Bobby Bowden, one of college football’s all-time great coaches, died this morning in his Tallahassee, Florida residence, his youngest daughter, Ginger Bowden, told the Tallahassee Democrat Sunday morning.
Bowden won 316 games and two national championships during his 34 seasons coaching Florida State, but his Division I coaching career got its start at West Virginia University in 1970 where he posted a 42-26 record during his six seasons leading the Mountaineers.
The Birmingham, Alabama, native spent 10 total seasons at West Virginia, including his stint as Jim Carlen’s offensive coordinator from 1966-69. Bowden’s two oldest sons, Tommy and Terry, played collegiately for the Mountaineers, while oldest daughter, Robyn, was a WVU head cheerleader.
Bowden took the West Virginia job just days after Jim Carlen announced his resignation to coach Texas Tech following the Mountaineers’ 14-3 victory over South Carolina in the 1969 Peach Bowl.
Bowden’s first team at WVU won eight games, but he immediately drew the ire of Mountaineer fans when his team blew a 35-8 halftime lead at arch rival Pitt and lost 36-35. That loss permanently scarred Bowden, and he said it forever changed his outlook on coaching.
Whenever the subject of disappointing defeats came up, Bowden always pointed to the Pitt setback first before addressing the wide-right loss to arch-rival Miami that cost his Florida State team a shot at the national championship in 1991.
“People have asked me, ‘Coach, what is the worst game you ever played? What is the worst game? It happened right here up in Pittsburgh,” Bowden recalled in 2011. “We had them 35-8 at the half. We were killing them. Everything we did was a touchdown.
“Then we came out in the second half and I’ll tell you what happened … they changed their offense because we were beating them so bad. They took all of their wide receivers out of the game and put those big, old, fat tight ends in there and they started mashing us, and we couldn’t stop ’em. Then I played conservative. I said, ‘If we don’t make mistakes we’re going to win this game.’
“But we couldn’t stop ’em, and they crept up on us and crept up on us and they beat us,” Bowden continued. “That’s the last time I ever sat on the ball. If people ever accused me of running up the score, that’s fine with me, because I was never going to sit on it again. That’s what I learned from that game.”
Bowden received more criticism for his team’s blowout loss to NC State in the 1972 Peach Bowl, and in 1974, after going through three different quarterbacks before settling on true freshman Dan Kendra, his Mountaineer team dropped seven games, and he believed he was nearly fired.
Mischievous students hung Bowden in effigy in Woodburn Circle and also put up “For Sale” signs in his yard during that season. Bowden later called it one of the most trying seasons of his coaching career.
“Every time I’ve gone through adversity like that you start checking yourself out and saying, No. 1, can you do it? Can you fix it? Of course, when I was younger I used to always wonder if I was in the right profession,” Bowden recalled in 2004. “My first head coaching job at South Georgia, I was 25 years of age and we won our first game and then we won our second game and I’m thinking, ‘Gee whiz I might not ever lose a game. I might be the answer to this coaching profession.’
“Then, we went out the next game and got beat 60-something to 20-something, and now I’m beginning to question if I’m in the right profession. The year I was at West Virginia and we went 4-7, I lost the first- and second-team quarterbacks and I had to start a pure freshman who wasn’t even close to being ready,” Bowden explained. “But history loses all of that.”
Bowden recalled seeing the “Fire Bowden” signs around town and one big sign in a window of the student dormitory sitting on the hill right above where his office was in the old stadium.
“There was a boy’s dorm right across the street from my office, probably about a 10-story dorm, and some kid hung a big sheet out there that said, ‘Bye-bye Bobby.’ I couldn’t ever forget that. I saw it many times,” he recalled. “By that time, I had gotten used to it. I just thought it was part of the scenery.”
But Bowden rallied his football team in 1975. The Mountaineers won nine games, including big victories at California and SMU and a home upset of 20th-ranked Pitt on his 46th birthday when walk-on kicker Bill McKenzie booted a 38-yard field goal on the game’s final play to give the Mountaineers a 17-14 win.
To this day, it is still considered one of the greatest victories in school history.
Bowden concluded the 1975 season by upsetting NC State 13-10 in the Peach Bowl at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. And just as Jim Carlen had done following the 1969 Peach Bowl win, Bowden chose to leave West Virginia. He headed to Florida State to take over a moribund Seminole program that had won just four games the prior three seasons under coach Darrell Mudra.
Bowden offered all of his West Virginia assistant coaches the opportunity to go with him to Florida State, but believe it or not, some of them declined because they weren’t sure if he was going to win in Tallahassee.
However, Bowden turned out to be the right man at the right time for Florida State, nestled in what was to become a high school football hot bed as the state’s population started to explode in the late 1970s. Bowden was such a charismatic personality and recruiter that he immediately began signing some of the state’s top prospects, particularly when Florida and Miami were dealing with NCAA sanctions in the late 1970s.
After a 5-6 season at FSU in 1976, Bowden’s Seminoles won 10 games in 1977 and by 1979, he had them in the Orange Bowl. Bowden won his first national championship in 1993 following his seventh straight 10-win campaign, and he got his second NCAA title in 1999 when Florida State defeated Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl.
Bowden’s first Division I victory came at West Virginia when he defeated his old buddy Lou Holtz’s William & Mary squad 43-7 in Morgantown, and ironically, his final Division I win came against West Virginia, 33-21, in the 2010 Konica Minolta Gator Bowl.
Bowden’s Florida State teams won all three meetings against his former employer- all of them in the Gator Bowl.
Although time has healed the wounds from Bowden’s most difficult days at West Virginia – the coach frequently returning to Morgantown during his retirement years to speak at different functions – he never forgot the fickle nature of fans and used that to has advantage when he coached at Florida State.
He admitted in 2004 that there was a possibility that he might have remained at West Virginia if not for that tough ’74 season.
“I’ve always tried to be a loyal person,” he explained. “If I’m working at West Virginia University I’m going to be loyal to West Virginia University. If I’m working at Florida State University I’m going to be loyal to Florida State University.
“What I did in ’74 was I saw how quick people will turn on you. I saw how quickly friends would turn on you – how quickly people who used to invite me to their parties quit inviting me,” he said. “People who used to invite me to lunch quit inviting me. I knew right after that happened, I remember saying to (wife) Ann, ‘If you and I ever get a chance to leave here, not that we are, but we have every right in the world to because people are fickle, and this is a fickle profession.'”
Bowden was inducted into the West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame in 2015, and he willingly returned to WVU on many different occasions for team reunions and University-sponsored events.
One such occasion occurred in 2011, a year after his Florida State retirement, to speak at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ function in Morgantown. The late Bill Stewart also invited Bowden to speak to his West Virginia football team.
The effervescent Bowden imparted some of his wisdom on the Mountaineer players and coaches that afternoon.
“The last time I addressed a West Virginia football team was in 1975; that was my last year here,” Bowden began. “Some of the things I’ve always talked to my football team about is all you need to think about is doing the best that you can do. You can’t do any better than that.
“You can’t worry about ‘are we going to win?’ You can’t worry about ‘are we going to lose?’ All you can think about is doing the very best that you can do,” he explained. “Prepare yourself to do the best that you can do.”
He continued, “Another thing I always talked about to my boys here at West Virginia and my boys down at Florida State is do not repeat mistakes,” he said. “Coaches are serious about that. Everybody is going to make a mistake, but you don’t want the guy that just keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over. He can’t play for you, and he’s not going to win for you.
“What I told my players was as a coach, No. 1, I wanted them to be the best players they could be,” he said. “No. 2, I wanted them to be the best students they could be. Don’t neglect those grades now because football can be taken away from you just like that. You can be playing football today and be out tomorrow, but that education, it goes to the grave with you so be sure to concentrate on making good grades. And, I want my boys when they leave to be spiritually better; I want them to have faith and trust.”
Decades after leaving West Virginia University, Bowden’s impact can still be felt on the Morgantown campus. At his urging, WVU began exploring the construction of a new football stadium in the mid-1970s, and it eventually became a reality in 1980.
That new stadium ushered in a new era of Mountaineer football that Don Nehlen capitalized on during the 1980s. It led to West Virginia getting into the Big East Conference as a full-fledged member in 1995, and later in the Big 12 Conference in 2012.
West Virginia University president Gordon Gee, also WVU president in the early 1980s during Mountaineer football’s resurgence, reflected on the impact Bowden had on the University during his 10-year tenure in Morgantown.
“I was saddened to hear of the passing of Bobby Bowden, a true titan of collegiate football,” Gee said in a statement issued by WVU earlier today. “We believe, ‘Once a Mountaineer, always a Mountaineer,’ and that is certainly true of Coach Bowden. During his 10 years at West Virginia University, Bowden built a vibrant football program that rose to national prominence, and he laid the foundation for excellence that our coaches and student-athletes continue today. My deepest sympathies are with his wife, Ann, their six children and the entire Bowden family.”
In 2014, Bowden recalled where Mountaineer football sat in the athletic pecking order at West Virginia University when he first arrived here in 1966.
“When I got there, (West Virginia) was kind of like North Carolina and Duke with their basketball,” Bowden explained. “One thing about it, when coach Carlen went up there he kind of changed that. He got them a little bit more involved in football. We got out of the Southern Conference, where we had people we could beat. Then we started playing, gosh, Indiana, Illinois, SMU, California, Stanford and we began to spread around a little bit.
“Then, Don Nehlen came and Don did an amazing job,” Bowden added. “No. 1, he had that Michigan background. He used to coach at Michigan when he was an assistant coach, and he was used to being big-time all the way so he comes to West Virginia, he just assumes he’s going to do the same thing here. He changed the uniforms to even look like Michigan; Don is one of the best coaches ever, in my opinion.”
So was Bobby Bowden.
He is survived by his wife, Julia Ann Estock (married in 1949), his six grown children – Robyn, Steve, Tom, Terry, Jeff and Ginger – and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
He was 91.