Bowden ends dadgum fine run
By: ANDY GARDINER
Bobby Bowden ended one of the most glorious coaching careers in college football Tuesday when he stepped down as head man at Florida State in a bittersweet parting that came a year earlier than he preferred and with his program no longer one of the nation’s elite.
Bowden, 80, had hoped to coach through next season before giving way to Jimbo Fisher, his offensive coordinator and previously named successor. But a 6-6 record extended a streak of mediocre results and led to sagging attendance and a growing sentiment among FSU supporters, inside and outside the university, that it was time to change.
Bowden, who spent 34 seasons as the Seminoles’ head coach, was working under a one-year extension of a longstanding contract that paid him $2.3 million this year and expires next month. He met with university President T.K. Wetherell and athletics director Randy Spetman on Monday and was given the opportunity to return next season in another capacity but was told he would be relieved of his coaching responsibilities after FSU’s bowl game. Bowden then will receive a $1 million lifetime achievement bonus. It was a sad final chapter for an iconic figure who has won 388 games, more than any other coach in Bowl Subdivision history except Penn State’s Joe Paterno, who has 393.
Bowden said several times that he wanted to coach one more season, but in an interview with USA TODAY two weeks ago, he sensed how this week would play out.
“Yes, I’m hurt. But I understand it,” Bowden said then from his football office. “This is the nature of the job. And if you can’t stand it, get out of it.
“What have you done for me lately? What happened in the last ballgame? That’s the only one that counts. Do I wish it wasn’t that way? Yes. Do I wish people would remember what happened 15 years ago? Yes. Are they going to do it? No.”
Florida State’s last game was a 37-10 beat-down by archrival Florida, the Seminoles’ sixth consecutive loss to a Gators program that has asserted its dominance in the state and won two national titles this decade. The Seminoles have won more than nine games once since 2000, and this year’s record was Bowden’s worst since his 5-6 mark in his first season in 1976.
FSU’s last finish in the top 10 was in 2003, and after dominating the Atlantic Coast Conference for a decade, the Seminoles are 15-16 in conference games the last four years. Bowden’s final decade was marked by the loss of key assistants to head coaching jobs and a string of lackluster recruiting classes as Florida coach Urban Meyer began attracting the top in-state players.
In 2008, an NCAA investigation into an academic cheating scandal that included 10 sports, including football, led to sanctions that included stripping Bowden of 14 victories, a decision the school is appealing.
“He had a wonderful run, and I hope he’s at peace going out now. . . . But we’re in a profession that’s based on performance,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who battled Bowden for 12 years as head coach at Florida. “If you’re not doing very well, the next guy comes in and gets the chance. I guess the question is, ‘Have you earned the right to stay as long as you want?’ “
Many former players believed Bowden had done just that.
Quarterback Chris Weinke led the Seminoles to the 1999 national championship and won the 2000 Heisman Trophy. He thought Bowden deserved a better ending.
“He was known as the riverboat gambler, and I hoped he had one more trick up his sleeve and the announcement today would be that he’s coming back,” Weinke said.
“I think I speak for all former players that nobody wanted to see Coach Bowden go out like this. To have it go down like this is a bad feeling.”
Three-year starter Clay Ingram agrees.
“Your head says things will probably get better when he is gone, but how do you force that guy out?” asked Ingram, a long snapper from 1996 to 1999 who played in three national title games. “I talked with some of the guys on the ’99 team, and I think it’s kind of a consensus that he shouldn’t be forced out.
“That place is a tribute to him. Without him, these years wouldn’t be called down years.”
Bowden led FSU through an unprecedented stretch of success from 1987 to 2000, finishing in the top five of the Associated Press final poll for 14 consecutive seasons and winning national titles in 1993 and 1999. He coached two Heisman Trophy winners, Weinke and Charlie Ward, and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle.
In 34 seasons in Tallahassee, Bowden went 315-97-4 and took Florida State to 31 bowl games, including each of the last 28 seasons. The capacity at Doak Campbell Stadium grew from 40,500 seats to 82,300, and the field was named in his honor in 2004. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame along with Paterno in 2006.
Those are the things that constitute Bowden’s legacy, Spurrier said, not simply the last decade.
“Without question, he will go down in the history books as one of the great all-time coaches,” Spurrier said. “To finish in the top five 14 straight years means there was one game that knocked him out of the national championship game.
“He’s one of the unluckiest coaches around. If they get 50% of the breaks in some of the games, they win six, seven, eight national championships. His teams were that great through the ’90s and early 2000.”
Bowden began his 44-year head coaching career in 1959 at his alma mater, tiny Howard College (now Samford) in Birmingham, Ala. He went 31-6 in four seasons before spending six years at West Virginia, going 42-26 with two bowl appearances.
But Bowden made his lasting mark after taking over a Florida State program that had plunged from mediocre to miserable. The Seminoles had gone 4-29 under two coaches the previous three seasons. They were a non-factor on the national stage and an orphan in their own region where they competed as an independent, overshadowed in state by Florida and Miami.
Bowden’s only losing season in Tallahassee was his first. In his early years he scheduled games at LSU, Nebraska, Ohio State and Notre Dame in an effort to raise the Seminoles’ profile.
Florida State became a perennial contender for the national championship, a program known for speed, athleticism and defense.
“Bobby has been a tough competitor,” said Paterno, who went against Bowden eight times, the last being a 26-23 three-overtime victory in the 2006 Orange Bowl. “He has meant an awful lot to the universities he coached and to the game of football.”
Bowden also sent a stream of top talent to the NFL. Among the future all-pros who honed their skills at FSU were Deion Sanders, Warrick Dunn, Anquan Boldin, Peter Boulware and Walter Jones. On the opening day of the 2008 season, 37 of Bowden’s former players were on NFL rosters.
Despite the breadth of his success, Bowden had few enemies. He is a deeply religious man; his unfailingly generous personality made him a revered figure.
“Many would consider (Bowden) the greatest coach in the history of the college game,” said Mark Richt, who was FSU’s offensive coordinator before becoming Georgia’s head coach in 2001. “I can only imagine how many lives have been impacted by him in a positive way. Other than my father, he’s been the most influential man in my life.”
Weinke, who played seven seasons in the NFL, said Bowden’s influence went far beyond his football acumen.
“It boils down to not even how he coached, but the person he is,” Weinke said. “It starts when you’re first recruited and get a chance to be around him.
“He’s just a class act. He really wants to get kids in there and develop them into young men. I think he’s looked at more as a mentor and father figure than any other coach in the country.”
ACC Commissioner John Swofford called Bowden a legendary figure. “There will be very few who will ever win as many games, but more impressive are his values and the impact he has had on those that have played for him and those that have had the privilege of working with him,” he said. “Few people have meant as much to college football.”
Bowden will coach FSU in its bowl game, which could turn out to be the Gator Bowl against his former school, West Virginia, on New Year’s Day.
“Nothing lasts forever, does it?” Bowden said Tuesday. “But I’ve had some wonderful years here at Florida State, you know it? Hadn’t done as good lately as I wish I could have, but I’ve had wonderful years, no regrets.
“We (he and Ann, his wife of 60 years) are going to be happy. But now I have to go out and get a job. I haven’t had a job in 55 years.”
Contributing: Jack Carey, Kelly Whiteside, Steve Wieberg, Pensacola (Fla.) News-Journal, Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat
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