I just spent the past weekend in, of all places, Douglas, Ga.
It is a sleepy little South Georgia town not too far from the Okefenokee Swamp. Of course, in the Bowden family, Douglas is not just any place. It is the home of South Georgia College, where in 1955 my father, Bobby Bowden, got his first head coaching job.
Being the only Bowden sibling born in Douglas it holds a special place in my heart as well. I had the honor of speaking at this past weekend’s football reunion for all the men who had played for my father at South Georgia Junior College from 1955-1959. It was the 22nd consecutive year that they have come together and my first time to make it to the reunion.
During those days, my family lived in a dorm on campus and as a toddler I often wandered across the grounds among the students. There is a story that I have heard told and retold countless times of how the players would constantly feed me candy and co-colas when I would wander out onto the campus. One day my mother pinned a sign on the back of my diaper that said “do not feed” and sent me out to play in the school courtyard. A couple of hours later I came back home with the sign turned over and inscribed with the words, “well fed.”
Every single player at the reunion must have pulled me aside to privately confess that they were the one who rewrote the sign.
During the weekend long reunion I got to know a group of distinguished men who in a different life had gone by the names of Stumpy, Bull, Ape, Coop, Blinkie, Tiny, Possum and The Waycross Flash. They recounted stories of all the crazy things that had gone on behind Coach Bowden’s back. The funniest was when Bull decided to sew a dead mullet up inside Stumpy’s mattress. He did such a good job of stitching it back up that Stumpy couldn’t figure out where the smell was coming from. Even after Stumpy suspected the mattress and drug it down the hall to another room, the players changed it back when he was at class and it stayed there for three or four more days. That was about the worst thing I ever heard that anybody did during those times.
There were no guns and knives, just some fisticuffs once in a while and a few practical jokes to pass the time. These boys were not goody-goodies but they were good. They were not saints but, by today’s standards, they were not sinners, either. They were just a bunch of ordinary guys who came together from around the South to go to junior college and play football for an unknown coach named Bobby Bowden.
I guess the thing that made me the proudest during the weekend was how much they all admired my father. How much they respected and appreciated him and especially how much of an impact he had on their lives.
As Father’s Day approached this week, like most dads do, I began to think about what it truly means to be a good father. I’m not talking about just being a good father to your own children. That seems more like a responsibility – albeit a labor of love – than something to pat ourselves on the back about. I’m talking about being a father figure and mentor to all those other children and young men whom we come into contact with who might not be in a position to get that from their own dad. I’m talking about the teacher and his students, the manager and his employees, the neighbor and the kids on the block, the coach and his players.
I’m talking about being a father figure to someone you might not even know. I heard it once referred to as “planting shade trees under which you’ll never sit.”
So, for a Father’s Day gift to a man who has everything, I decided to reach out to players in all six decades that he has been a head coach and ask them what my father meant to them. This is what they had to say.
These were my father’s first years as a head coach. They still wore leather helmets, ran the split-T offense and played on both sides of the ball. Many of the earliest ones at South Georgia were Korean War veterans, older than him, going back to school on the G.I. Bill.
“Coach Bobby Bowden started his head coaching career on an annual salary of about $4,500 and living in an Army barracks, the football dorm and driving the college bus on away games. I consider Bobby Bowden to be the Billy Graham of college football. Rev. Graham once said that integrity is the glue that holds our way of life together and Coach Bowden is certainly an example of that. He is a wonderful role model for college football and how we should live our life.”
Guard and Linebacker, 1956-57
South Georgia College
Real Estate Developer
Waterfront Communities, Jacksonville, Fla.
This was a time of great turmoil and strife in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement was affecting every facet of American life including college football. We lived in Birmingham, Ala., in the early ’60s while my father was the head coach at Howard College (now Samford University) and although segregation and racism was an everyday part of life, especially in the Deep South, I can never, ever remember hearing the “N” word in our household.
When my father went to West Virginia University in 1966 he coached his first African-American athlete and went on to name that player as his first black assistant coach.
“I am 63 years old and was the first African-American player that Coach Bowden ever coached. He is probably the one person who has had the most influence on me in my athletic life. He was my coach in 1966 and I was on his coaching staff during the 1970s. Coach Bowden is a great person and an outstanding role model. I look up to him and hope that my wife and children feel the same toward me on this wonderful day. I am a true Bobby Bowden fan and I always will be. I look back to 1966 and think how lucky I was to have had this great man in my life and what a major effect he had on my life!”
Running Back, 1965-67
West Virginia University
Assistant Athletic Director (38th year on staff)
West Virginia University
My brother Tommy and I were walk-ons at West Virginia while my father was the head coach during the early ’70s. I remember one day during spring practice I was at running back, Tommy was at wide receiver, and my dad was calling plays. He called a running play that had me carrying the ball up the middle and our middle linebacker, Steve Dunlap, read it perfectly and about killed me. I came back to the huddle with my nose bleeding, my chin gashed and my helmet turned a little sideways. With Tommy laughing out loud in the huddle my dad turned to me and, without batting an eye, called the same play again. That was the day I learned that we all are going to get knocked down in life but we just have to get up and keep going.
“As a walk-on at West Virginia University in the early ’70s, I was small, slow and had very little confidence that I could play at that level. My father had a great knack for helping players see the light at the end of the tunnel. He always told me, ‘Son, you can’t be the same as the other players because you’re my son … you have to be better!’ He pushed me to excel and created a level of self-esteem and confidence that I carry with me to this day.”
Wide Receiver, 1974-76
West Virginia University
Head Coach Clemson University
In 1983, I decided to follow the same coaching path as my old man and became a 26-year-old head coach at a small NAIA school in West Virginia by the name of Salem College. Dad always said that it is at schools like this that you learn how to do the little things that make you a winner. I had to cut the grass, drive the bus, tape up ankles, and coach every position on the team. Most importantly, I got to make my mistakes while nobody was watching.
I’ll never forget, in my very first year we were 0-7 and I called my dad to say I didn’t think I was going to make it very long in this coaching business. He convinced me to keep believing in what I was doing and good things would happen. He said that when you take over a struggling football program you almost always had to go through four phases; you lose big, you lose close, you win close, and then you win big.
Meanwhile, he was starting to win big at Florida State. He began a streak of 14 straight years of 10 or more victories and top-five finishes. He also developed the reputation as the River Boat Gambler as he went on the road to play anyone, anywhere, anytime. Trick plays became a trade mark of the early Seminole years and while most people will never forget the “Puntrooski” against Clemson in 1988, I’m rather fond of the delayed punt return by Terrell Buckley against Syracuse up in the Carrier Dome. It was tabbed by Coach Bowden as the “Foola from Pascagoula.”
“While many people know Coach Bowden as a great coach; I know him as a great Christian, a great father, and a great person who is consistent in everything he does. He is a firm disciplinarian who understands that young people need second chances. Being around Coach Bowden has influenced my faith, my coaching style, and my fathering techniques. Choosing to attend Florida State for college was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The most unexpected gift was learning who Coach Bowden is as a man.”
Florida State University
Jim Thorpe Award winner
50 career interceptions in the NFL
One of the greatest lessons in life is that you are never too old to change. In fact, if you don’t, somebody’s probably going to pass you by.
Going into the 1993 season my father decided that change was necessary at FSU. He decided to throw out the I-formation, get rid of the fullback and tight end, disband the huddle, and run plays as fast as he could. He called it the racehorse offense. He found him a quarterback who could throw out of the shotgun, a bunch of receivers who were tall and skinny and could run all day, and a waterbug running back who could catch the ball as well as he could carry it. He found a kid named Charlie Ward and put him at quarterback and a running back who wasn’t 175 pounds soaking wet named Warrick Dunn. He ran plays about as fast as he could call them for 60 minutes every single game, and, at 63 years old, my father changed everything he had ever done in football and won his first national championship. Before anybody figured out what he was doing he got another one in 1999.
“In every male’s life there are some men who have an effect on where we end up at the end of our journey. I am grateful to have Coach Bowden as one of those guys in my life. While being recruited to FSU there was a statement he made that could have made him a liar later on during my college days at FSU. However, he delivered on that promise. Recruiting is not always honest and Coach Bowden displayed a strong quality that all fathers should possess which is to follow through with your promises. He has given me great wisdom on coaching during my college days and now as a head coach of my own program. His philosophy on life is to be honest and fair. I have been blessed to have a great father, and to have another father figure – like Coach Bowden – has given me some great men to look up to as I father my kids.”
Florida State University
Heisman Trophy winner
First-round Pick in the 1994 NBA Draft
On October 23, 2003 Bobby Bowden became the winningest coach in Division I-A history. Today, he and Penn State’s Joe Paterno sit one game apart on top of that list that includes such legendary names as Bear Bryant, Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg. Not long ago I asked him why he still does it. It’s a young man’s game, and at 78 years old how does he find the energy and enthusiasm to keep on doing it day after day? I’m not reporting any earth-shattering news here when I tell you there are quite a few fans and pundits who say he has outstayed his welcome and needs to retire. There is a definite risk to this longevity thing. He told me that he still loves what he does and sincerely believes he is going to get the Seminoles back on top one more time. I am much too close to the subject to speak objectively about his winning again but there was one more thing that he mentioned to me that day. He said he doesn’t want to lose his platform. There are thousands of young men out there looking for answers in life and he still has a few things that he needs to tell them. He believes they’ll listen to a winner a lot more than they will to someone who is losing.
“It is extremely difficult to describe what Coach Bowden has meant to me in just a few sentences. Coach Bowden not only taught me how to become a better football player, but how to become a man. Coach Bowden’s positive example of faith, integrity, and all that he stands for helped teach us players how to become better husbands, fathers, and Christians. The lessons that I learn in every interaction with Coach Bowden and the lessons I learned during my six years as football player at Florida State University will forever be an integral part of my life.”
Florida State University
Offensive MVP, Academic All-American
Current Student – Florida State University College of Medicine
Twenty-five years ago someone told me to keep on doing what I believed in and that good things would happen. It made all the difference in the world in my life.
Dad, keep on doing what you believe is the right thing to do just like you have done for thousands of young men throughout the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and the 2000s. Keep on making a difference in people’s lives as long as you can.
By the way, I had the honor of emceeing the College Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremonies last summer in South Bend, Ind. As I stood on stage, posing questions to all of the inductees, one of them had this to say:
“Kids haven’t changed … the parents have!”
Thanks for never changing, Dad … and Happy Father’s Day!