Bobby Bowden, Folksy Coach of Florida State Dynasty, Dies at 91

Bobby Bowden did it all. He put Florida State on the map by taking the football team from an afterthought to a dynasty, and he left an indelible mark on the game with a rare combination of coaching acumen, gracious demeanor and a compassion for those he coached and competed against. The beloved, folksy Hall of Fame coach who built one of the most prolific college football programs in U.S. history died early Sunday at 91 at his home in Tallahassee, Florida, surrounded by his wife, Ann, and their six children following a battle with pancreatic cancer. Bobby’s son, Terry, called his passing “truly peaceful.” And while he’s gone, Bowden’s legacy as a top-notch coach — and human being — will live on. The numbers are staggering: Bowden piled up 377 wins during 40 years as a major college coach and his teams won a dozen Atlantic Coast Conference titles and national championships in 1993 and 1999. Perhaps the statistic that jumps off the page is his sustained success with Florida State, which finished the season ranked in the top five of The Associated Press college football poll an unmatched 14 straight seasons (1987-2000) under his tutelage. Bowden’s legacy can’t just be told in numbers. “This guy was probably the greatest ambassadors of all time because he had success coaching, but he was also one of the greatest people and set an outstanding example for everyone in our profession in terms of you don’t have to dislike somebody, you don’t have to discredit somebody that you’re competing against,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “That example of being a good person is something that can help us all professionally. He wasn’t always just about him; he was always about helping other people.” Bowden, a devout Christian, said last month, after announcing he had a terminal illness, he had always tried to serve God’s purpose and he was “prepared for what is to come.” “My wife, Ann, and our family have been life’s greatest blessing,” he said then.  Bowden retired following the 2009 season with a Gator Bowl win over West Virginia in Florida State’s 28th straight postseason appearance, a victory that gave him his 33rd consecutive winning season.  A month after he resigned, the NCAA stripped Florida State of victories in 10 sports because of an academic cheating scandal in 2006 and ’07 involving 61 athletes. Still, only Penn State’s Joe Paterno is credited with winning more games (409) as a major college football coach. Bowden’s win total ranks fourth across all divisions in college football history. Bowden was also the patriarch of college football’s most colorful coaching family. Son Tommy Bowden had a 90-49 record at Tulane and Clemson, and Terry was 47-17-1 at Auburn. Another son, Jeff, served 13 years coaching wide receivers for his father at Florida State and six seasons as offensive coordinator before he resigned in 2006. By 1979, Bowden had Florida State positioned for one of the great runs in the annals of college football.  Led by All-American nose guard Ron Simmons, the Seminoles enjoyed an 11-0 regular season but lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. In 1993, despite a late slip at Notre Dame, Florida State won its first national title after nearly getting there in 1987, 1988, 1991 and 1992.  Bowden’s lone perfect season came in 1999 when the Seminoles became the first team to go wire-to-wire in The Associated Press rankings, No. 1 from the preseason to finish. Success also brought a glaring spotlight, and Bowden’s program was touched by scandal on a few occasions. The school was put on NCAA probation for five years after several players in 1993 accepted free shoes and other sporting goods from a local store.  Bowden prided himself on giving players a second chance, but critics said he was soft on discipline with an eye on winning games.  The cheating scandal that led to the loss of a dozen wins from Bowden’s final resume took place in an online music history course from the fall of 2006 through summer 2007. The NCAA said some athletes were provided with answers to exams and in some cases, had papers typed for them. Bowden stayed in the public eye after retirement, writing a book, making speeches and going public with his treatment for prostate cancer in 2007. His fear of retiring from coaching resulted in part from the death of his longtime idol, former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who died within weeks of leaving the sidelines. “After you retire, there’s only one big event left,” Bowden frequently said. Bowden stayed active into his 80s, finally slowing down over the last year or so. He was hospitalized in October 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. The test came a few days after he returned home from a long hospital stay for a leg infection. Born Nov. 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, Robert Cleckler Bowden overcame rheumatic fever as a child to quarterback Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, then attended Alabama for a semester before transferring back to his hometown Howard College, where he starred at quarterback. He married his childhood sweetheart, Ann, and they stayed together for 72 years. Bowden is survived by wife Ann; sons Terry, Tommy, Jeff and Steve; and daughters Robyn Hines and Ginger Madden. Services were scheduled for Saturday at the Donald L Tucker Center, Florida State’s basketball arena. 

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