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The records are important, but Bobby Bowden’s heart mattered more

John Romano | The FSU coach leaves behind a win-loss record nearly unmatched in college football, but his legacy of kindness is what we will remember most.
Generations of fans have felt the same way about Bobby Bowden, who passed away Sunday at age 91. The Florida State coach won two national championships but was almost as well known for his downhome personality.
Generations of fans have felt the same way about Bobby Bowden, who passed away Sunday at age 91. The Florida State coach won two national championships but was almost as well known for his downhome personality. [ PHIL G. SEARS | Associated Press (2013) ]
Published Aug. 8, 2021
Updated Aug. 8, 2021

Do you know how many wins Bobby Bowden has in the record books?

Until an hour ago, I did not.

Perhaps that is a failing on my part. Or maybe it is just a clue to the wonder of Bowden, who passed away early Sunday morning.

Coaches come and go, and football programs rise and fall. In the end, it is how we typically define greatness.

Where was the program before a coach arrived, and where did it go when he departed? We count victories, we count championships, we count the number of stars a program produces.

Yet, with Bowden, we tended to count the smiles and hugs. The laughter and anecdotes.

Standing on an upper deck just outside his office in Doak Campbell Stadium, Florida State University coach Bobby Bowden looks out on the field that bears his name.
Standing on an upper deck just outside his office in Doak Campbell Stadium, Florida State University coach Bobby Bowden looks out on the field that bears his name. [ Tribune News Service (2009) ]

Yes, he won two national championships at Florida State and, depending on how you compile the numbers, is somewhere in the top four college coaches of all-time in number of victories. By any measure imaginable, he is among the greatest to have walked a college sideline.

But that’s not why you’re feeling wistful this morning.

Losing Bobby Bowden feels like losing a friend, even if you never met the man. He wasn’t larger-than-life like Bear Bryant. He wasn’t stoic like Tom Osborne. He wasn’t mischievous like Steve Spurrier and he wasn’t single-minded like Nick Saban.

Bowden was a small-town kind of guy who happened to win with big-time regularity.

Related: 10 greatest triumphs of Bobby Bowden’s coaching career

Instead of records and awards, we talk about how he would charm mothers and fathers when he was on the recruiting trail, or how he was such a hit on the banquet circuit in off-seasons. When I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago about a humorous first meeting with Bowden, my in-box filled with emails from people who had similar run-ins with the coach in parking lots, diners and just about anywhere else.

The accumulation of those kind of stories helped create the legend of Bowden as a folksy cherub in a profession of steel-eyed men.

But, in a small way, that narrative is a disservice to Bowden’s skill as a coach.

Bobby Bowden's final game as the Florida State coach in the 2010 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl set an attendance record at TIAA Bank Field that still exists, 84,219.
Bobby Bowden's final game as the Florida State coach in the 2010 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl set an attendance record at TIAA Bank Field that still exists, 84,219. [ Tribune News Service ]

Every conversation about Spurrier, for instance, begins with raves of his innovations and offensive genius. Yet when they were both at the top of their profession, Bowden’s teams finished the year with more points per game than Florida in seven out of 10 seasons in the 1990s.

FSU was using the spread formation and producing Heisman-caliber quarterbacks when a lot of coaches of Bowden’s generation were still trying to hang on with a smash-mouth mentality. He prioritized speed and he rewarded loyalty on his staff. He grew and he adapted.

In 1979, the Seminoles were 11-1 and reached the Orange Bowl. In 1989 they went 10-2 and won the Fiesta Bowl. In 1999 they were 12-0 and won the national championship at the Sugar Bowl. And in 2009, Bowden was finally winding down after 33 consecutive winning seasons that began in era of TV antennas and ended in the Internet age.

The final years may not have been as successful and, in retrospect, Bowden probably would have been better served to have walked away sooner than he did. But even as the victories grew harder to come by, Bowden never went overboard with the later-career bitterness or meltdowns that forever tainted the legacies of some other coaching legends.

Everyone in Tallahassee, it seemed, knew where he and Ann lived and his phone number was still listed back in the day when houses still had a phone book in the cupboard.

And now he is gone and it is time to put his life and career in perspective. Officially, he has 377 wins which trails only Joe Paterno in Division I, but there were 31 other wins at Howard College (now Samford University in Alabama) and a dozen more victories vacated due to academic violations at FSU. Does that make Bowden one of the top 2-3 coaches of all time?

Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden is carried off the field by players after his team won the 62nd annual Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, 31-26, in Miami.
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden is carried off the field by players after his team won the 62nd annual Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, 31-26, in Miami. [ Associated Press (1996) ]

You can argue eras, I suppose. Was it easier to win then or now? You can argue leagues. How good was the Atlantic Coast Conference when FSU was winning season after season? You can argue dominance. Do you measure success by the total trophies in on the mantel, or by the decades as a contender?

You can argue any number of ways and arrive at any number of answers.

But you cannot argue kindness. You cannot argue integrity and decency. You cannot argue faith.

In my mind, Bobby Bowden beats them all by a heartbeat.

A precious, enormous, love-filled heart.

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

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