Anyone familiar with Bobby Bowden’s coaching record is aware that his winning consistency was the hallmark of a remarkable career in which he seldom raised his voice in anger, was always eager to give a kid a second chance, and forever embraced his Christian faith without any backsliding.
He is a man of simple tastes, one who was happy to coach football, play golf, and stand in a pulpit somewhere on Sunday, making audiences appreciate the core values of living a forgiving and selfless life.
The box score of his professional life “runneth over” with championships, accolades, and lofty tribute. There are signature features to his life that you won’t find in the record book, however. Owing to a real estate deal that went bad, he made speeches by the hundreds in his latent years to pay off the loan and to spread the word of God.
When he spoke, Bowden walked on the light side, forever championing the effect that humor had on audiences. He had a standard fee, which was modest by most standards. The only requirement was that as part of any appearance, that he could use a state plane so that he would always be able to return home before midnight. That charter rate was very reasonable, which allowed for a number of speeches less than two hours from Tallahassee. He could return for a good night’s sleep in his own bed.
Bowden’s daily routine called for a nap after lunch. It was as much of a benchmark in his life as apple juice was for his daily breakfast. He had an indefatigability that belied his age. Once when he finished a noon speech in Atlanta, he asked for a place to take a 30-minute nap before driving to Athens for a nighttime appearance. Finding a friend with a conference room in his office complex allowed Bowden to sit down in a nice leather chair, prop his feet up in an adjoining chair and get in his nap. He awoke fresh, smiling, and eager for his next assignment.
When the big money came along for coaches, it was something of a godsend but in the end, he was disappointed that he could not continue for a couple more seasons. There is nothing in the Bible that says a Christian can’t be a competitor.
In his sundown years, impatient alumni thought the game had passed him by. They forgot about his remarkable run in the eighties and nineties when his Seminole teams were ranked fifth or higher in the national polls for an incredible 14 seasons in a row.
They forgot about his two national championships and near misses for a couple more. They forgot about the 12 Atlantic Coast Conference titles he collected in his career. Only Joe Paterno of Penn State won more games with Bowden ranked second all-time.
One of the most refreshing vignettes in his career was his emotional attachment to his first-team at South Georgia College in Douglas. That was his initial head coaching assignment. He was also athletic director, basketball coach, and baseball coach.
Of all the teams he coached, the 1956-58 South Georgia teams were, perhaps, his favorite. The players began a reunion in 1972 when he played in his first bowl game, the Peach, in Atlanta. Bowden never missed one, even this past spring, before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He told one of his players on that team, Vernon Brinson, who is a Georgia graduate, that he wanted to attend the reunion.
The group, which has dwindled down to less than a dozen met in Douglas in July. Even though it is only 112 miles from Tallahassee to Douglas, Brinson chartered a plane to pick up the coach and his wife Ann and flew them to Douglas for the weekend. He and the Tiger alumni had, as usual, a joyful time. Among the highlights was going to the football field walking around the premises and reminiscing.
“He was his old self,” Brinson said, “smiling, laughing, telling stories and making everybody feel good.” When Bowden was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, Brinson bought a banquet table and hosted several members of the South Georgia contingent to be present for Bowden to receive high honor. For the genial Seminole coach, that gesture was as significant as the induction ceremony itself.
Of all the coaches, I have become associated with over the years, I don’t think I have ever known one to be more benevolent, less self-centered, and having lived a cleaner life than this man.
Slap him in the face, slam the door on his thumb and you would not get a word of profanity. Likely he would winch and say, “Dadgum,” his favorite expression. He is one of the very few coaches who has never tasted alcohol—not even a champagne toast when one of his teams won the national championship.
Bobby Bowden has always preached what he practiced.