Determining the top 10 coaching victories for a man who collected 389 of them (or 377 if you ask the NCAA) is dadgum near impossible, but we attempted it anyway.
In honor of Robert Cleckler Bowden, who died Sunday morning at age 91, we present his 10 greatest on-field triumphs. Stakes and historical significance were our primary criteria, but a game’s dramatic and/or sentimental appeal also was considered.
10. FSU 33, West Virginia 21, Gator Bowl (Jan. 1, 2010)
In Bowden’s final game, the Seminoles put a fitting bow on his hall-of-fame career, topping the school Bowden coached from 1970-75. The Mountaineers led by 11 after one quarter before the Seminoles scored 20 unanswered points. Bowden finished with a 22-10-1 bowl record, giving him the best bowl win percentage (.682) of any coach with at least 20 bowl games. “Eat your heart out, Florida State,” Bowden’s wife, Ann, said afterward to the school that nudged her husband into retirement.
9. FSU 24, Clemson 21 (Sept. 17, 1988)
No list of landmark Bowden triumphs would be complete without the “Puntrooskie” game. With his 10th-ranked team on the ropes in “Death Valley” against the No. 3 Tigers, Bowden brandished his innovation and chutzpah before a national TV audience. Facing fourth-and-4 with 90 seconds remaining, the ’Noles snapped to upback Dayne Williams instead of punter Tim Corlew (who leaped upward as if the snap had sailed over his head). Williams then placed the ball between the legs of fellow upback LeRoy Butler, who scampered 78 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.
8. FSU 24, Florida 21 (Nov. 30, 1996)
While the Gators had the last laugh in this seismic season (see Sugar Bowl, 52-20), Bowden’s club delivered the first blow, and Danny Wuerffel had the lumps to prove it. In this No. 1 vs. 2 matchup in Tallahassee, the second-ranked ’Noles sacked Wuerffel six times (and frequently hit him late, per Steve Spurrier) and got 185 rushing yards from Warrick Dunn in a triumph that didn’t seem as close as the final score.
7. West Virginia 17, Pitt 14 (Nov. 8, 1975)
The most significant victory of Bowden’s six-season tenure as Mountaineers coach. Under Johnny Majors, Pitt was ascending to the national mountaintop (it won the national title the following season) when it rolled into Morgantown on Bowden’s 46th birthday. West Virginia contained tailback Tony Dorsett (22 carries, 107 yards) and got a 38-yard field goal from walk-on Bill McKenzie as time expired. It was one of only four field goals McKenzie would convert all year.
6. FSU 31, Florida 31 (Nov. 26, 1994)
Yes, we’re counting this tie (before the overtime era) as one of Bowden’s greatest triumphs. Even Bowden himself opened his postgame address by saying, “That was a great win for us.” Trailing the fourth-ranked Gators 31-3 at home after three quarters, the No. 7 ‘Noles responded with four unanswered touchdowns, capped by Rock Preston’s 4-yard run with 1:45 remaining to cut UF’s lead to 31-30. So why not go for two? “It’s been too good of a comeback to risk losing the game,” Bowden told ABC afterwards.
5. FSU 18, Nebraska 14 (Oct. 4, 1980)
At this juncture of the Bowden tenure, the Seminoles — still an independent, but coming off an 11-1 season — had evolved into the team no one wanted to play. By contrast, Bowden was willing to face anyone, at any place, to elevate his program’s stature. This victory against the No. 3 Cornhuskers, before a Memorial Stadium crowd of 76,152, essentially stamped the ‘Noles as a national power. Bowden’s team would finish 10-2 and earn the program’s highest season-ending national ranking (fifth) to date.
4. FSU 37, Florida 9 (Dec. 3, 1977)
The ‘Noles were a national afterthought and Gators patsy before this stunning romp in Gainesville, which forever transformed this rivalry’s narrative. Loser of nine in a row to the Gators, FSU’s two quarterbacks — Wally Woodham and Jimmy Jordan — dissected Florida’s secondary for 344 yards, and its defense held UF to three field goals. The victory would be the first of four in a row for the Seminoles in the series.
3. FSU 33, Florida 21 (Nov. 27, 1993)
The Gators were 23-0 at home under Steve Spurrier when Bowden arrived with one of his most stacked teams ever. Before what was then a state-record crowd for a football game (85,507), the Seminoles jumped out to a 20-point lead behind eventual Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward (446 passing yards, four touchdowns). The Gators had trimmed their deficit to five when Ward lofted a third-and-10 pass over a linebacker to Warrick Dunn, who dashed down FSU’s sideline for 79-yard touchdown in the final minutes.
2. FSU 46, Virginia Tech 29, Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 2000)
At age 70, Bowden watched his team rally in the fourth quarter to clinch his second national title and his first undefeated season. Down by one entering the fourth, the Seminoles scored 18 unanswered points, sparked by backup quarterback Marcus Outzen’s 16-yard completion to Travis Minor on fourth down, setting up the go-ahead score. Peter Warrick set a bowl record with 20 points (three touchdowns and a two-point conversion).
1. FSU 18, Nebraska 16, Orange Bowl (Jan. 1, 1994)
Nearly two decades after arriving in Tallahassee, and only 10 months shy of his 65th birthday, Bowden finally captured his first national title to fill the lone void on his sprawling coaching resume. The finish was pure poetry: After watching his national title aspirations sail wide right each of the previous two years (against rival Miami), Bowden clinched his first crown on Scott Bentley’s 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds to play.
Five other memorable Bowden moments
Some of these were wins, others were triumphs of a different sort
A five-star commitment (April 1, 1949)
Bowden married the former Ann Estock (his childhood sweetheart) in the home of the Justice of the Peace of Rising Fawn, Ga., on April 1, 1949. The marriage spanned 72 years (Ann survived her husband), producing six children and nearly two-dozen grandkids.
Alabama beckons ... twice (circa 1986, 1990)
Twice in a three-year span, Bowden — Birmingham native — darn near bolted Tallahassee for the program he idolized as a kid. In fact, the job was offered to him in 1990, after ‘Bama parted ways with Bill Curry. But Bowden, then 60, stayed put. Within a decade, he won two national titles in Tallahassee.
Bowden Bowl I (Oct. 23, 1999)
When Bowden faced son Tommy (then Clemson’s coach) during the Seminoles’ undefeated 1999 season, it marked the first time in Division I-A history that a father and son met as opposing head coaches. FSU prevailed, 17-14.
The bronze Bowden (Sept. 24, 2004)
A 9-foot bronze statue of Bowden, commissioned by a pair of Seminoles boosters, was unveiled on the eve of FSU’s 41-22 win against Clemson. It stands in front of the Moore Athletics Center at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Bobby Bowden Field (Nov. 20, 2004)
Prior to a game against Florida, the Doak Campbell Stadium field was named in Bowden’s honor. Ironically, the Gators upset the No. 10 ’Noles, 20-13, in what would be Ron Zook’s last game as Gators coach.
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