Bobby Bowden, the folksy Florida State University coaching legend who turned the Seminoles from an irrelevant college football outpost into one of the biggest daggum dynasties the sport has ever seen, died early Sunday morning. He was 91.
His family announced last month that he had been diagnosed with a terminal condition, which his son Terry later said was pancreatic cancer. In the announcement, Mr. Bowden, a devoted Christian who publicly shared his faith throughout his career and afterward, said he was “at peace.” He died at home surrounded by Ann, his wife of 72 years, and his six children.
The Birmingham, Ala., native’s athletic career almost never got started. Mr. Bowden was bedridden with rheumatic fever for a year at age 13 but recovered and blossomed into an outstanding high school player and a small-college All-American at Howard College (now Samford University).
Mr. Bowden found his calling as a coach and was a successful one before arriving in Tallahassee. He went 42-26 as West Virginia’s coach from 1970-75 and won the Peach Bowl in his last game there.
But it wasn’t until Mr. Bowden took over FSU the next season that he became an industry icon, one whom athletic director David Coburn said “meant everything to Florida State athletics.”
Mr. Bowden meant everything to FSU because the program he inherited in Tallahassee in 1976 was nothing like the one it is today. The Seminoles were 4-29 in the four years before his arrival and had never finished a season ranked. At one point, FSU even considered dropping the sport entirely.
The turnaround started with the frank tone Mr. Bowden struck in his first, brief, team meeting. Receiver Roger Overby could tell instantly that his new coach was ready to bring discipline to a program that needed it.
“There was no doubt in my mind things would change,” Overby said.
And they did, quickly, from 5-6 in 1976 to the Seminoles’ first ever 10-win season the next fall.
In 1980, FSU finished No. 5 nationally — the highest ever by a state team — earning Mr. Bowden national coach of the year honors. That all set the stage for a dynasty unlike anything the state, or sport, has ever seen.
For 14 consecutive years from 1987-2000, Mr. Bowden’s Seminoles won at least 10 games and finished in the top five of the Associated Press poll. Not even today’s Alabama powerhouse can match that streak.
The highlights, of course, were his pair of national titles. FSU ended the 1993 season by knocking off mighty Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl to claim the Seminoles’ first championship. Six years later, FSU became the first team ever to go wire-to-wire at No. 1, topping Virginia Tech 46-29 in the Sugar Bowl for a second crown.
Mr. Bowden came close several other times, too, losing in the title game to Tennessee in the 1998 season and to Oklahoma two years later. He also started what became the longest bowl streak in NCAA history (36 years), won 12 ACC titles and compiled one of the top 40 winning percentages (.743) in Division I-A history.
Thanks in part to his willingness to play anybody, anywhere, anytime, Mr. Bowden was involved in some of the most iconic games in the history of his sport. The 1993 Game of the Century at Notre Dame. The Choke at Doak. Three Wide Rights and a Wide Left against Miami.
The rosters he assembled featured 34 first-round NFL draft picks and were loaded with a who’s-who of state superstars: former Bucs Pro Bowlers Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn, Jim Thorpe Award winners Deion Sanders and Terrell Buckley, defensive standouts Ron Simmons and Marvin Jones, and a pair of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke.
In an unstable industry, Mr. Bowden built a career that spanned generations. He was peers with Bear Bryant and Howard Schnellenberger, friends with Nick Saban and raced Joe Paterno in the NCAA record book. He coached against Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, Jimmy Johnson and Mack Brown, Tom Osborne and Dabo Swinney.
“For me,” Swinney told reporters during ACC media days, “he was the model.”
Not just because of what Mr. Bowden did but how he did it — with an unwavering faith and unmistakable Southern charm that made him beloved by players, recruits, families, rival fans and, in one memorable case, a 6-year-old stranger. When Mr. Bowden visited Brooks’ Pensacola home on a recruiting visit, Brooks’ little sister crawled into the coach’s arms and fell asleep.
His players adored him because of how he treated them, whether they were stars like Brooks or benchwarmers, as Overby was in 1977 when he approached Mr. Bowden about quitting. The Robinson High alumnus was stuck at the bottom of the receiver depth chart and recovering from a broken ankle. He had a wife and child to support. He needed to work, not work out.
Mr. Bowden asked him to stay. The conversation wasn’t about what Overby — a player with 11 career catches who was recruited by the previous staff — could do for FSU. It was all about Overby. Eventually, Mr. Bowden told him, if you keep working hard in your life, good things will happen.
“That was and still is today one of the most meaningful things that happened in my life,” Overby said.
Overby changed his mind, and Mr. Bowden was right. In the final regular-season game of his final year, Overby caught three touchdowns in a 37-9 win over the Gators that snapped a nine-game losing streak in the series and helped ignite one of the biggest rivalries in college football history.
“I had my 15 minutes of fame that’s lasted for 44 years,” Overby said. “I have no idea what would have happened if Coach Bowden wouldn’t have convinced me to stay on that team, and if things didn’t turn out the way they did.”
Mr. Bowden showed the same kind of generosity to coaches, no matter where they were in their career. When Tom Allen was starting as a high school coach in Hillsborough County, Mr. Bowden sent him a handwritten letter of encouragement. Allen is now the head coach at Indiana University. After Clemson fired his son, Tommy, in 2008, Mr. Bowden called the interim coach (Swinney) to tell him he had his family’s full support.
Mr. Bowden was coaching at West Virginia in 1973 when he heard about the death of Nick Saban’s father. Mr. Bowden didn’t know Saban, a West Virginia native who was then a graduate assistant at Kent State, but he heard that his might have been struggling. So he offered Saban a spot on his staff if he needed to be closer to his mom.
“How many coaches would do that?” Saban asked in a statement Sunday. “How many people would do that?”
Mr. Bowden’s success transcended FSU; he spurned opportunities at Alabama and elsewhere to turn turn the state into a college football juggernaut. Before Mr. Bowden’s arrival, none of the state’s Big Three (FSU, Miami and Florida) had ever even finished in the top five. From 1983-2013, they combined to win 11 national championships. And they might have won more, too, had they not beaten each other up; FSU’s Wide Right II loss to Miami was the Seminoles’ only defeat in 1992.
“Coach Bowden built a football dynasty and raised the national profile of Florida State University,” FSU president John Thrasher said Sunday, “and he did it with class and a sense of humor.”
Mr. Bowden’s 34 seasons at FSU were not all pristine. The Seminoles vacated a dozen wins from 2006-07 because of an academic fraud scandal involving 61 athletes across multiple sports. The penalty knocked Mr. Bowden down to 377 wins — the second-most in Division I-A history, behind Penn State’s Paterno.
Mr. Bowden and his program were criticized for players’ off-field conduct, including a Foot Locker scandal that led Spurrier to call his rival program “Free Shoes University.” Mr. Bowden famously said he was praying for a misdemeanor, not a felony, so superstar Peter Warrick could continue playing despite a theft charge in 1999.
Although FSU continued to have winning seasons and make bowl games, the Seminoles slid in Mr. Bowden’s final years. FSU finished unranked in three of his final four seasons (2006-07, 2009) and failed to reach 10 wins in any of his final six years.
The decline led the Seminoles to force him out before he could coach the 2010 season. FSU replaced him with assistant Jimbo Fisher, who led FSU to the 2013 national title with Jameis Winston.
Even then, Fisher credited his mentor for FSU’s success — the foundation Mr. Bowden built in Tallahassee and the way he stayed away from the program to let it regrow away from his shadow.
“He’s as good a man as has ever walked the sideline in college football,” Fisher said the morning after that BCS title game.
Mr. Bowden returned to the program later in life. In 2013, he went back to the stadium for the first time since his exit. He was at Willie Taggart’s debut in 2018 and appeared with coach Mike Norvell not long after he was hired from Memphis.
“Coach Bowden was one of the greatest coaches ever, but more than that he was an incredible man,” Norvell said Sunday. “He was a special human being who earned an enduring legacy because of his wonderful heart, faith and values he lived.
“It was the honor of my lifetime to know him and beyond anything I could dream to have a relationship with him.”
Mr. Bowden’s legacy lives on at FSU and in the sport. His venerable coaching tree includes Fisher (Texas A&M), Manny Diaz (Miami), Kirby Smart (Georgia) and Skip Holtz (Louisiana Tech), plus former Georgia/Miami coach Mark Richt. Two of Mr. Bowden’s sons became head coaches: Terry (now at Louisiana Monroe) and Tommy (formerly of Tulane and Clemson).
In 2004, FSU placed a bronze statue of him in front of the Moore Athletics Center and renamed the field at Doak Campbell Stadium in Bowden’s honor.
Two years later, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis made Mr. Bowden the first recipient of the state’s medal of freedom.
Mr. Bowden is survived by his wife, six children, 19 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. He will lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda in Tallahassee on Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at FSU’s Moore Athletic Center from 2-7 p.m. in a public memorial.
A public funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Tallahassee’s Tucker Civic Center before he is buried in Alabama in a family-only service. In lieu of flowers, his family requests charitable donations to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (8701 Leeds Road, Kansas City, MO 64129).
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