The last of the charming Southerners in college football has left us, and the sport is a bit more bland in its wake. Bobby Bowden, who could win in a draft’s living room, a press conference, a booster meeting or a stadium on Saturdays, has died at 91.
Bowden not only recorded 377 victories in soccer. He recorded them while making almost everyone like him and laugh with him. In a profession that continues its trend toward deadly seriousness throughout, Bowden excelled at making soccer fun to watch and fun to talk about. It was the most accessible of legends.
We probably won’t see another like him, a more authentic product of Dixie who loved to play the role of Southern Ball’s trainer, perhaps because he didn’t have to work too hard to play it. Dabo Swinney has some similar folks, but some of his opinions have made him the kind of lightning rod Bowden never was. Ed Orgeron is very much Southern, but a very particular subset of him, and his longevity remains to be seen.
Bowden was a boy from Alabama who found his niche on the Florida peninsula, the Redneck Riviera, as it is known. He built something entirely his own there, hours away from the great cities of the state. So it never left. Tallahassee is tough to get to and even harder to get a hotel room for a home football game, but he made it a destination.
In a stroke of marketing genius, Florida State hosted “Breakfast with Bobby” meetings on fall Sundays for the media that covered the Seminoles’ home games the day or the night before. It got the writers and columnists from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville to appear, and it kept them coming back with great access, great stories, and great teams.
Then the national media got hooked as well, drawn in by a new powerhouse with a coach who welcomed everyone. There were some warts in Florida State, from “Free Shoes University” to Peter Warrick’s shopping spree to an academic scandal, but Bowden’s pleasant demeanor likely helped him get through those situations without the kind of pushback others would have received.
Florida State had some flashes of soccer success, but nothing special before Bowden’s arrival in the mid-1970s. He was 5-6 in his first season and then won forever, never posting a losing record until the NCAA vacated a few victories in 2006 and 2007. Bowden hit heads with Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson and Steve Spurrier and never blinked, putting FSU on a par with those powers and helping two of the rivalries grow. elite in college football.
Yet for all his victories, Bowden was perhaps even more convincing, and very human, in defeat. Lost heartbreaker for hurricanes in missed shots that cost him national titles, once he raced down the touchline in jubilation over what he thought was the winning field goal, only for officials to point out another crushing failure. Losses hurt, but he never used it as license to lash out.
It was not until 1993 that Bowden finally broke through and won a national championship. At his Orange Bowl press conference the day before that game against Nebraska, Bowden was asked (for the millionth time) about not winning the big one. He tried to explain to reporters why that wasn’t haunting him.
“What is the biggest award in your line of work for all of you?” He asked. “The poo-litzer?”
(To which New York Times columnist George Vecsey responded amusingly and brilliantly: “Marriott is aiming.”)
Bowden went on to say that reporters could have successful and satisfying careers without winning a Pulitzer Prize. It was his way of saying that it would be fine anyway.
But he won that national title the following night, sweating in a failed Cornhuskers field goal at the end, of all things, and one more at the end of that decade. From 1987 to 2000, he never stopped winning 10 or more games a year. If you want to know how impressive he is, Nick Saban will try to match him this year.
During Bowden’s tenure, Doak Campbell Stadium more than doubled its capacity, from 40,500 to 82,300. Enrollment also nearly doubled, from 21,000 in his first year on campus to more than 40,000 when he retired. Florida State also went from being an independent membership to the Atlantic Coast Conference and immediately became that league’s gold standard for soccer.
Bowden’s continued success made less sense at FSU than it did in Florida, the state’s flagship college with SEC membership, or in Miami, sitting on that incredible South Florida talent gold mine. And it has proven elusive for the past decade, with Jimbo Fisher winning a national title in 2013, but the show then fizzled out and subsequently bottomed out in the past three seasons.
There are reasons the state of Florida has lagged behind, but it is perhaps more remarkable that it has ever come so far. He owes that to Bobby Bowden, one of the nicest winners in college football history and the last of the charming Southerners in the coaching profession.
More on Bobby Bowden:
• Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden loves to visit
• Don’t give up on this soldier – Bobby Bowden is still crafty and willing to win
• Bobby Bowden has a team that should finally win the national title
• Remembering Bobby Bowden, a one-of-a-kind college football giant
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.