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Florida State Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden's iconic status is more about the man than the coach

With today’s finale left to play, FSU’s Bobby Bowden has 388 wins, but those who know him beyond the field say he has a special way of touching lives.

Getty Images (2008)

With today’s finale left to play, FSU’s Bobby Bowden has 388 wins, but those who know him beyond the field say he has a special way of touching lives.

JACKSONVILLE

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden is not one to wax nostalgic. Although he wanted to be on the Seminoles' sideline for one more season, he knew this day was coming. He announced in early December that he would retire after this afternoon's Gator Bowl against West Virginia. "I don't live on the past as much as maybe some people do," said Bowden, who's genuinely uncomfortable talking about his feats or iconic status. "To me there's bigger things in life. Remember, I've said before, 'Don't make football your god.' "If I made football my god, I'd be, 'Oh my goodness, I'm going to die; it's the end of the world.' I've never done that. I won't do it. I'm excited about the future. I've got so much longer to live. I'm only 80. I want to go out there and see what's out there."

Still, for those folks who have known him best during his illustrious 34-year run in Tallahassee, this is the perfect time to reflect. Not so much on the 388 career wins, second to Penn State's Joe Paterno in major college football history, or the two national titles, or the unforgettable players and plays that have helped define a golden age in the sport, but rather on what it is that has made Bowden so very special.

A singing companion

For the last 32 years, Charlie Barnes, the executive director of Seminole Boosters, has crisscrossed the state each spring with Bowden on the coach's tour of booster clubs. One drive from Tampa to Polk County stands out.

"We started talking about old-time hymns," he said, adding he just happened to have received a recent gift — a CD of the Statler Brothers' greatest gospel hits. "I put it in and here we are cruising I-4, it's midnight, dark as pitch, and we spent the next hour singing all the old songs at the top of our lungs."

In the Sweet By and By

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder

"He's got a very good voice; he's a light baritone and I'm a bass," Barnes said. (Bowden loves music with a strong beat and is upbeat and can play the trombone and the piano.) "That's my treasured memory of traveling with him."

At home in any home

Entering his second season at FSU in 1977, Bowden looked poised to land his first big-time recruit, defensive lineman Ron Simmons out of Warner Robins (Ga.) High. But rumors began circulating that Bowden may bolt, and Simmons called him.

"I assure you I'm not going anywhere. Those are strictly rumors," Simmons said the coach told him. "We left it that, then that evening, he called me and said he wanted to come by my house and I said, 'Sure. Come by.' "

It was dinnertime when Bowden arrived. Pork rinds and syrup with biscuits.

"And he joins in to eat with us," Simmons said. "Imagine him at the table with a biscuit in his hand and he's sopping up syrup with it like we were. … I'll never forget that one."

A real people person

Billy Smith, the retired state trooper who has been at Bowden's side since 1976 (he has worked with the FSU football coaches beginning in 1964 and may continue on next year with Jimbo Fisher), remembers walking out of the locker room at Notre Dame in 2003 and seeing a horde of fans waiting. Most were Notre Dame fans.

"I would say there were a minimum of 300 people that all of a sudden surrounded him," Smith said. "And he stayed right there. In fact, I sent the buses onto the airport. Now the airplane wasn't going to leave us, but traditionally we go when the team goes. But no, he wanted to stay there and make sure the people looking for autographs or pictures were taken care of."

He estimates it took about a half-hour.

"He leaves you with the impression that you're the only person there who matters," Smith said. "That tells you something about coach Bobby Bowden."

Dealing with tragedy

Longtime FSU sports information director Rob Wilson knew Bowden was having a tough time when his grandson Bowden Madden and former son-in-law John Madden died in a traffic accident in September 2004. But he didn't realize how tough until he saw him days later in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel at the Miami airport.

"The elevator opens, and Coach looks terrible. He looks just awful," Wilson said.

As Wilson escorted Bowden across the bustling lobby for a meeting, he was praying they wouldn't be stopped by autograph seekers or boisterous Miami fans. On cue, an older man raced around the corner yelling, "Coach. Coach."

Bowden stopped, the man introduced himself and said how sorry he and all Miami fans were for his family's loss.

"We start to walk off and Coach Bowden spins around to the guy and says: 'Hey. Did you write me a letter?' " Wilson said. "He says, 'Yes,' and Coach said that he read and appreciated it, and then he walks off. The guy turns around to his family, who had all their Miami garb on, and couldn't believe Coach remembered his letter. I just remember thinking, 'Only he stops. Only he talks. And only he listens to what he was saying (given everything) and then remembered a letter.' "

Almost famous

Former defensive ends coach Jim Gladden, a FSU graduate assistant in 1975 whom Bowden hired as a full-time assistant when he arrived and remained on staff until 2001, accompanied his boss on countless recruiting trips.

Once, while driving through south Georgia in the winter, Bowden urged Gladden to pull off and stop at a small store for a cola (and peanuts to pour into the bottle, naturally) and found a man in overalls, chewing tobacco and sitting near a pot-belly stove to stay warm.

"He looks up and sees Coach and says: 'I know you. I know you,' " Gladden said. "I'm waiting for him to say, 'You're Bobby Bowden,' but he says, 'You're that fella that sells Ford trucks on TV.' "

Bowden laughed and immediately responded: "You're daggum right. You need a F-150?"

"That's the thing about Coach Bowden I've always admired the most," Gladden said. "He's always been able to see humor in things and not take himself too seriously."

Football isn't 'the' priority

Outgoing president T.K. Wetherell, a freshman receiver when Bowden as a FSU assistant, said the moment that forever will define the coach in his eyes happened in September 2005.

The Seminoles were hosting Miami in the opener, and for several days Bowden played host to an 8-year-old from the Make-A-Wish Foundation who was dying from cancer. He introduced the youngster to Miami players and coach Larry Coker during pregame warm-ups, then brought him to the locker room.

"He puts him before the team and says, 'I hope you win the game tonight, but this kid's fighting a bigger battle,' " Wetherell said. "He lets the kid run out on the field and he stands with him for a while before they take him up to the stands to watch the game. It ain't like we're playing a chump school. We're playing Miami. On national TV. And he's as focused on that kid as he is anything else."

Less than a year later, Bowden went to the funeral.

"That," Wetherell said, "is Bobby Bowden."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

Florida State Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden's iconic status is more about the man than the coach 12/31/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 10:55pm]
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