If you’ve scanned the news and even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ve seen the headlines announcing Coach Bobby Bowden’s death at age 91. The eulogies are pouring in, as they should, to honor somebody who made such a positive impact on so many people. I knew Coach Bowden quite well from dozens of interviews over the years and our mutual support of several organizations. He must be looking down from heaven right now and smiling that so many of the tributes he’s received are about what he did off the field rather than on it.
But, boy, did he do a lot on the field. He took a Florida State University team that was a perennial loser and not only put Tallahassee on the map, he posted an unbelievable run of 14 years in the top five. The Seminoles won 12 ACC titles under Coach Bowden, adding national championships in 1993 and 1999—the latter year including a perfect record of 12-0 (8-0 ACC), capped off with a win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. His 377 career victories were good enough for second-best of all time behind Joe Paterno of Penn State.
He was also considered a master tactician famous for having studied World War II generals to learn the arts of attacking, defending, and surprising your adversary. His most famous trick may have taken place in 1988 against Clemson when, with a little over a minute left to play, the game tied and FSU facing fourth down on its own 21-yard line, Bowden instructed his team to fake a punt. The trick resulted in a 78-yard run and winning field goal in a play forever known as “the “Puntrooskie.”
As fierce and cunning a competitor as he was on the field, however, he was an empathetic and righteous man off it. My friend Dawn Conder recalled of the early 1990s when she was a journalism student: “I was working on a feature story on Derrick Brooks for the (student newspaper). In a room packed with male reporters after a game, Coach pointed to me and asked, ‘What’s your question, little lady!’ I was so shocked that he called on me I nearly forgot my question! Thirty-one years later, it’s still such a fond memory for me.”
Imagine being a young football player named Warrick Dunn whose mother, a police officer, had been shot and killed in a robbery at a bank. Her death left Warrick as the head of his family while he was playing football at FSU. “Coach Bowden got me to room with Charlie Ward, a Heisman Trophy candidate, and fifth-year senior,” said Dunn, who went to have a stellar NFL career before acquiring an ownership stake in the Atlanta Falcons. “I was very emotional at the time, and Charlie and I would have long discussions into the night. He was perfect for me. And Coach himself helped me deal with issues with my brothers and sisters, offering examples of what he did with his own children. He was a father figure to me.”
The point of these two anecdotes—and they represent a drop in the bucket of tributes Coach Bowden is receiving—is that he didn’t reserve his empathy to people who could help him or to whom he owed anything. He didn’t restrict his helpfulness to the elite athletes he coached or hoped to attract to his program. He was famous for treating each person he encountered with honor and respect. If this sounds like a winning character trait of leadership, then, “dadgummit,” as Coach used to say, that’s because it is.
Coach Bowden didn’t have to spend hours signing footballs for charity, but he did it because he knew those balls would rest on somebody’s mantel one day and the recipients would think about Florida State University and maybe want to be a part of that institution someday.
And Coach didn’t have to mail a package to my house weeks after my son Will was born, either. In that package was a signed football with a note welcoming Will to the world. There was also a full, signed scholarship offer sheet for Will to play football at FSU. Of course, at the bottom of the page in the fine print, there was an asterisk and a line that said, Offer only good if I’m still head coach at FSU.
Well, I don’t know what sports Will may one day play or even whether he will be particularly interested in sports. I certainly couldn’t know whether he will ever be good enough to win a scholarship to play at the college level. For now, we’re focused on middle school. But if he does one day get that chance, there’s nobody in Heaven, or on Earth, I’d rather have had him play for than Coach Bobby Bowden.