As he does every morning, Bobby Bowden climbed out of bed in his Tallahassee, Fla., home at precisely 4 a.m. Sunday. Unlike any other morning of his 79 years on earth, the Florida State football coach was standing in the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church parking lot less than six hours later.
“I’ve been doing this since 1953, just after I finished college; I just feel it’s my responsibility as a Christian,” said Bowden a few minutes before he delivered a sermon to a packed sanctuary at the church a few miles northwest of Dalton.
“If someone asks me to speak and I can fit them in, I’m there. Some say mixing faith and football is not the politically correct thing to do. I don’t believe in being political correct. I believe in being Biblically correct.”
Whatever you think of Bowden, this his good side, the one we should all hope sticks around to coach 55 more years, win 382 more games and pocket a couple of more national championships.
It’s the Bowden who writes a letter to every new Seminole’s parents before he arrives on campus, asking them if they mind if the coaches take their son to church or a bible study group.
“In 35 years, I’ve only had two parents say, ‘Leave my son out,’” Bowden said.
This is also the Bowden who will tell you that it’s not the kids who have changed — it’s the parents.
“In a lot of cases, the parents have quit raising them,” he said. “Half of our kids (FSU players) can’t tell you who their daddy is. Sometimes the coaches are the only father figures in their lives. You turn on the TV and the father’s having children with three different women. Or the mother says, ‘I don’t want the baby.’
“These boys walk into my office and they’re the same little, ol’, sweet boys they’ve always been. Their hair may be a little longer, their pants may hang a little lower, they may have an earring or a tattoo, but they’re still good kids. What’s changed is that they don’t have a dad and don’t have someone to teach them the Ten Commandments.”
This is also the Bowden who counters those arguments that he runs an undisciplined program by pointing to safety Myron Rolle, who was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship this past year and will forego his senior season at FSU to study at Oxford.
“Nobody wants to talk about that, though,” said the coach.
No, his detractors want to talk about the 22 Seminoles who were suspended from the 2007 Music City Bowl because of a cheating scandal, and former quarterback Adrian McPherson’s dismissal from the team for gambling, and the late 1990s shoplifting charge against wideout Peter Warrick that failed to remove him from the team — “I just hate to lose the talent,” Bowden infamously proclaimed — as examples that he runs a program concerned only with winning games.
And it’s not a bad argument. But as the Bible that Bowden and his wife read each morning tells us, nobody is perfect.
Besides that, he said, “If I kick them off the team, they’re back on the streets. And there’s more than one way to discipline. You take their meals and housing away from them, that’s pretty tough discipline.”
Nor is Bowden’s patience endless. He booted gifted FSU wideout Preston Parker off the team last week after his was arrested for DUI, his third brush with the law in two years.
“Our most talented player,” said the coach. “But you can only give them so many chances.”
Because Sunday might have been the only chance for his fans in north Georgia to see the coach who has the second most wins in college football history — Bowden’s 382 victories trailing Penn State’s Joe Paterno by one — they filled the Mount Vernon sanctuary as it has almost never been filled, easily tripling the 139 who showed up for services a week earlier.
“I actually went to Tallahassee a few years ago just to watch him walk the sidelines,” said 32-year-old Travis Quinn of Dalton. “To see him and hear him today was tremendous.”
Darrell and Celeste Morris drove their young daughters all the way from Gainesville, Ga., to hear Bowden and possibly have him autograph a football they’d brought.
When he obliged, Celeste said, “We walked in here today with a $10 football. We’re walking out of here with a priceless one.”
Bowden certainly has a priceless perspective on life.
Of the recent flap involving new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin falsely charging Florida coach Urban Meyer with cheating, Bowden said, “When you bring a pro coach into college, most of them don’t know the recruiting rules.”
On how much he pays attention to Penn State as he battles Paterno for the all-time wins title: “I check their halftime scores.”
On his long union with Ann, his childhood sweetheart: “Ann and I have been married 50 happy years. That’s not bad for 59 years of marriage.”
On Ann constantly watching The Food Network: “I came home one day and asked her, ‘Why are you always watching those cooking shows when you don’t cook. She said, ‘Well, you watch football.’”
But Bowden’s biggest achievement may ultimately prove to be the impact of his Sunday sermons. Especially with such youth as 14-year-old Westside Middle School football players Jalen Lockett, Thomas Blackwell and Hobie Neely.
All were impressed with the coach’s record and fame, but something bigger gripped Blackwell.
“I just think it’s cool,” he said, “that a college coach can come here and get youth like us to learn more about God.”
Now that’s priceless.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...