Sports

Bowden leaves a legacy unmatched in college football

Editor's note: Jeff Price is a longtime Florida State fan who has worked at The State since 2005.

MY FAVORITE MEMORY of Florida State coach Bobby Bowden came in 2003. I was a young journalist, working in the Miami bureau of The Associated Press.

I needed perspective for a profile on Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger, so I called Bowden, who was a rival of Schnellenberger in the 1980s. It was after 5 p.m., and I expected the perpetually busy Bowden to return a call next week whenever he could fit me in.

When I rang Bowden's secretary, she put me on hold. Several seconds later, a man with a central Alabama drawl picked up:

"Hello?"

"Um ... Coach?"

"Yeah! How you doin' there, buddy?"

"Uh, good, Coach. I, uh, wanted to talk to you about coach Schnellenberger."

"Sure, buddy, I got a couple minutes."

Those couple of minutes turned into a solid 15-minute interview that made my story.

To me, it's that accessibility, that every-man aspect about coach Bowden, that will endure more than his wins, his championships or even his statue outside Doak Campbell Stadium.

Even in defeat, Bowden had a quip; in victory, a self-deprecating remark. That even-keel approach kept FSU on top of the college football world for more than a decade - 14 consecutive top-five finishes in the AP media poll - and helped ingratiate himself to a generation of fans whether they bled garnet and gold or not. He was loyal to his coaches, his players and his fans.

"Everyone's first name was Buddy," former Jacksonville Seminole Club president Keith Howell told the Florida Times-Union recently. "You would speak to him, and even if you had never met him before, he made you feel like he'd known you for years. He was so personable."

Bowden's demeanor made him a formidable recruiter. That was the lifeblood of the Seminoles' run in the '90's. He wooed family and recruit alike with his down-home charm and the trust he exuded.

That charm also helped Bowden stay ahead of any predicaments his program found itself in - be it any number of player arrests, NCAA scrapes or preferential coaching hires. His ability to sidestep any misgivings kept many fans on his side despite FSU's slide in recent years - a downturn that would have cost most coaches their job.

By the start of his third decade with the team, Bowden was more salesman and pitchman than a darkroom coach focused on X's and O's. But his loyalty served him well as he surrounded himself with the best assistant coaches (Mark Richt, Micky Andrews and Chuck Amato, to name a few) money could buy. But it is a dramatic irony in Bowden's legacy that his loyalty to later assistant coaches - most notably to his son and former FSU offensive coordinator Jeff - would play a large part in his public and private downfall.

Bowden survived it all, but the weariness began to show on his weathered face in recent seasons - speaking loudly about a longevity that most modern-era coaches will neither attain nor strive for.

Bowden's 388 wins (second to longtime friend and rival Joe Paterno and ahead of Bowden's idol, Bear Bryant) will place him firmly in any critic's top-five coaches list. But what he has done at FSU - which did not start its football program until 1948 - merits special consideration.

The Seminoles are the only program born after World War II (1947) to win the national title.

The 'Noles were close to shutting down the program when Bowden arrived in 1976; 23 years later, they were winning their second national title.

Think of this season, as Boise State and TCU were all but ruled out of any serious national title talk, and that paints a picture of where FSU came from when Bowden took over.

Author Geoffrey Norman defined Bowden's legacy succinctly in an article for ESPN.com's Page 2 in 2001: "Bryant and Paterno did their best work at universities that were already great football powers. They took their programs to the mountaintop, certainly, but they started from a base camp that was pretty well up there. Bobby Bowden did his best work at FSU, after taking over a program that had gone 0-11, 1-10, and 3-8 in the three seasons before he arrived."

Now Bowden will leave Florida State after this year's Gator Bowl with his program struggling to find the mountain, let alone the peak. But while the program can be rebuilt, Bowden's legacy, and his charm, can never be replaced.

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