Ushered into his office, the first time I met the legendary coach he was knee-deep in film. Literally.
Bobby Bowden was studying an opponent in those ancient pre-video days, with a projector beaming the action from his desk to a screen on the wall. He opted not to use the take-up reel at the opposite end, so film just spilled from the projector onto the floor into a tangled pile at his feet.
It was late one Thursday morning in November 1984. The team I covered, the UT-Chattanooga Mocs, were playing his Florida State team that Saturday night. The outcome was all predetermined. This was one of those money games for an infusion of cash to what was then called a Division I-AA program (now FCS). For Florida State, it was a soft tune-up before the next week’s date with the hated Florida Gators, and maybe a chance for Heisman candidate Greg Allen to pad his resume.
For all the lopsidedness sure to happen, there was enough interest among our readers – and a level of competition with the rival newspaper – to “pre-game” it. Meaning I’d visit the opponent’s campus and write about them in advance of the game. So I caught the dawn flight out of Chattanooga, landed in Tallahassee and immediately hustled to the Florida State campus and an appointment with Bowden.
What I told people for years, and what I warmly remember today as I learned of the great coach’s death at age 91, was how he greeted me.
“It was like I wrote for ‘Sports Illustrated,’ not an afternoon paper in Chattanooga,” I said then, and I’ve said a hundred times since. Even sharing that with his son, Terry.
He arose from the quicksand of his game film, shook my hand and made sure I also met everybody else in the immediate orbit passing by his office. I have no record of the interview. I’m sure it was full of awkward, cliché questions from a young-ish writer a bit in awe of the surroundings. I’m sure the answers were equally cliché, with great respect for the opponent no matter its standing in the football caste system, but sprinkled with his country charm.
The one line I do remember:
“Chattanooga, huh? Boy, you know where Trenton, Georgia is?” Bowden asked.
I answered that of course I did.
“Well, one day two crazy kids from Birmingham decided to go up there and get themselves married. They had to get married across the state line.”
Those crazy kids were Bobby Bowden and Ann Estock. It was April 1, 1949. Bobby was 19 and Ann was 16. They were married at the home of a justice of the peace in Rising Fawn, just outside Trenton. They kept the marriage secret for a while so it didn’t interfere with his college career at Howard College (now Samford). They were married 72 years.
That Bowden made such a personal connection still resonates with me. It always did as I’d see him through the years. I didn’t know him well, and he would have been hard-pressed to remember me by name. But he was always friendly, always engaging, this avuncular figure who seemed to have a story for every occasion.
It struck me this morning how much that personal connection has evaporated in this era of coaches, and how the aloof, robotic, control-freaks of today’s game will be eulogized a generation from now mostly for their won-loss records, not their homey greeting to a visiting journalist.
Bowden won two national championships at Florida State and was credited with 377 victories. He was an imperfect coach. That cost him 12 wins that were vacated because of an academic scandal. There were frequent other accusations – remember the Free Shoes U. stuff – and actions by some renegade players. I’ve often equated Bowden with John Wooden, who created the UCLA basketball dynasty while a booster ran amok in the shadows, playing Santa Claus for the UCLA players.
I think Bowden and Wooden both could conveniently cocoon themselves from reality in the interest of victory. But I think they were devoted to their players. I think, perhaps because of their strong faith, both believed in the basic decency of mankind, and were a bit naïve.
Think about it: If there was a flaw to Bobby Bowden, it was his humanity. Oh, that we could all aspire to that as our greatest flaw.