Keeping Up with Bobby Bowden: Former Florida State Coach Sits Down for a Chat

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Keeping Up with Bobby Bowden: Former Florida State Coach Sits Down for a Chat

Retired Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden wakes up every day at four o'clock in the morning. He doesn't have to, of course, but he does so anyway. Old habits never die.

"When I coached, I got up at four, so I'm just used to that," he chuckles.

At 83 years old, Bowden still bristles with energy. The winningest coach in Division I football took time out of his busy schedule to have a chat with me, and among the things we talked about was what comprises a day in the life of Bobby Bowden after he beats the sun to rise and greets the day. 

"I read. I read the Bible and I study the Bible. I do that for about an hour, and then my wife (Ann) comes down and we eat breakfast." The peace and quiet lasts about two-and-a-half hours.

"About 6:30, the phone starts ringing and I can't get anything done," he says. Late in the afternoon he and Ann have "supper," and by seven o'clock in the evening, he's hitting the hay. 

It reads like a farmer's schedule, but it's far from it. 

"I speak anywhere from two to three, four or five times a week, so I might have to get a plane, go somewhere and speak, and get back the next day."

Doug Benc/Getty Images
Bobby Bowden and Urban Meyer

Last week, Bowden and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer flew out to California to volunteer as the head coaches for two touch football teams—not any football teams, mind you, but those comprised of military veterans. 

Tostitos supports touch football programs over in Iraq, according to Bowden, but this year they decided to hold a game at Cerritos College, a small community college in Southern California.

"Thirty veterans coming back to America," Bowden explained with a hint of pride in his voice.

"They got Urban Meyer and myself to be the coaches—the boys didn't know this. We [got] Marcus Allen and Kurt Warner to play—they didn't know that either."

Bowden said the veterans had been practicing about four blocks from the school's stadium, so they weren't aware of the big surprise that awaited them. They had no idea this seemingly ordinary, non-contact football game was the Tostitos Homecoming Party Bowl. 

"Now just picture them in the dressing room, fixin' to go out on the field and as they ran through the tunnel, and through the smoke, they came out on the other side...and there were 12,000 people in the stands," he says.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"They filled that stadium. They had a marching band, they had cheerleaders. And they were excited. I was proud of Tostitos for doing such a thing."

Bowden can't hide his genuine respect and fondness for the military.

"Had I not gone into coaching, I would've definitely gone military," he admits.

"But I won a scholarship to school—I had to go and I had to play ball, so I went into coaching. But had it not been for that, I would definitely have been military."

If Bowden isn't jet-hopping to speaking engagements, he's hitting the links.     

"We live on a golf course, and I'll go out and start hitting golf balls, trying to get some kind of exercise," he says.

When asked for his dream golf foursome, Bowden doesn't really have to think too long before he names three coaches.  

"Golly...I wouldn't mind playing with [Nick] Saban," he offers. Bowden tells me he's played at Saban's golf tournaments in Birmingham, Alabama, but they've never actually played together. 

"I wouldn't mind playing with the coach at Notre Dame," he continues. Brian Kelly and Nick Saban playing golf together? That could be interesting. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Nick Saban golfing

"I play a lot with Urban Meyer...I'd throw him in there," Bowden finishes. "They'd all wear me out...they'd beat the heck out of an 83-year-old man."

But Nick Saban? Really? 

"They say he's a pretty good golfer," Bowden chirps. "I would imagine he'll shoot from 75 or 76 to 82 or something like that. He's pretty good...I'm a 90 shooter."  

He's a charmer, that Mr. Bowden. 

He'll call you "hon" in the most endearing way—even Gloria Steinem would be enamored by his genteel ways. His drawl, the twinkle in his voice and his folksy expressions can soften any hardened soul. But although he's an old-school gentleman, he doesn't hold back when it comes to controversy.

Especially when it involves college football. 

Bowden first started coaching at Florida State in 1976, but the sport's evolution hasn't always been positive, especially the short leash that many newly hired coaches are now given. Bowden is somewhat taken aback over these changes.

"Did you know there was a coach...this year...who got fired in one year?" he asks me, his voice incredulous.

"The coach at Southern Miss. Fired in one year! I've never heard such a thing.  But I've seen several of them get fired in three. You know...I hate that...[soft pause] but dadgummit, that's the way the ball bounces."

Bowden thinks they should get more time to succeed at the head coach level.

"It ought to be five [years]," he says with conviction. "During my career, it was always five." 

Fasten your seat belts, the coach is fired up.   

"Here's the way they figure it," he continues. "You come and take over a job in January. You're too late too recruit. Most of the good guys have already gone...already accepted, so they don't count that year. Then they give you four more years, so it's five in all. In your second year you should recruit real [well]. And by the fifth year, you should do it. If you can't do it by then, we've got to get somebody else. Now, that's not true anymore."

Patience and Bowden go hand in hand, but he understands the stakes get higher every year in college football. 

"It all comes down to money," he explains.

"The coach has to fill the stadium. Your football is going to pay most of the bills. You've got to win and keep people in the seats to make enough money to support your program."

Even recruiting has evolved. Social media has created more fan interaction in the recruiting process, but despite the potential problems associated with fans engaged with recruits, the bigger problem lies with coaches vying for a highly coveted, albeit committed recruit.  

"There are no secrets," he admits. "It hurts coaches because you can play tricks with it."

Modern technology has drastically changed coaches' recruiting tactics over the past few years, but it's interesting to note what Bowden considers modern technology: the television set.

"I had a boy committed," he begins.

"One of my opponents put on television that I was leaving Florida State and going to Mississippi to be the head coach," he exclaims with his voice showing strains of frustration.

"The boy I had committed, it broke his heart. He thought I had been lying to him all that time. I had to go see him and tell him 'I'm not going anywhere.'"

Bowden also acknowledges school boosters' increasing influence and how they can play a huge role in a coach's tenure at a school. 

Doug Benc/Getty Images
Ann Bowden gives Bobby a kiss

"Oh, look, there's no doubt about it," Bowden shares.

"That's kind of what happened to me at Florida State. It doesn't take but one [alumnus]."

Bowden doesn't mince words as he continues.

"Let's say he's giving 25 million dollars to the school and walks into the president's office...'I'm not going to give that 25 million dollars unless you get rid of so-and-so.' Boy, that president is on the spot—he's got to have that money. I can name a lot of cases where [boosters] have influenced a coach losing his job."

Bowden is now on a roll.   

"Most [huge emphasis on 'most'] of them behave, but there are some that get out of whack," he chuckles.

"You don't watch them and they'll be buying players—and you don't even know about it—and the first thing you know you're on probation." 

Bowden's advice to all coaches? It's simple, yet sound.

"Number one...do it right," he says sternly. 

"Don't cheat. You can take shortcuts by cheating. By cheating, I mean buying players, buying the best players. You're going to get pretty good...but you're gonna get caught and get in trouble."

But even after he laments over slimy recruiting tactics, boosters with too much influence and the difficult task of staying NCAA compliant, Bowden still misses coaching football.

You can hear it in his voice. He loves to watch football, but it's not the same for him anymore—his view of the game is now from a different perspective. And there, in his soul, flows an emotion that probably won't ever go away.

"I miss those boys," he says.

Doug Benc/Getty Images
Bowden's last game coaching at Florida State

"When you watch a game, you wish you were there, [but] not as a spectator." And then coach Bobby Bowden stops for a long pause.

"I ought to be coaching that," he says quietly.

Bowden isn't sad—he told me he is "blessed"—but you can't help but notice that twinge of disappointment in his voice. Then again, with Christmas right around the corner, he ostensibly is enjoying more family time rather than being bogged down by the stress-filled bowl preparation endured by many coaches in December.

He laughs about what he'll actually get for Christmas (handkerchiefs and socks) and breaks into song when I ask him what he wants for Christmas.

"All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth." 

His pitch is perfect and his laugh infectious.  

I only had one thought as we laughed loudly together. 

Dadgummit, I miss seeing him on the sidelines.  

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