Bobby Bowden dies at 91: Florida State coach built a Hall of Fame career and championship program from scratch

Bobby Bowden dies at 91: Florida State coach built a Hall of Fame career and championship program from scratch


“Dadgum” is an exclamation that emphasizes what one is saying. Enough cannot be said about Bobby Bowden, the second all-time winningest coach in Division I history, who has died at age 91.

Bowden’s signature expression serves as only an introduction to the coach known late in his career as “Saint Bobby.”  He will be remembered as the ultimate gentleman, Christian, husband and leader.

He also could coach a little.

Bowden disclosed in July that he was diagnosed with a terminal medical condition. It was later revealed by his son, Terry, that Bowden was fighting pancreatic cancer.

Eleven years after coaching his last game at Florida State, Bowden left this earth with his legacy never to be forgotten. He is survived by his wife, Ann, and six children, two of whom became football coaches in Tommy and Terry.

Bowden took what started as West Florida Seminary in the 1950s to glorious heights. Florida State won two national championships (1993, 1999), produced dozens of All-Americans and ran rampant over the ACC when the program finally joined a conference.

Bowden did it with a folksy charm that made him almost a cliché of a Southern football coach. Except clichés usually don’t redefine the game. When you consider Bowden mingled with presidents, governors, players, mommas, daddies and flat-out made Florida State a brand, he was the Forrest Gump of the sport.

“Half of the history of college football — he was around for it,” said Andy Bagnato, long-time national college football writer for the Chicago Tribune.

Close. Bowden’s 56-year coaching career began in 1954 as an assistant at Howard College (now Samford), where he once played.

His charm had a self-deprecating quality. The man could always laugh at himself. How many college football coaches had their own Burger King commercial?

Following a 4-7 season at West Virginia, which he led from 1970-75 before taking over at Florida State, Bowden returned to campus to find himself hung in effigy. A bedsheet screaming “Bye Bye Bobby” was unfurled from a dormitory that faced his office.

“I had gotten used to it,” Bowden once said. “I thought it was part of the scenery.”

In 1970, his first West Virginia team led Pittsburgh 35-8 at halftime. Pitt didn’t punt in the second half, ran 67 plays and eventually won 36-35. It was only time his wife Ann cried after a game, Bowden said.

“I learned something,” Bowden told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2010. “You never had me sitting on the ball again, did you? I’d get accused of running up the score. Well, you’re darn right.”

Check out the scores from Bowden’s two national championship teams. In 1993, FSU scored at least 40 points in seven games, winning six of those by at least 38 points. In 1999, the Seminoles went 12-0 winning by an average of more than three touchdowns.

And none of it seemed to move Bowden beyond his signature exclamation. Forget any definition, “dadgum” was his. No one said it with more Southern, laid-back charm than the coach known as “Saint Bobby” late in his career.

“You’re doing so good, I don’t know what to say,” Bowden once told his team while up big at halftime. “Maybe I’ll shut up.”

Today, his statue stands outside Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida following a 34-year career leading the Noles. It is big. The coach is bigger — bigger than football and bigger than life.

In that stadium he practically built with his excellence, the FSU band in 2013 spelled out “DADGUM” on the field. From a perch high above the field, Bowden smiled his signature smile that frequently lit up a locker room, a university and a life.

There was nothing like Breakfast with Bobby. It’s a part of the coach the public will never see. In an age when media access was tightening, Bowden would have an informal interview session with media on Sunday mornings after home games. Reporters could ask anything. The man will forever be adored for understanding our jobs and making them easier.

“To me. [it] just represented the charm and accessibility, besides the fact he was an unbelievably great coach,” Bagnato said. “When you see what Florida State has become, it answers the question: It was the coach, not the program.”

Bowden also brought a swagger and panache that translated down to his players. FSU has produced some of the most famous and flamboyant athletes in college football history. Bowden had the ability to recruit, nurture, coach and win with them all. He won his second national championship when he was 70.

Modesty radiated from Bowden. When he won his record-breaking 339th game in 2003, passing Joe Paterno on the all-time wins list, he was brief and self-depreciating. “To be honest, it really doesn’t feel like I should be there.”

Paterno, who coached until 2011, eventually passed Bowden to finish with 409 wins.

After nine decades, Bowden’s story stands as a shining example of the American Dream.

From a humble beginning in Birmingham, Alabama, Bowden was born into a strict Baptist family in 1929. At 74, after climbing the career ladder rung by rung, he became the winningest college coach ever. His final total of 377 wins was achieved largely at a small independent program in the remote outpost of Tallahassee, the state capital of Florida.

It was there he built a national power at Florida State. The tale of how he got to that place is well-worn.

As a teenager, Bowden contracted rheumatic fever. Confined to bed for a year, he passed the time reading and listening to the radio. His illness came at the height World War II, which killed 400,000 Americans. That began a lifelong love of history, particularly the history of that war. His passion for football also developed.

Once out of bed, a doctor told Bowden he’d never play football again because of a compromised heart. Two years later, he was medically cleared to take the field.

At 5-foot-5 and 115 pounds, Bowden was once deemed too small to play but eventually made it to team captain as a high school senior. He spent a semester at Alabama but eventually left to be with the love of his life, Ann Estock, as freshmen on the team were not allowed to marry. She was 16 at the time. Bobby was 19. They eloped in 1949.

Florida State became a national program by playing anybody, anywhere, anytime. The Seminoles got so good at it they made it a tradition of digging up a patch of sod from the victim’s home stadium after a win. They brought back the horticulture and planted it outside Doak Campbell as a tradition. The “sod cemetery” exists to this day, a sign of how Bowden built a former teacher’s college brick by brick into a national powerhouse.

In 1976, Bowden took over an FSU program that had been 4-29 the prior four years. The state school — Florida — became his focus. The Gators had captured 17 of the last 19 meetings between the programs when Bowden arrived. After losing to Florida in Year 1, Bowden beat the Gators four straight years.

That included a breakthrough season in 1977, a 10-win campaign that included a rout of Florida. It was the first of Bowden’s 33 consecutive winning seasons with the Seminoles, in which the team made 28 straight bowl appearances. There was also a 14-year stretch (1987-2000) that saw FSU lose no more than two games in any season. The Noles went 152-19-1 during that period, posting an .890 winning mark with 14 consecutive top four finishes, a record that may never be broken.

Florida State under Bowden had swagger before Miami knew the meaning of the word. As the huge road wins began to pile up, the program announced to the media beforehand, yup, it was a “sod game.”

The tradition was created by accident. When he arrived, Bowden found a 1981 schedule — five years in the future — loaded with road games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU.

“I couldn’t survive it,” he said at the time. “It turned out to be one of the best breaks I ever got.”

The Noles went 6-5 that year, beating Ohio State and LSU. “The King of the Road” — as Bowden became known back then — was born.

So was speed, Florida speed. Bowden developed the state’s incredible talent before Florida and Miami broke through. But when they did, their meetings came together in various years to decide a sort of “state championship.”

Books could be written about Bowden’s meetings with Miami. Wide Right I came in 1991 when FSU kicker Gerry Thomas pushed a game-winning kick just wide in the closing seconds. Miami used a 17-16 victory to win a national championship that year.

In 1992, Miami won 19-16 when FSU kicker Dan Mowrey missed wide right in the final minute. In Wide Right III, Matt Munyon missed one right again as time expired in the 2000 meeting. The Noles survived to play for the national championship for the third straight year. They lost to Oklahoma in the third BCS Championship Game, 13-2.

Two years later, another FSU kicker (Xavier Beitia) missed again as time expired. Miami won 28-27, advancing to the BCS title game where it lost to Ohio State.

Drowned in those memories is the 2004 game, a 16-10 overtime loss. That Miami game came days after Bowden lost his grandson, Bowden Madden, and his former son-in-law, John Madden, in a car crash. A small group of writers followed Bobby down to the field for a brief moment alone after the game.

“You always go to talk to Bobby after game because he’s always good after a win,” said long-time college football writer Tony Barnhart, “but he’s great after a loss.” 

Following a few questions, Bowden took off his hat, signed it, and threw to then-Tampa Bay Times columnist Joe Henderson. “Give that to your grandson,” Bowden said.

Henderson had just become a grandfather. More than that, Bowden had just lost a grandson never mind a gut-wrenching game to a rival.

“We were just blown away,” Barnhart said. “To have the presence of mind, losing a game at that moment was the least of his concerns.”

There was the time Bowden went to Germany on vacation. He sauntered up to the rental car counter and said he wanted a BMW, “just like Deion’s,” to drive on the Autobahn. No word on whether the Germans knew about Deion Sanders. But from 1985-88, Neon Deion established himself as one of the game’s all-time best players – as a cornerback.

“When Deion came to Florida State, the first three years he was there, he was no different from anybody else,” Bowden said. “… On his last year, he kind of starting showboating. I think somebody convinced him, if you showboat, you make a lot of money. He wanted to make a lot of money, and he did. He carried a lot of that into pro ball.”

Prime Time’s glow hadn’t dimmed when he took the Jacksonville State coaching job in September 2020.

“When you think about it, anything Deion said he would do, he’d back it up,” Bowden said at the time. “I got a feeling he will do just fine.”

Bowden, this charming son of the South, had a sixth sense on how to slit his opponent’s throat. He became famous for calling trick plays. They were his signature as much as “dadgum.” You knew they were coming, you just didn’t know when.

The best might have been “The Puntrooskie.” Leroy Butler took a snap on a fake punt against Clemson and rushed 79 yards setting up the winning score. Asked why pulled such a stunt with the game and the season on the line, Bowden said simply, “I wanted somebody to win.”

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006.

“A pioneer of a coach, an offensive mind way ahead of his time, and the best dadgum recruiter in the business,” said veteran sportswriter Matt Hayes of Bowden. “All of that pales to the two most important things in his life — his faith and his wife Ann. We’ve lost a one-of-a-kind human being.”

“Coach Bowden has been an example to all of us. Coach Bowden was a guy who made us all want to coach when we were younger,” said Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, who might a modern reincarnation of Bowden. “I don’t think the game will be the same without him.”

Danny Kanell played quarterback for four years for Bowden, becoming the ACC Player of the Year in 1995. The current CBS Sports HQ college football analyst visited his former coach a month ago. The two discussed family, faith and even the hottest topics in the sport.

Bowden was as spry as any 91-year-old could expect to be. He had beaten COVID-19 last fall.

“He’s handled it like the way he’s handled everything,” Kanell said of Bowden’s declining years. “He’s handled it with class and dignity and pointed people toward his faith. He’s used his platform.”

Kanell recalled the bus rides to nearby Thomasville, Georgia, the night before FSU home games. During those trips, Bowden rode a smaller bus with the upperclassmen who he called “my boys.”

“It was really a special time where you got closer to him,” Kanell said. “He would share stories about his life and coaching.”

Bowden came across as a jovial, grandfatherly figure who always had a joke or a story but could get angry like any coach.

“He had a way to get his point across. We as players knew when he meant business,” Kanell said. “The best way to describe it is he was your favorite grandfather, your confidant. The only bad word I heard him say was, “‘Dadgum it.'”

The end of Bowden’s coaching career was something less than glorious. Three of his last four teams finished 7-6. By that time, the NCAA had intervened, finding various violations throughout the Florida State program. Twelve of Bowden’s wins were vacated by the NCAA in an academic scandal.

On the first day of 2010, Bowden coached his last game. Saint Bobby beat his old West Virginia program, 33-21, in the Gator Bowl.

Three hundred former players showed up to honor him.

“For Coach Bowden, I’d come out in the rain, sleet or snow,” Kanell said.

By that time, the world hadn’t passed him by so much as we were lucky Bowden had passed our way.

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