Former Florida State coach and living legend Bobby Bowden is touring to promote his new film “The Bowden Dynasty: A Story of Faith, Family & Football” that is currently available for purchase at bowdendynasty.com.
If you’re in Atlanta, Regal 10 Stadium Cinema – Perimeter will have a screening of the film on Thursday, August 31, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $75, and will include a screening of the film and a Q&A session with Coach Bowden. You can purchase tickets to that event here.
Coach Bowden took the time to speak with FanBuzz about the film and about his life.
Football dreams for Bobby Bowden
FB: At age 13, you had rheumatic fever causing inflammation of the heart, joints and blood vessels) and you weren’t really able to get out and play football like you wanted. Is that kind of what propelled you to get into coaching or love the game?
CB: I never thought of it at that time, but that probably had a lot to do with it. I think the big influence that got me into coaching…the first five years of my life, my house backed up to a high school football field in Alabama. They won the state championship nearly every year and it was kinda football was in the air. We moved when I was six years old and we only lived at the bottom of a hill that had the Howard College football field. And so I had to walk across there every day going to school and walk across there coming back. I would see them practicing and I was always around football. I was there until I was 19 and that had a lot of influence on me going into football.
FB: So after that, did you know you wanted to coach or did you know you just wanted to be around the game? Were you ever hoping you’d be playing the game?
CB: It’s funny. As I grew up I don’t remember a great desire to be a coach…I did want to play high school football and I did want to play college football. I didn’t have a great desire to play pro football. I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t big enough, but thinking about ‘oh boy I can’t wait to coach.’ I never even thought of that.
The way my coaching started, when I was a senior at Howard College — which is now Samford University — and I played my last ball game. The athletic director James Sharman came to me and said, ‘Bobby, if you’ll get your master’s degree we will hire you next year as an assistant football coach.’ Well, you can imagine how excited I was about it because a lot of students that graduate don’t have a job, you know? And here I’ve got one. So I went and got my master’s and started coaching and coached for the next 57 years without missing.
Bobby Bowden begins his coaching career
Bowden eventually took a head coaching job at Howard, moved to Florida State from 1962 to 1965 and eventually headed up north to West Virginia, where he took the offensive coordinator position. After four years he became the head coach and he explains how it all happened.
FB: What made you want to take the job with West Virginia?
CB: I was at Florida State as an assistant coach and I had no title. You know you’d like to be coordinator of this or coordinator of that or assistant head coach. I was just “Coach Bowden.” I really felt like I was making no progress and I felt like I needed to make a move. I was offered two jobs. One to Auburn, one to West Virginia as offensive coordinator. You’d think being from Alabama I would go to Auburn, but no. I felt like there was more opportunities up in West Virginia.
It would give me a chance to recruit Pennsylvania and Ohio and New York and I’d learn a lot more about my profession. So Ann (his wife) and I went up there and then in four years the head coach left, that’s Jim Carlen. He went to Texas Tech and so they gave me the head job.
FB: Would you say one of the more important moments in that West Virginia job was coaching Garrett Ford?
CB: I adopted him when I went there because he was just a sophomore. He had two more years of eligibility. Big, big running back. About 225 about 6-foot-3 or 4 and so we were lucky we had him. Jim Carlen was the head coach and we took a program that wasn’t at its highest and built it up to a bowl winner. Then he left, then I got the job.
FB: During the film you talked about your dad’s health at the time when you took the West Virginia job. How difficult was it to do that knowing the state your dad was in?
CB: It really wasn’t difficult. But it was kinda like ‘well you just lost the job.’ The head job is open and the assistant coaches usually present if they want the job. If you’ve got nine coaches, there are probably two of them that’s got a chance to get it. The others probably don’t have a chance. But you’ve gotta go see the AD, you’ve gotta go see the president, you’ve gotta go see the committee and convince them that you’re the guy. I couldn’t do that ‘cos I had to go to Birmingham because my dad was dying. It was only a three hour, maybe two-and-a-half drive to Birmingham. So I got my wife and six kids and we took off.
I thought, ‘Well there goes that job. I can’t get there and compete for it.’ But they call me the next morning. The AD calls me the next morning and said, “We met last night and we want you.” So anyway, I got my first head job at a major college.
Bobby Bowden original plans at FSU
Coach Bowden wouldn’t stay at WVU his entire career. He decided to head back south to Tallahassee. But this time he was going to be the head coach and the decision wasn’t as easy some believe. Bowden didn’t always have the intention to stay there as long as he did.
FB: You coach West Virginia. They win some bowl games. Obviously your name starts to get a little hotter on the coaching carousel and you end up at Florida State again, this time as the head man. What made you believe that FSU had the higher ceiling and more potential than where you were currently at?
CB: We came one minute close to not going. We had four children attending West Virginia University. We were winnin’ games and goin’ to bowls. Florida State was going 0 and 11. And so why would you go down there? Strictly to go home. Ann and I, we thought about it. They offered us the job and we wasn’t even thinking about going. We can’t afford to leave West Virginia with our children up here. And at the last minute we said, ‘Let’s go home.’
Her mother was still livin’, my mother was still livin’ in Birmingham. Our daddies had died didn’t give us a chance to be with them for the last years of their life. We went home because we wanted to go home.
FB: That’s a much closer decision than people probably know.
CB: Oh yeah. A lot of them don’t know that. And on top of that, they don’t know I went there with the idea of getting back to Alabama. You know, not staying. As far as staying, not winning. I don’t think I can build that program up. I thought I’d go down there and renew my acquaintances and then get hired back over in Alabama somehow.
Bobby Bowden builds a powerhouse
After some years at Florida State and building it into a powerhouse, Bowden had the opportunity to go back closer to home. Alabama head coach at the time, Ray Perkins, resigned to take an NFL job and most people believed Bowden would get the job since everyone knew he wanted to come home and he happened to be playing in the All-American Bowl around the time of Perkins’ resignation. There was also a second chance to take the job, but the coach had already decided where he wanted to spend the rest of his coaching days by then.
FB: There was a lot of that talk when you were at FSU, you were the head coach. The Alabama job opened up and obviously that was closer to where you grew up and you have a love for the state. What made you decide to stay at Florida State and not jump to Alabama, which was at the time described as your “dream job?”
CB: I always thought somehow I’d end up back there. Now see, when I was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama and Auburn did not play each other. In fact, in those days Auburn was known as “API.”
Alabama Polytechnic Institute… Alabama and Auburn didn’t play so being raised in Birmingham I was real familiar with Tuscaloosa which is 50 miles away. And my dad used to take me to their games all the time. They played in Birmingham a lot so my dad would always take me down to Tuscaloosa and Birmingham when they played. So I was a big Alabama fan and when I was finished with high school I just had to go to Alabama. I was hoping I would end up there, but that wasn’t meant to be.
So in 1986 we were playing in the bowl game in Birmingham. We played Indiana, we beat ‘em and that week the coaches at Alabama resigned and left the job opened. Me being right there and winning and having a pretty good season (went 7-4-1) you know, my name kept jumping up. The governor called me. ‘I want you to go to Alabama.’ A lot of the big boosters called me. ‘We want you to go to Alabama, what can we do?’ But the president didn’t and he wanted somebody else. I thought they were going to hire me. I’d already made up my mind, I was goin’, you know? And they didn’t offer me the job.
So anyway, I was a little disappointed but I just felt like ‘Well, maybe Tallahassee is where I should be.’ Four years later, the job is open. Then they did approach me about the Alabama job, but I was already 60 years old and I felt like I was too old to make a change. But you know what happened? 14 years in a row we were in the top four in the nation. And they [Alabama] were hiring two or three different coaches. When they said I was too old, we still had our greatest years at Florida State.
FB: I think it’s safe to say you made the right decision.
CB: I really felt like I should stay. I always said, ‘Well that’s Bear Bryant’s school.’ There’s no way I could do what he did. Tallahassee’s more like mine. Of course, since then [Nick] Saban’s kind of changed the scenario as has coach [Jimbo] Fisher. They both have done tremendous jobs.
Bobby Bowden on recruiting
FB: Obviously you needed a few good recruiting classes to get you guys jump-started…
CB: It’s as simple as this: whoever has the best players is going to win. Now a coach can mess that up, you’ve seen that. It’s like a racehorse. The fastest horse is gonna win that race. Number one, you’ve got to be able to recruit the great players. Right now, Saban is getting the best players. Jimbo Fisher’s not doing bad either. That’s why they’re winning.
FB: When you guys were recruiting, you stole away Ron Simmons from Georgia. How huge was that for you guys at that time?
CB: That was big. He had to be one of the top players in the nation. If they had rated them back then like they do today, he would be one of those five-star guys and probably be one of the top four or five in the nation at any position. He really helped turn our program around. It opened a lot of doors.
FB: How did you convince him to go to FSU from Georgia?
CB: There was a guy in Warner Robbins that used to play football for me named Billy Franklin whose nickname was “Stump.” He had a battery business there in Warner Robbins and he took him in. He kinda halfway raised him, gave him a job and worked him and worked him when Simmons was just a kid. He (Franklin) was probably the most important man in his life. I think his daddy wasn’t there. He might have lived with his grandmama, I’m not sure. But anyway, it was through his friendship that we talked him into coming to Florida State.
FB: On the recruiting note. When you guys recruited Deion Sanders, when you signed him, did you know that he was going to turn into the star he did?
CB: The coach that recruited him kinda thought that way. When he came in, there was no indecisions at all about his talent. This guy is talented. You know, his first year with us, it’s amazing. He played as a freshman and we played in the Fiesta Bowl and then he went out for baseball and played in the [College] World Series. Not many kids get to do that. And then of course his next year he was kind of the defensive back of the year.
FB: You had a lot of great players. You obviously need great players to do what you guys did. Who were some of your favorites to coach?
CB: You really hate to say that because they’re like your children. ‘Who’s your favorite child?’ Nah you know. Charlie Ward at quarterback, Chris Weinke at quarterback. Oh I had so many. It’s just hard to say…You know it’s fun coaching all those guys. It’s sure hard to pick out one. You know, Warrick Dunn was always kinda one of my favorites. Played with the Falcons you know and played with Tampa Bay. I loved him because his mother had died that year (1993 when he committed to FSU) and it just made you wanna take care of him.
Bobby Bowden on rivalries
FB: You had some great battles as a coach with some legendary teams like those Gators in the ’90s and Miami with Jimmy Johnson a little bit. Do you still maintain friendships with those coaches?
CB: I don’t see ‘em, I never see ‘em. If I do it’d be a happy meeting because I really respect them. I thought they were two of the best…I had a hard time with both of them. Plus there are others. Schnellenberger when he was down there. And then the coach that followed him or that followed Jimmy (Dennis Erickson). He won two national championships (1989 and 1991). Miami was the killer. They were the killer. By us missing field goals, probably cost us two or three national championships. We miss, they win, they win a national championship. If we hit, we win, we win a national championship.
FB: Yeah, but from then on you recruited kickers pretty well.
CB: Boy, did we! Janikowski came along later on and he’s still up there kicking in pro ball. Boy he was something else. He was built like a linebacker.
Bobby Bowden on coaching
FB: What would you say is the most difficult off-field incident you had to deal with?
CB: I had some players that went down to one of the big department stores in Tallahassee and there was a guy working behind the counter that liked these football players. Might have been a girl, I’m not sure. Probably was a girl. Or girls. So they would sell them a television set for a cheap price. I don’t even know what they cost back in the 70s. Probably a $200 television and they would sell ‘em to these players for $15 or $20 or something like that. That all came out. That was embarrassing. Very embarrassing. The boys had to repay and do a lot of things like that.
FB: Is there a specific season you liked coaching more than any other?
CB: Yeah. 1977. That was my second year (at Florida State). Now why was that my favorite? Because that was the year we broke out. Remember, I go to Florida State in ‘76 and we hadn’t beat Florida in 10 years. We hadn’t been to a bowl game in a while. We hadn’t even been ranked in a while. In fact, we lost every ball game one of those years. Only won one the next. So there in my first year we have a losing record, 5-6. But then the next year we break out. We win 10 ball games. We go to a bowl game, win it. We’re ranked 12th in the nation at the end of the year. And I think our defense might have been in the top. It was kind of a breakout year you know? Bowl for the first time in years. We beat Florida for the first time in years, had a winning season for the first time in years. So that’s kinda always been my favorite season because it wasn’t supposed to happen.
FB: What was it like coaching Fred Biletnikoff? He has his own award named after him because of what he did at FSU. I believe he was the first All-American you ever coached when you were the wide receivers coach, right?
CB: He was the first Consensus All-American at Florida State and he’s the first one I ever coached. And a great one. He was just a great athlete. As a coach, you’d like to claim it’s because of me, but it’s not. He was born with the ability. He had the gracefulness of a swan. That’s what he reminded me of, a swan. He was so graceful.
Bobby Bowden on retirement
FB: When you have a career like you did — which is one of the greatest football careers regardless of pro/college — what is one of the first things you do in retirement?
CB: First thing I do? I speak all the time. That’s what I do now. I’m lucky. I’ve been healthy. I’m 87 now and a little bit harder to get around. I speak at least a couple times a week. I’ll be in Atlanta this week and I was in Odessa, Texas Sunday. Spoke in Tallahassee two days before that so I speak a lot and I enjoy that. You know, after you coach 57 years you’ve got a lot of experiences to talk about. You raise six children, 21 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren you’ve got a lot of experience to talk about so I get invited to speak a lot.
The Bowden Dynasty is on sale now at the bowdendynasty.com.