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How Bobby Bowden’s legacy lives on at FSU, USF and elsewhere, from philosophies to note cards

A Bobby Bowden pep talk before the Wide Right game inspired USF’s Jeff Scott to become a coach.
FSU legend Bobby Bowden's influence is still seen, and felt, all over college football, even after his death at age 91.
FSU legend Bobby Bowden's influence is still seen, and felt, all over college football, even after his death at age 91.
Published Aug. 13, 2021|Updated Aug. 14, 2021

TAMPA — As the son of a Florida State assistant during the Bobby Bowden dynasty, USF coach Jeff Scott had an inside look at some of the moments that shaped college football history.

And his own life.

The biggest of them all came in 1991: No. 1 FSU vs. No. 2 Miami.

Scott, a month shy of his 11th birthday, squeezed into Seminoles quarterback Charlie Ward’s old metal locker. You could hear the Doak Campbell Stadium crowd buzzing outside when Bowden walked in. He told his team, Scott recalls:

Relax. I want you guys to know there’s nothing you can do in this game — good or bad — that’s going to make me love you any more or less than I do today. Just know that. Let’s go out here and have some fun.

“Even at 11 years old, I was like, ‘That’s awesome,’” Scott said this week. “That’s what I want to do.”

It didn’t matter that FSU lost 17-16 on a field goal that infamously flew wide right. Scott was hooked. He saw the way the Seminoles looked at their leader, how he commanded respect without saying much and coached more than football. Scott wanted that, too.

Scott, like a generation of coaches before and after him, wanted to be like Bobby Bowden.

Related: ‘Coach Bowden is irreplaceable.’ USF, Gators reflect on the FSU legend’s legacy.

As fans, former players and assistants gather in Tallahassee on Saturday to remember Bowden — who died Sunday at age 91 — the most fitting tributes are the ones taking place at practice fields and in locker rooms across the state and country.

Look closely enough, and you’ll see them every Saturday this fall.

Jeff Scott wouldn't be the head coach at USF without the inspiration he got from Bobby Bowden's Seminoles.
Jeff Scott wouldn't be the head coach at USF without the inspiration he got from Bobby Bowden's Seminoles. [ Times (2020) ]

• • •

Though Bowden never revolutionized the game with a new formation or system, he didn’t become one of the winningest coaches in college football history by accident.

“An innovator in the game,” Gators coach Dan Mullen called him.

Bowden’s most well-known innovation was the Fast Break Offense, which spread the field with three or four receivers, a mobile quarterback (Ward) in the shotgun and a no-huddle pace. All staples of the modern game.

Bowden loved the fakes and deceptions that are everywhere now with zone-read rushes and run-pass options. He built his rosters with Florida speed over brute strength, just like many of today’s state teams.

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach loved watching Bowden’s pass-happy offenses growing up and got to stop by some of FSU’s practices when he worked at Valdosta State. Bowden, then, probably had some indirect influence on Leach’s Air Raid system —one of the most prolific passing attacks in football history.

Bobby Bowden remains an enormous influence on Jimbo Fisher.
Bobby Bowden remains an enormous influence on Jimbo Fisher. [ Times (2008) ]

Bowden’s Seminoles successor, Jimbo Fisher, modeled his program-building approach at FSU and now Texas A&M after another mentor, Nick Saban. But the offensive philosophies that have made him one of the best coaches in the country? Those “still reside with Coach Bowden,” Fisher said.

Related: Why FSU legend Bobby Bowden still means so much to Jimbo Fisher

Bowden’s biggest lasting impact on the game, however, isn’t the plays he ran, or even how he ran them. It’s everything else.

“He,” FSU coach Mike Norvell told Tallahassee reporters Sunday, “changed coaching.”

• • •

Before Bowden, the archetype of a college football coach was a hard-nosed authoritarian. That’s what you had to be to win, until Bowden started showing otherwise. He was tough, like his peers, but it was tough love.

“He truly lived by the standard of faith, family and football,” former FSU linebacker Ernie Sims said, echoing every other former Bowden player this week.

Sims saw the way Bowden expressed his faith. He saw how he cared about his players by asking about their families. By living those first two standards, Bowden was able to have enormous success in the third.

Sims keeps that in mind, and those principles in order, as he starts his first season coaching USF’s linebackers. He teaches his players to align themselves with their faith and remember that family is everything. Then they can focus on the field.

USF linebackers coach Ernie Sims has modeled his coaching style after FSU legend Bobby Bowden.
USF linebackers coach Ernie Sims has modeled his coaching style after FSU legend Bobby Bowden. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“It all stems from my experiences there with Coach Bobby Bowden,” Sims said.

FSU receivers coach Ron Dugans feels the same way.

Dugans, a receiver on FSU’s 1999 national title team, said Bowden didn’t only influence his decision to be a coach. He influenced the type of coach he wanted to become.

Related: Bobby Bowden’s last words to Derrick Brooks: Keep doing goodwill, and hug your babies

“A coach who’s just going to coach guys up, a coach that’s going to teach?” Dugans told Tallahassee reporters Sunday. “Or a coach that’s going to inspire, a coach that’s going to love their kids, a coach that’s going to show those kids how to be a great husband, how to be a great father? That’s what Coach Bowden inspired to myself.”

• • •

Bowden inspired his profession in other, less obvious ways, like how he treated his staff. He was not a tyrannical micromanager.

“He hired you to do a job,” former Bowden assistant Brad Scott said, “and then he allowed you to do it.”

Brad Scott was an FSU assistant under Bobby Bowden.
Brad Scott was an FSU assistant under Bobby Bowden. [ COALE, PHIL | AP (1993) ]

Which means he was an early version of the CEO-style head coach Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is now. And the same kind Brad Scott’s son, Jeff, is trying to be at USF.

As a kid, Scott went to school a few hundred yards from FSU and sprinted across the PE fields to watch practice every day. He saw how Bowden ran his program, disciplining athletes when they needed it while treating them with respect — as people, not players.

“I see that in Jeff,” said Brad Scott, now USF’s football chief of staff. “... He’s bringing a little bit of the Bobby Bowden way with him to South Florida.”

Related: The time USF coach Jeff Scott tackled Tulane’s mascot, Gumby

Scott can’t help it. His formative football years were spent immersed in every aspect of the Bowden Way, so it’s impossible to untangle every bit of the FSU legend’s influence or inspiration.

“There’s probably things that I don’t even recognize,” Scott said.

This week, he found one of them unexpectedly.

After Bowden’s death Sunday, Scott and his dad started watching an in-depth video of the 1986 ‘Noles. During practice footage, Scott noticed Bowden holding a note card — a small one, easily foldable, that looks almost like a ledger.

It seemed familiar. Scott reached into his pocket, pulled something out and looked down.

“So that’s where we got these from.”

• • •

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