Bobby Bowden always had a sure-fire line whenever somebody asked when he would retire from coaching:
“After you retire there is only one big event left. And I ain’t ready for that.”
The line always got a big laugh. But underneath Bowden’s dadgummit humor was a note of seriousness that he rarely discussed in public. Bear Bryant, who Bowden so admired, coached his last football game on Dec. 29, 1982. Just 28 days later Bryant was dead.
“Of course you think about it,” Bowden once told me in the privacy of his office at Florida State. “How can you NOT think about it.”
But Bobby Bowden, who turns 81 on Nov. 8, wants you to know that he is doing just fine despite the fact that for the first time in 57 years he will not be coaching football in 2010. That doesn’t mean he isn’t busy. He’s already been to Israel for 10 days. He has two speaking engagements lined up in Hawaii. He’ll be going on a long Carribean Cruise “and all I have to do is speak for about 45 minutes and I’m good.”
And the most important thing Bowden wants you to know that his greatest fear about leaving coaching–even surpassing the fears of his own mortality–has not come true.
“I thought that once I quit coaching nobody would be interested in what I had to say,” said Bowden when we talked by phone on Saturday. “As it turns out, they still want to listen.”
Bowden’s schedule is about to get even more hectic. For today his new book “Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith, and Football” hits the bookshelves around the country. Bowden will do a media blitz in New York on Tuesday to launch the book which was written with ESPN.com’s (and former AJC staffer) Mark Schlabach. Then it’s on to ESPN in Bristol, Conn., for a full day of interviews across their family of networks on Thursday.
The book, which includes forewords by Tony Dungy and Joe Paterno, offers keen insights into Bowden’s career and what made him so successful. Among the things Bowden did for the book was give Schlabach access to a folder that included more than 30 years of pre-game speeches.
“Mark dug in there and found a lot of things that still mean a lot to me,” said Bowden. “He did a heckuva job on the book and we’re very proud of it.”
One thing Bowden does not do in the book is vent against those who ultimately forced him out at Florida State. But he does explain his side of the story. Yes, Bowden was told that he was going to get one more year at Florida State. He had been told that he would be allowed to determine his exit strategy. That did not happen. FSU President T.K. Wetherell, who played for Bowden, pushed the coach out the door before he was ready. Bowden is not bitter but he still believes that he had earned the right to leave on his own terms. An academic cheating scandal, after which the NCAA vacated 14 of Bowden’s victories, was the most disappointing blow of all, he said.
“I wasn’t ready to go out. I wanted to keep the battle going with Joe Paterno (for most career wins),” Bowden said. “But once the NCAA took those (14) wins away, it was over. But I’m not looking back. I don’t coach football any more but I haven’t retired. I want to stay busy.”
That won’t be a problem. The requests for Bowden to speak reach well into next year. On Sept. 3 he will do a book signing in Tallahassee. Then he’ll retreat to his second home in Panama City to spend the first weekend of the season. You probably won’t see him at Doak Campbell Stadium this season as Jimbo Fisher takes over as head coach after two seasons as the “coach in waiting.”
“I always said that once I got through coaching I was leaving,” said Bowden. “That wouldn’t be fair to the boys and it wouldn’t be fair to Jimbo. They don’t need to see old Bobby sitting over there.”
Alabama athletics director Mal Moore has invited Bowden to Tuscaloosa for the Sept. 11 game with Penn State. As a boy growing up in Birmingham, there are a lot of good memories at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It would also be kind of fun to watch his old friend Joe Paterno walking up and down the sideline, he said.
“When I was a kid my dad used to take me to Tuscaloosa to watch the games,” Bowden said. “I think the last time I was there just watching as a fan was 1948 when I was a senior in high school and they were recruiting me. I always wanted to go back. And now I can.”
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