Bobby Bowden, One Of College Football's Winningest Coaches Ever, Dies

Aug 8, 2021
Originally published on August 8, 2021 10:02 am

Bobby Bowden, one of college football's legendary coaches, has died. He was 91. Florida State University announced the news in a tweet saying, "Today we lost a legend but you never lose a legacy. Rest In Peace Coach Bowden."

Over his 57 year career, Bowden won more games than nearly any other head coach. For 34 of those years, he led the Florida State Seminoles, turning the Tallahassee school into a football powerhouse. During his career, Bowden claimed two national titles at FSU and 40 winning seasons overall.

Before taking the head coach job at Florida State, Bobby Bowden coached West Virginia University to five winning seasons. At West Virginia, there was a bumper sticker that said "Beat Pitt," an interstate rival. When he arrived in Tallahassee, he often said, the bumper sticker there said "Beat Anybody."

His first season at Florida State was tough, with more losses than wins. When he was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 2012, he recalled the game against Oklahoma, which had just won a national title and 18 straight games. Like many of Bowden's football stories, it had a punchline. He said he met Coach Barry Switzer at mid-field for the customary handshake. "So, he's trying to think of something nice to say to me," Bowden said. "He saw a kid warming up. He said, 'Boy...your coaches really do a good job with them.' I said, 'Coach, I'll swap my coaches for your players.'" The crowd loved it.

Bowden often said that 1977, his second year at Florida State, was his favorite year coaching. After their losing season, the Seminoles won ten games and were ranked 14th in the nation. It marked a major turnaround for the team.

FSU head coach Bobby Bowden stalks the sidelines during the 1997 Sugar Bowl. It was a rare bowl loss for Bowden as in-state rival Florida Gators defeated the top-ranked Seminoles 52-20 to win the national title.
Brian Bahr / Getty Images

He was born in Birmingham, Ala. and did his first coaching there at Howard College, now Samford University. After stints at South Georgia College and as an assistant at Florida State, he went to West Virginia University, where in 1969 he became head coach.

In 1970, his second year as head coach there, players and coaches with the state's other top division school, Marshall, were killed in a plane crash. In memory of the team, West Virginia players wore Marshall University initials on the helmets. The next season, Bowden gave Marshall's new coaches access to film and gamebooks to help them rebuild their program.

After taking the head coach job at Florida State, Bowden quickly turned a lackluster program into a perennial national contender. When he arrived in Tallahassee, Bowden said the school had trouble enrolling enough students to fill its dorms. "Four years later, we're undefeated," he said at a 2011 awards ceremony. "We're playing in our first major bowl. We're nationally ranked for the first time in 20 years." The next spring Bowden said, 5,000 students applied to the school, double the number that could be accepted. "Just because our football team had been successful and had been on national television and had gotten into a major bowl. Our president said that."

In Tallahassee, Bowden was revered. Elsewhere, fans of rival schools complained his "down home" and "aw shucks" manner was the face of a program that protected star athletes and helped them cut corners academically.

Head Coach Joe Paterno (R) of the Penn State Nittany Lions and Head Coach Bobby Bowden of the Florida State Seminoles talk before the Orange Bowl on January 3, 2006 in Miami, Fla.
Al Bello / Getty Images

For years, when they were both coaching, Bowden was in a race with Penn State's Joe Paterno to see who would register the most career victories. But in 2010, the NCAA investigated an academic scandal at FSU which ended with Bowden vacating 12 wins from the 2006 and 2007 seasons. That left him second to Paterno, with 377 career wins. In his final years at FSU, the Seminoles lost their dominance in the Atlantic Coastal Conference and fans complained he may have stayed too long. He retired after the 2009 season, handing over the reins to former assistant, Jimbo Fisher.

Among Bowden's achievements: he was the first coach in NCAA history to take his team to post-season bowl games in 27 consecutive seasons. At the Orange Bowl in 1994, Charlie Ward and the Seminole team beat Nebraska to claim its first national title. It was the first of two under Bowden.

Ward went on to play basketball professionally in the NBA. He was back in Tallahassee when Bowden received an award from Florida's Governor. He talked about Bowden as a coach and about "how much his Godly attitude [and] lifestyle played in shaping who I was as a player and as a person."

Bowden married his wife Ann in 1949 and credited her with raising their six children while he pursued coaching. Three of his sons followed him into football and carry on his legacy as college coaches. He talked often about his Christian faith, speaking and preaching in churches and to religious groups. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes named an award for him.

FSU Head coach Bobby Bowden was an entertaining speaker who never shied from saying what was on his mind.
Doug Benc / Getty Images

Bowden was an entertaining speaker, self-deprecating while at the same time clearly proud of his legacy. In 2013, three years after his retirement, Florida State students and fans packed an arena to honor him. He was asked how his teams were able to win so many bowl games, including 11 in a row between 1985 and 1995.

"You don't go out there and say, 'Hey man, let's try to win more games in a row that anyone else,'" Bowden said. "It just happens. Why it happened, I don't know. You look back and you say, 'How in the world did it happen?'" After a dramatic pause, Bowden said, "It might have been coaching."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A college football legend has died. Bobby Bowden won more games than nearly any other head coach during his 57-year career. For 34 seasons, he led the Florida State Seminoles, turning the Tallahassee school into a football powerhouse. Bowden was 91. NPR's Greg Allen reports that during his career, Bowden claimed two national titles and 40 winning seasons.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: At West Virginia, where Bobby Bowden coached before Florida State, a bumper sticker said Beat Pitt, an interstate rival. As the story goes, when he arrived in Tallahassee, the bumper sticker said Beat Anybody. His first season at Florida State was tough, with more losses than wins. When he was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame, he recalled the game against Oklahoma, which had just won 18 straight. He met Coach Barry Switzer at mid-field for the customary handshake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY BOWDEN: He wants to think of something nice to say, and he says - he saw our kids warming up. He said, boy, that - those kids look - oh, look at them. How do they do that? Boy, your coaches really do a good job with them. I said, coach, I'll swap my coaches for your players.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: Bowden said that 1977, his second year of Florida State, was his favorite year coaching. After their losing season, the Seminoles won 10 games and were ranked 14th in the nation. It marked a major turnaround for the team.

Bowden was born in Birmingham, Ala., and did his first coaching there at Howard College, now Samford University. In Tallahassee, he quickly turned a lackluster program into a perennial national contender. When he arrived at Florida State, Bowden said in 2011, the school had trouble enrolling enough students to fill its dorms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWDEN: Four years later, we're undefeated. We're playing our first major bowl. You know what? We're nationally ranked for the first time in 20 years.

ALLEN: The next spring, Bowden said, 5,000 students applied to FSU, double the number that could be accepted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWDEN: Just because our football team had been successful and had been on national television and gotten into a major bowl. Our president said that.

ALLEN: In Tallahassee, Bowden was revered. Elsewhere, fans of rival schools complained his down-home and aw-shucks manner was the face of a program that protected star athletes and helped them cut corners academically. For years, when they were both coaching, Bowden was in a race with Penn State's Joe Paterno to see who would register the most career victories. But in 2010, the NCAA investigated an academic scandal at FSU, which ended with Bowden vacating 12 wins. That left him second to Paterno with 377 career wins. Among Bowden's achievements, he was the first coach in NCAA history to take his team to post-season bowl games in 27 consecutive seasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The garnet and gold of Florida State and their great, all-America Heisman Trophy winner, Charlie Ward, the quarterback.

ALLEN: At the Orange Bowl in 1994, Charlie Ward and the Seminole team beat Nebraska to claim its first national title. It was the first of two under Bowden. Ward was back in Tallahassee when Bowden received an award from Florida's governor. He talked about Bowden as a coach and a role model.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE WARD: How much his godly attitude, lifestyle played in shaping who I was as a player and as a person.

ALLEN: Bowden talked a lot about his Christian faith, speaking often to religious groups. He was an entertaining speaker, self-deprecating while at the same time clearly proud of his legacy. In 2013, three years after his retirement, Florida State students and fans packed an arena to honor Bowden. He was asked how his teams were able to win so many games.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOWDEN: You look back and you say, how in the world did it happen? It might have been coaching.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: Three of Bowden's sons followed him into football to carry on his legacy as college coaches. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.