TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Bobby Bowden isn’t sure what his emotions will be like Saturday when he steps on to the field that bears his name for the first time in nearly four years and hears 83,000 fans cheering for him.
But Florida State’s legendary football coach knows what will happen when he sees hundreds of his former players on the field to welcome him before the Seminoles’ game against North Carolina State.
“I get very emotional when I see my former players,” Bowden said. “I think I can handle the rest of it.”
Bowden won 377 games in his college coaching career, including 316 from 1976-2009 as Florida State’s coach. No coach in major college football won more games than Bowden, who guided the Seminoles to national titles in 1993 and ’99 as well as enjoyed an unprecedented run of 14 straight years (1987-2000) of top-4 finishes in the Associated Press poll.
The program was in decline late in the 2000s, and Bowden was forced into retirement after the 2009 season. He was bitter about the decision, which was made by president T.K. Wetherell, once a former Florida State player in the 1960s who was coached by Bowden (then a Seminoles assistant coach).
But Wetherell retired soon after Bowden’s last game, a 33-21 win over West Virginia in the 2010 Gator Bowl. And Bowden vowed to keep his distance from his successor, Jimbo Fisher, and let him put his mark on the program. Fisher said he learned from coaching on Bowden’s staff from 2007-09.
“Coach Bowden was himself; he didn’t try to be anybody,” Fisher said. “He was himself and he treated people well. Kids loved him — he was tough on them. What you don’t see, that guy was tougher than you give him credit for. Extremely hard-nosed and tough and you don’t realize it. But, the way he conducts himself, he was a great example to watch.”
On Saturday, Bowden will walk into Doak Campbell Stadium and step on to Bobby Bowden Field for the first time since the 2009 season. Bowden will be honored at a pregame ceremony before the 3:30 p.m. kickoff with about 300 former players alongside him. And instead of Chief Osceola riding in on Renegade to plant the flaming spear at midfield before the game, Bowden will do the honors.
“I appreciate what they’re doing and I’m looking forward to it,” Bowden said.
Florida State also has planned a busy Friday of activities for Bowden. He will take part in a golf tournament in the morning with fans and boosters. And at night, a banquet will be held in his honor at the Donald L. Tucker Center.
Bowden will turn 84 on Nov. 8, but he isn’t slowing down. And Florida State fans will be seeing much more of Bowden the next few years. He has accepted a two-year deal, beginning in January 2014, to be a fundraiser for Seminole Boosters, Inc. Bowden will earn $250,000 annually to travel around the state and speak to fans and boosters.
Bowden has remained close to college football the past few years. He has traveled to see sons Terry and Jeff coach Akron. And he has criss-crossed the country speaking to student-athletes about faith and football.
He is always watching football on Saturdays. Last week, he was home watching Florida State rout Clemson 51-14.
“I watched every bit of it,” Bowden said. “I was amazed. I played up there so many times and the crowd has been so effective. I was afraid it would affect FSU too much. I was really proud of the way they played. I don’t think they could have played better. …
“If they keep playing like they did Saturday, I don’t know who will beat them.”
Bowden has coached some talented quarterbacks, including Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. In the 1990s, he also had future NFL quarterbacks like Danny Kanell, Casey Weldon and Brad Johnson.
So if anyone can appreciate quarterback play, it’s Bowden. And he’s impressed with how Jameis Winston has played in the first six games of his career. Winston has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,885 yards and 20 touchdowns.
“He plays like a senior and he’s only a freshman,” Bowden said. “It’s very impressive. That’s probably the most impressive part, his poise and demeanor in a game.
“There are a lot of great passers in football and a lot of great players in football. But how many of them can handle the distractions and the emotions of a ballgame like he does? I don’t know if I’ve seen one.”
Bowden still maintains a ballot in the Legends Poll, and this week his top 3 were Alabama, Oregon and Florida State. But he cautioned that there is still half a season left and plenty of things will change.
College football is left with the BCS for one more year before a committee will pick the teams for a four-team playoff after the 2014 season. Bowden said he was not contacted about joining the committee and said he would have declined the offer because of his bias toward Florida State and his love for Alabama (he was born and raised in Birmingham).
Bowden said he prefers the BCS setup but understands that college football is evolving.
“I like the BCS,” Bowden said. “They always got it right. They always got 1 vs. 2. Nobody cares about 3 and 4. They don’t care about 2 after they lose. I like the BCS because I’m old-fashioned. The new one (playoff) you have complaints already of who is on the committee. I don’t know how that’s going to come out.”