Bobby Bowden lived his life with three guiding principles: Faith, family and football.
The longtime college football coach may have been known across the country for winning two national championships and 377 games, including 314 of them at Florida State from 1976-2009. But the eulogies delivered at the service on Saturday focused almost entirely on how his faith led him in life as well as how much he valued his family — and that included the thousands of players he coached.
More than 300 players and coaches were among the crowd of about 2,500 who returned to the Donald L. Tucker Center to remember Bowden, who died on Sunday at 91 of pancreatic cancer. The two-hour service featured a variety of speakers giving eulogies, including sons Tommy and Terry Bowden as well as daughter Ginger Bowden Madden. Longtime Florida State assistants Mark Richt and Mickey Andrews also spoke as well as players like Bobby Butler, Charlie Ward, Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks.
“Looking back coach Bowden saw something in me that no one else saw,” said Dunn, who played at Florida State from 1993-96. “He believed in me and that’s a powerful thing for an 18-year-old that is just trying to figure out life. Coach was the kind of man that used his faith and wisdom to shape boys into men.”
Dunn was like many players, recalling Bowden’s open-door policy. But he reflected on the life lessons that Bowden handed down as Dunn tried to be a father figure for his younger siblings following the death of his mom, Betty Smothers, back home in Baton Rouge, La. Dunn said he was also promised a chance to play running back when every other coach wanted him to play defensive back.
He had three 1,000-yard seasons at Florida State and went on to play in the NFL from 1997-2008. Bowden was right that Dunn was a running back. But Dunn also reminded that Bowden had a chance to mold men at a young age and that three of his players — Derrick Brooks, Anquan Boldin and himself — won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for their community service.
“He showed up for me at one of the most difficult times in my life and I’m forever grateful for that,” Dunn said. “But I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for coach. I’m thankful for the role he played in my life.”
It was another one-on-one meeting in Bowden’s office that shaped Brooks’ life. It wasn’t because of how he was performing on the field as a freshman but instead in the classroom as Brooks earned a C in a Biology class after never receiving a C in high school. Bowden circled the transcript and challenged him.
“Little did I know coach Bowden had my mom on speakerphone,” Brooks recalled to laughter from the crowd. His mom chewed him out in the phone and threatened to come to Tallahassee and straighten her son out. Bowden insisted that he had it covered.
“From that moment there, it just made me fall in love with him because he made that commitment to my parents, sitting in our front room in Pensacola, Fla., that he would not let me do anything below my potential,” Brooks said. “It had nothing to do with what I was doing on the football field. It was all about what I was doing in the classroom. And I’m glad to tell you that my mom only came here for games.”
Former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who is now at Texas A&M, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and South Florida coach Jeff Scott were among the current head coaches who also returned. Jeff’s father, Brad, was an assistant coach at Florida State from 1983-93. Fisher played for Terry Bowden at Salem College and then Samford in the 1980s before joining Bowden’s staff in 2007.
“He’s one of a kind,” Fisher said. “How many times in the world can you say this about a man: Every time you talk to him, you learn something and you laughed. And you knew what he stood for with his relationship with God and where he’s at. He was the epitome of the example of what a coach should be, a mentor, a guy of leadership.”
Bowden’s players have told stories throughout the week of what he meant to them. Those stories weren’t about a win, even through there were plenty, and it wasn’t about chasing a title. They were lessons that could be applied to football but also focused on faith and family, the three points of the “Bowden Dynasty” documentary that was released in 2017. And those life lessons live on today as a sizable number of his players are college or high school coaches.
“The things I learned from him I’m instilling now,” said Ole Miss assistant coach Terrell Buckley, who played at Florida State from 1989-91 before enjoying a 14-year NFL career. “I’m implementing on and off the field: coaching styles, techniques, how do you handle certain situations. It all comes down to the leadership of coach Bowden. Great coach. Even better person. Great Christian and a true leader. A true leader of people, not just men but of people.”
Said Ward: “We know he is in a better place but his legacy will live on through all of us that he has touched while here on Earth. His why was to be an ambassador for Christ.”
Often on Saturday, speakers used self-deprecating humor to relay stories from their time spent with Bowden. One was by Richt, who spent 15 years as an assistant coach at Florida State. In the middle of the 1992 season, he was called into Bowden’s office. Ward began the year throwing too many interceptions.
“He says, ‘Charlie has been throwing a lot of interceptions this season. I just want to know is that his fault, is that my fault or is that your fault?’ ” Richt recalled to laughter from the crowd. “I said, ‘I will get that straight, coach. It’s my fault.’ “
Richt and the coaching staff got the message and got it straight. Ward in the shotgun was part of the answer, and the Fast Break Offense proved tough to slow down. And the following year, the Seminoles won their first national title.
The service also included The FAMU Gospel Choir, which sang a powerful version of “I can only imagine.” At the close of the service the Marching Chiefs entered on the floor of the arena, giving FSU fans a final chance to chop and do the war chant for Bowden.