I went by myself into a big room, set up and had the players and coaches come through one-by-one.”
“When Bobby got to me the Assistant Sports information Director introduced me saying, ‘Coach, this is Matt Kingston from Gainesville.’ ‘Gainesville?’ Bobby said. ‘Who let him in?’”
“I was already nervous, and I wasn’t sure whether he was serious or not. He must have sensed my nervousness, so he said, ‘Matt, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty-two,’ I said. ‘And how tall are you?’ he asked. ‘I’m five-six Coach.’ ‘Well let’s see!”
And with that he motioned for me to come closer.
“Let’s go back-to-back,’ he said and pulled me by the arm. We went back-to-back and he asked the guy with him, ‘Who’s taller?’
“’I think you have him by about a half inch Coach,’ the assistant said. ‘I don’t win many of those!’ Bobby exclaimed. He sat down and said with a laugh, “I always thought there were a few smart people in Gainesville.” I’m a huge Gator fan but I’ve been a Bobby Bowden fan ever since that day.”
My longtime producer/photographer and close friend and confidant, Kevin Talley reminded me of an interview we did after a game in Tallahassee with Bobby after Tamarick Vanover had two long kickoff returns in 1992 against Florida.
“You asked Bobby how fast Vanover was,” Kevin recalled. “And without skipping a beat Bobby said, ‘I don’t know, but he’s faster than whatever’s chasing him.”
As lucky as I was to report on and get to know Bobby Bowden over three decades, I have dozens of stories, most of them you’ve probably heard.
But two really stick out.
When he was done with his press conference following his final game, January 1, 2010, in the Gator Bowl against West Virginia, he and Ann were walking up the aisle accepting handshakes and congratulations from the assembled media.
I was standing in the back with the photographers as I always do, and as Bobby got to the door, he looked over at me and smiled. I nodded a quick “hi” and he stopped and walked through the maze of TV cameras to get to me.
He put his hand out and said, “Hey, Sam,” not using his regular, “Hey buddy,” that he saved for everybody. There was something in his voice that was especially warm and welcoming, not an easy thing to achieve in a big room full of people.
“That was something,” I said of the ‘Noles 33-21 win over the Mountaineers in the rain. “And a great run,” I added.
“You know Ann?” Bobby said as he pointed to his wife right behind him.
“Of course,” I said, knowing, polite as always, he’d introduced me to Ann about a hundred times.
As we shook hands, he put his left hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ll see you soon.”
“Absolutely,” I said.
And a story I’ve never told before:
We once played golf at Deerwood during his annual spring tour in the late ‘80’s. We rode in the same cart and over the course of five hours together, we talked a lot about football, my short college football career, family, and faith and discovered we were fraternity brothers. We hit some good and some bad shots over eighteen holes as usual.
When we finished, we were straightening out the cart and the clubs before everybody was trying to get a piece of him. Bobby put his hand out and said, “I really enjoyed that.” “Not as much as I did,” I quickly answered.
And then he leaned in, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You should have played for me.”
I was so stunned I think I managed an “I should have,” as he was escorted away.
I thought it might have been the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten, and I’ve never forgotten that.