Column: Bowden was always coaching us (and not just football)

The inevitable but still dreaded news came today. “Former Florida State head football coach Bobby Bowden passed away at 5:08 a.m. today (Sunday, August 8) at home surrounded by his wife, Ann, and all six of their children.”  

The outpouring of thoughts of former players Sunday made this the most difficult assignment I’ve had as a reporter, tougher than any tearful locker room after a loss to an archrival. And yet this assignment was also the most joyous.

Osceola editor Bob Ferrante asked me to write about my experiences with Coach Bowden as publisher of the Osceola, since it’s founding in 1982, so here are my thoughts and the thoughts of a few of the many people impacted by him.

Like many of you, I admire Bobby Bowden as a football coach and as a man very much. But I have to admit, I had my doubts when he was named as our football coach in 1976. I had just finished college when FSU named the folksy Bowden, and this Miami-raised boy found him a tad “too country,” as if that’s possible in Tallahassee, Fla. As a Catholic school boy, I also wondered about the sincerity of his open expression of his Baptist faith, something I would soon learn was the fabric of his being and the subject of this story.

Back in the late 1970s I saw FSU’s new football coach was scheduled to be the guest speaker at an Easter Sunrise Service. Of all places, it was to be held at Sea World in the Shamu theatre. Rather than going to Mass, my wife and I made the pre-dawn drive to hear his message, which he delivered from an altar erected over the whale’s tank.

His message was about football and life; not an unexpected subject from a football coach. The Easter message was profound, the delivery Bowdenesque, but it was the reaction of the crowd – me included – that was a preview of things to come at Florida State.

A few years after we started Osceola, I receive a phone call from Bobby’s long-time assistant Sue Hall, who has continued to serve Bobby and Ann since. They wanted to invite me to observe, but not write about, a team meeting Bowden had arranged with his friend Billy Graham, who was on Crusade in Tallahassee. I have an idea Sue and or Bobby thought I needed saving and God knows they were right. 

Bowden introduced Graham as a historic figure, a man who had counseled numerous presidents and was invited to Moscow during the Cold War. Graham didn’t give a speech. He simply took and answered the players’ questions, which were far-reaching.

The meeting and Graham’s simple responses to complex questions spoke to me that day.

I had the opportunity to hear Bowden speak thousands of times — at press conferences, at Monday luncheons, on the Seminole Booster Tour stops and at numerous churches. If Bowden was anything, he was sincere and funny. If the guy hadn’t been a football coach, he could have made a living in stand-up comedy. But that’s a story I promise for a more appropriate day. 

As bright as his faith was at the pulpit, his light shined every day when he walked from behind the pulpit and into life. You’ve witnessed his walk, how he served others ahead of himself. How he walked the walk better than any man I have known. Countless are the hours he spent with the media that other coaches wouldn’t take. Countless are the times he’d stop to sign an autograph or share a few kind words with someone who couldn’t possibly be of help to him.

While Bowden and many of the players quoted in this story are Christians, it was Bobby’s walk that spokes volumes to people of all faiths. Whether you were Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, or any other faith, the way he lived his life was a universal language to us all. 

When recruiting a player he made a promise to their parents that he would take the player to their church, not his, and encourage the player to participate in the family’s traditional faith.

Bowden would open his staff meetings with a devotional. The responsibility rotated around the conference table. You were free to present inspiration from your faith or if you were not comfortable talking about faith, you could offer up another motivational or inspirational message. Sometimes, a staff member would simply share something happening in their life, a marital issue or celebration, they wanted to talk about. 

Those “devotionals” or “sharings” were the glue that bound a staff into a family.

“Coach Bowden had more influence on me than any other man except my father,” said former defensive ends coach Jim Gladden. “You learn more from him by watching him. He was the kindest man I have ever met and the most considerate. That’s not to say he wasn’t tough because he was a strict disciplinarian and very structured but he was also a person who would frequently ask, ‘Have you called your mother today? You know you only have one.’ He built a family atmosphere.”

The phone rang early this morning. It was former FSU running back Sammie Smith, who was the beneficiary of Bowden’s walk long after his playing days were over and when Smith needed it most.

“To hear the news this morning, I was selfishly sad,” Smith said. “I was saddened of course that he is gone but selfishly I was saddened that I didn’t get to hold his hand one last time, to sit with him and pray with him and tell him once again how much I love him and how influential and impactful he has been in my life. But at the same time I had a sense of joy because I know where he is at. He is resting with our Lord and Savior right now. I know that. I believe that he is in a much better place. He is not suffering. He is good. It is well. I take joy in that.” 

You cannot talk about Bobby Bowden without the words faith, family and football. Those were his priorities, in that order, and are reflected in the comments shared by the people who knew him the best.

“Very emotional reaction to the news despite the certainty that it is was coming. I was very blessed to have worked with him. His priorities were always very much in line. He will no doubt rest in peace and he will be dearly missed,” said former FSU Athletic Director Dave Hart. “Our hearts go out to Ann and the Bowden Family as well as the entire Seminole family. He was one of a kind. We will cherish the memories that drove that fact home.”

Hart’s condolences to the “entire Seminole family” are uniquely true. In a conversation with the former Alabama and Tennessee athletic director last week, he made the comment that Bobby Bowden shaped the collective culture of our university more than any football coach ever has at any school he could name. I noted that prior to Bowden’s final season (2009), former Seminole Booster Executive Director Charlie Barnes wrote that more than 70 percent of all FSU alumni attended Florida State University during the 31 years Bobby Bowden served as its head coach.

I know Bobby’s football mentor, Bear Bryant, was beloved by Bama fans but I’m not sure even he touched as many fans as profoundly as did Bowden, who was so incredibly accessible and giving of his time and emotion.

Current FSU Athletic Director David Coburn also brought up the “generations of Florida State fans and alumni” in his tribute to Bowden. “He leaves a legacy at FSU and in college football that will be remembered forever.”

Seminole Booster CEO and President Michael Alford met Bobby Bowden numerous times over the years but had no idea of his impact on the university until he arrived on campus.

“I knew he was a special person from afar but I did not realize the impact his core values had on this university until I arrived,” said Alford. “Those core values, his core values, are central to who we became as a university and are the core values of decisions still being made today.”

“Coach Bowden was a blessing to every person he came in contact with because of his heart to be like Jesus Christ,” said former quarterback Charlie Ward. “He wasn’t shy about sharing his faith with others no matter the backlash from people. Being at a state university and sharing your faith openly to your players and coaches is not normal but he knew that was the right thing to do and I appreciate it.”

Charlie’s quarterback coach, Mark Richt, who rose from graduate assistant to offensive coordinator for Bowden put it simply: “Coach Bowden had a profound impact on my eternal destiny.” 

The impact Richt is referring to occurred the day after offensive tackle Pablo Lopez was shot and died. 

Bowden called the team together to discuss Pablo’s death. The team took their assigned seats. The coaching staff stood at the back of the room. One chair, Pablo’s, was empty. 

“Toward the end of his talk, after he presented the Gospel, he said, ‘Pablo used to sit in that seat and now he’s gone. You guys are 18 to 22 years old. Do you think you’re going to live forever? If that was you last night instead of Pablo, do you know where you would spend eternity?’ ”

Richt knew and he didn’t like the destination.

“He was speaking to the players but it affected me in a profound way. I prayed to receive Christ the next morning in his office and I’m eternally grateful for him for that.” 

Former center Mark Salva, who is now an Osceola contributor, was also sitting in that room that day. That and many other days were life changing for Salva and so many other Bowden players, coaches and staff.

“I was fortunate to get to spend 10 years with him as a player and a coach. I can’t overstate Coach Bowden’s influence on my life,” said Salva. “He was the rarest of men: a leader of wisdom, compassion and most of all faith. He viewed his position as a ministry, not a job. As a result, those of us within his sphere of influence were made better. I will miss him.”

As Sunday progressed and the phone calls and texts came in, each and every player talked about faith and the impact Bobby Bowden had on their life. Not one spoke of football.

“As a young kid you don’t really understand or appreciate what greatness and goodness truly are,” said former quarterback Casey Weldon. “To be a great coach, actually the very best, and such a good person. I realize how rare that is. It was such a privilege and I’m honored to have played for him.”

Bowden navigated the difficult balance of playing two very good quarterbacks, Weldon and Brad Johnson, who enjoyed a 15-year NFL career and a Super Bowl XXXVII win. 

“I am so thankful and proud to say Coach Bobby Bowden was my coach!” said Johnson. “Coach Bowden shared his faith with all! He cared about each and every one of us as players on and off the field. He inspired many of us to be great fathers, leaders and coaches in our own communities. He showed class and humility in all that he did.”

In talking about Bowden, Sammie Smith echoed Johnson’s words.

“Humility grows in us as we get closer to God,” said Smith, who is now the Chaplain for the University of Mississippi. “I know he had to be pretty close, as close as any human being can get. I don’t know that I have known a more humble individual in my lifetime than Coach Bowden.

“There is a scripture (Phillipians 2: 3-4) that tells us not to do anything out of vain glory or for self enhancement but to consider others always above ourselves. Man, that is Coach Bowden,” Smith said.

It is not surprising that our fans, Boosters and former players ask me to compare our new head football coach, Mike Norvell to Bobby Bowden. Comparisons are never fair, nor should they be made swiftly, so let me just say it is apparent Norvell relates to what Bobby stood for. Norvell has told the story about the day Bobby Bowden walked into his office during a staff meeting, surprising his assistants Odell Haggins and Ron Dugans. Their reaction made a profound impact on the 39-year-old head coach about the influence their head coach had on them and inspired him to aspire to be that head coach for his teams.

“Coach Bowden was one of the greatest coaches ever, but more than that he was an incredible man,” Norvell said. “He was a special human being who earned an enduring legacy because of his wonderful heart, faith and values he lived. It was the honor of my lifetime to know him and beyond anything I could dream to have a relationship with him. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been impacted by Coach Bowden and particularly with his wife, Ann, their children, grandchildren, former players and coaches. The entire Florida State family is hurting right now at the loss of our program’s patriarch.”

I’ll conclude this piece with a paraphrased talkI heard Bowden give at more than one funeral: “When it comes to dying, let dying be all you have left to do.”

His message was simple: Tell people you love them, ask and give forgiveness and get right with your faith.

Bobby Bowden is at peace this Sunday because he had nothing left to do.