When I heard the news that Bobby Bowden was expected to retire today, I went through a range of emotion.
My first reaction was to be mad. I had been told over a week ago that not-so-subtle pressure would be put upon him to step down.
Yes, he would be given the option of returning, but in what could only be described as a figurehead role. In short, he would not retain the right to control the staff and the important things that go into being a head coach. The position would be ceremonial. I know the man well enough to believe that he could not be happy with that.
After building the Florida State program into a national powerhouse over 34 years—which included an unprecedented streak of 14 straight years with Top Five finishes—I believed strongly that he had earned the right to dictate the date and the manner of his retirement. This is not the way to treat a legend.
Then I got sad, as I usually do when one of the great ones has to walk away from the game. I will freely admit that I like and respect Bobby Bowden. He’s been good to me in my career. I love college football and recognize that the sport we all enjoy today was built by men like Bobby Bowden.
Florida State’s football stadium looked like a giant erector set when he became coach in 1976. There was little football tradition and the facilities were a joke. Now Doak Campbell Stadium is a palace and Florida State’s athletic complex is more than impressive. Yeah, Florida State did a lot for Bobby Bowden. But he gave a helluva lot more than he got back.
Then I was glad. I have been fortunate to cover some of the greatest coaches in the history of this game: Bryant, Dooley, Spurrier, Dye, Holtz, and now Bowden, just to name a few. They all have their time and, inevitably, that time comes to a close. No one coaches forever or plays forever. None of us gets to do what we do forever so we should enjoy the moments that we do have and in the sport of college football, Bobby Bowden gave us a lot of those moments.
So it appears that Bobby Bowden, who just turned 80 years old in November, is set to walk off the stage a year before he is ready. He won 388 games, which is second in Division I-A only to Joe Paterno. He wanted to retire as college football’s all-time winner. I know he said he didn’t stay awake thinking about it. But the man is competitive. Very competitive. He wanted that record. His players and family wanted it for him even more.
We are still waiting to see if the NCAA is going to strip him of 14 victories as penalty for an academic scandal that he addressed when it was discovered. I said this long before now but that should not happen.
There are so many games and so many stories I will remember when I think of Bobby Bowden. But this story will always be at the top of my list:
On Friday, Sept. 10, 2004 Florida State played at Miami in a game that had been postponed due to Hurricane Frances. The day before Bowden had attended the funeral of his grandson, Bowden Madden, who had been killed in automobile accident related to the Hurricane.
Florida State lost the game, 16-10 in overtime. Those of us who talked to Bowden that night knew how much he was hurting. All of us had a job to do but when you’re talking to a man who just lost a grandson named after him, a football game just doesn’t seem very important. But as always, Bowden answered our questions, even the personal ones about his pain.
When Bowden turned to leave for what was going to be a difficult trip back to Tallahassee, he took off his Florida State cap. He signed his name underneath the bill of the cap and then threw it to Joe Henderson, the fine columnist from the Tampa Tribune.
“Hey, Joe,” Bowden said. “Give that to your grandson.” Then he walked away.
That is how I am going to remember Bobby Bowden.
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