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Bobby Bowden has lived an incredible life, and the pleasure was all ours

John Romano | Forget the wins and focus on the man who made college football a kinder, gentler world for the rest of us.
Bobby Bowden is carried triumphantly on the shoulders of his players after Florida State beat West Virginia, 33-21, in the Gator Bowl at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in 2010.
Bobby Bowden is carried triumphantly on the shoulders of his players after Florida State beat West Virginia, 33-21, in the Gator Bowl at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium in 2010.
Published Jul. 22

True story:

The first time I met Bobby Bowden, he was wearing a towel. If I recall correctly, I was in jeans. The governor, who was also in the room, was the best-dressed of the three of us.

This was in the fall of 1986, and Florida State had just been blown out by No. 1 Miami in a game at the since-demolished Orange Bowl. It was one of my first big assignments at the Times and I had already screwed up. Somehow, I had missed Bowden’s postgame press conference while doing other interviews.

Refusing to admit defeat — or simply being stupid as a stump — I wandered into the visiting coach’s office and discovered Bowden had just gotten out of the shower. I don’t know which of us was more surprised, but I forged ahead by asking him what he thought of Vinny Testaverde. This was also the moment when Gov. Bob Graham walked in, changing the mood from uncomfortable to dysfunctional.

I tried casually slinking out of the cramped room when Bowden stopped me, introduced me to the governor and then finished answering my question while getting dressed.

When I heard Wednesday that Bowden is nearing death, I thought about that moment. Thought about how much the world has changed.

And how Bobby Bowden never has.

He was a saint long before the world got to know him, it just took a few hundred football games for the rest of us to catch on. If you have ever met Bowden, 91, you know what I mean. If you never have, there aren’t enough quality words to adequately explain.

I suppose The Andy Griffith Show is probably a good place to start. I’ve always thought of Bowden as a real-life version of Sheriff Andy Taylor, except with a more rabid following. The kindness and homespun charm always came across naturally while authority and intellect were cleverly hidden beneath the southern drawl.

The idea that he could lose such a critical football game and still have the grace to be kind to an impertinent reporter was not unusual. Nor, as it turned out, was the idea that he could arrive in Tallahassee in 1976 and build a football program that would become the envy of the nation.

If you weren’t around this state in the mid-70s, it’s probably hard to conceptualize just how irrelevant the Seminoles were in danger of becoming. They had won four games in the previous three years and Bowden was already the fourth head coach of the decade. The Gators may have been underachievers at the time, but the Seminoles were closer to hopeless.

FSU’s all-time record against Florida was 2-15-1 when Bowden arrived in 1976. A year later, the Seminoles would start a four-game winning streak against the Gators. And college football in Florida was never the same.

So, is he among the greatest college football coaches of all time? His record certainly puts him at the forefront of the conversation but, this morning, it seems like a pointless debate.

To me, Bowden was always greater than the sum of his victories and championships. It wasn’t how many games he won, but how he built a winning program from the ground up. And it wasn’t how many seasons ended in confetti, but how he has always lived with dignity and kindness.

You know, he could have chased money and fame elsewhere. LSU tried hiring him once. So did Auburn and Alabama. The NFL’s Atlanta Falcons reached out to him in the mid-1980s, and the USFL came calling, too.

Bowden never left. In fact, he and wife Ann remain in the same home they had bought on a golf course in Tallahassee in 1976. Other coaches — and there have been more than a few in this state — have been willing to trade loyalty for a chance at greater titles. Not Bowden. He had six children, a happy home and a humble man’s appreciation for what really constitutes wealth.

Oh, there are those who might say it was a façade. That the Saint Bobby persona was a media creation.

They’ll point at FSU’s run-ins with the NCAA in the early 2000s and sneer. They’ll claim no coach could finish in the top 5 of the Associated Press poll for 14 consecutive seasons, as Bowden did at FSU from 1987-2000, without being as hard-driving and cutthroat as the rest.

Unfortunately, those people will never understand. Yes, Bowden was competitive. Yes, he had his flaws. Yes, he might have stayed on the sidelines a little too long. But that’s all part of what made him so unique. He had all of the qualities necessary to achieve greatness, and yet it never kept him from being the warmest and most sincere person in any room he entered.

In the coming days, there will be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stories written about Bowden. They will include his many records, his ACC championships, his national titles. They will mention the numerous Halls of Fame he has been inducted into.

All of that matters, and all of it should be recorded and remembered. After all, it is the reason why the world knows his name.

But it was never the only thing that made him special. Maybe not even the most important thing.

Saint Bobby? Yeah, maybe that was a little too much. Around here, we just consider him one of our own because that’s the way he acted.

And we should always love him for that.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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