ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
In this Jan. 1, 2010, file photo, Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden is carried on the shoulders of his players after their 33-21 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl NCAA college football game in Jacksonville, Fla. Bowden, the folksy Hall of Fame coach who built Florida State into an unprecedented college football dynasty, has died. He was 91. Bobby's son, Terry, confirmed to The Associated Press that his father died at home in Tallahassee, Fla., surrounded by family early Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP, File)

It was early August, 1998. The air hanging over the Florida State football practice field was hot and heavy as the time neared 9 p.m. Weary of the usual football questions about who was running third team at defensive tackle or how his field goal kicker was connecting from 43 yards out, Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden had a question of his own for the assembled media.

"Any of y'all seen Saving Private Ryan yet?" he asked of the movie that had been released less than three weeks earlier. "You need to. Probably the most realistic war movie ever. We're taking the team to see it tomorrow night."

This was the Bobby Bowden the whole world should have come to know before he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on Sunday morning at the age of 91.

This was the Bowden who knew World War II backward and forward because he'd been stricken with rheumatic fever for most of 1942, which forced him to remain in bed at his parents' Birmingham, Alabama, home as he listened each day to radio reports from the European theatre.

So he became something of an expert on the war effort, even if he was too young to serve in the military. He also knew a lot about Christianity and the role he believed he was expected to serve regarding organized religion.

"Some say mixing faith and football is not the politically correct thing to do," Bowden said during a 2009 sermon he delivered at the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church located a few miles northwest of Dalton, Georgia.

"I don't believe in being politically correct. I believe in being Biblically correct."

Given that, is it any wonder that former Seminole wideout Wayne Messam, now the mayor of Miramar, Florida, posted the following on social media: "Coach Bobby Bowden, for every hug after a TD, for every Pregame Bible verse devotion, for every 2nd & 3rd chance you gave I thank you!"

Or ex-FSU and NFL great Derrick Brooks posted this: "I thank God for my relationship with Coach Bowden! I am so grateful to play for Coach Bowden. He built into our spirits "Faith, Family, Football" in that order!"

No, he wasn't perfect. His players got into trouble more than once, everything from academic cheating to booster shenanigans to shoplifting to driving under the influence.

Asked that day at Mount Vernon United Methodist about the belief in some corners that he only cared about winning, Bowden replied: "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."

some text
Flowers collect at the feet of Bobby Bowden's statue outside Doak Campbell Stadium in the hours following his death Sunday, August 8, 2021 in Tallahassee, Fla. Bobby Bowden, the folksy Hall of Fame coach who built Florida State into a college football dynasty that powered its way to a dozen conference titles and two national championships, died early Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. He was 91.(Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

To that he soon added: "In a lot of cases, the parents have quit raising them. 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.'

"If I kick them off the team, they're back on the streets."

It is an inconvenient truth of the times, one we'd rather not address and correct because it would take too much hands-on time and effort and patience if at first we failed to succeed.

But to listen to Andre Wadsworth — an All-American defensive end at FSU in 1997 — in a Sunday ESPN.com article, Bowden tried mightily to reverse that which he believed was damaging our youth and our future.

"Coach Bowden was a father figure to all of us." said Wadsworth. "The first day, he told us he didn't want us sleeping with women because he thought sex should be saved for marriage. He told us he didn't want us drinking, even after we turned 21. He told us he was going to treat all of us like his sons, and that's what he did. He cared about us more than he cared about football."

Not that he didn't care about winning football games. Back in 2009 he was about to begin his last season on the FSU sideline, and he trailed then-Penn State coach Joe Paterno by a single all-time victory — 383 to 382. Asked how closely he kept up with the Nittany Lions, he said, "I check their halftime scores."

Alas, Paterno would coach longer and Bowden would later lose 12 wins due to NCAA sanctions, leaving JoePa with 409 to Bowden's official total of 377.

But there were other accomplishments that may live forever — unless Nick Saban breaks them before he leaves Alabama — beginning with the fact that he finished in the top five of every Associated Press final Top 25 poll between 1987 and 2000.

Like most everything else, it ended badly. The luster faded. The losses mounted. The well-heeled Seminole boosters turned on him as well-heeled boosters almost always do when fearing permanent mediocrity.

Bowden's aw-shucks Southern charm and good humor worked best when paired with championships.

Yet Bowden always saw himself as far more than a football coach.

"I've always said I'm not going to make football my god," he told ESPN that final season in 2009. "A lot of coaches put so much into coaching football games that they have nothing left. I've never made football my priority."

Instead, he made his marriage to Ann a priority that lasted 72 years, right up until Sunday morning. He made his children and grandchildren a priority. And the Lord. Always the Lord.

That 2009 Sunday morning at Mount Vernon United Methodist, a 14-year-old Westside Middle School football player named Thomas Blackwell was asked what he'd taken from Bowden's sermon.

"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."

If they haven't yet found the right words to place on Bowden's tombstone, that quote wouldn't be the worst words they could choose.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT