Legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden dead at 91

Bobby Bowden who took Florida State football from the bottom of the standings to become a perennial powerhouse, winning two National Championships, has died at 91.

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The university confirmed Bowden’s death Sunday morning. He was recently diagnosed with a terminal medical condition, believed to be pancreatic cancer, ESPN reported.

“Coach Bowden built a football dynasty and raised the national profile of Florida State University, and he did it with class and a sense of humor,” university President John Thrasher said in a statement. “While he leaves an incredible legacy as one of the best football coaches in collegiate history, he also will be remembered for his great faith, his love of family and his mentorship of countless young people. He will be profoundly missed.”

Bowden’s wife, Ann Bowden, announced on July 21 that the former coaching legend had been diagnosed with a terminal medical condition, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Bowden, who coached at FSU from 1976 to 2009, won national titles after the 1993 and 1999 seasons and finished in the top five in season-ending football polls for 14 consecutive seasons.

He had a 357-124-4 overall coaching record in 40 years of coaching Division I football, including a 315-98-4 mark at FSU. Bowden’s record was adjusted by the NCAA, which took 11 victories away from him due to team violations. In the NCAA books, Bowden is officially listed with a 346-123-4 mark.

“I have never been big on trophies and titles, because I know those accomplishments last only until you lose your next game,” Bowden wrote in his 2010 book, “Called to Coach.”

Bowden was hospitalized in late September 2020 for nearly two weeks with a leg infection after having cancer spots removed, according to the Democrat. He also learned he had tested positive for the coronavirus in early October, according to the newspaper.

In June 2020, Bowden was hospitalized for five days.

“I feel fine but I can’t do much,” Bowden told the Democrat on July 5.

Before coming to Tallahassee, Bowden coached for six seasons at West Virginia, compiling a 42-26 record from 1970 to 1975. Ironically, Bowden’s final game as a coach was Jan. 1, 2010, when he coached the Seminoles to a 33-21 victory against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

“It was bittersweet,” Bowden said.

Bowden coached 24 All-Americans during his career and went 22-10 in bowl games. The field at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee was renamed Bobby Bowden Field in 2004.

He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 1983. Bowden was inducted into the Florida State Hall of Fame in 2012.

In April 2021, Bowden was awarded the inaugural Florida Medal of Freedom by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Bowden won a national title twice, but was thwarted several times by in-state rivals Miami and Florida.

“They’re going to chisel on my tombstone, ‘He Played Miami,’” Bowden said after the Seminoles lost to the Hurricanes 17-16 in 1991 when FSU kicker Gerry Thomas missed a potential game-winning 34-yard field goal attempt.

>> Former FSU football coach Bobby Bowden receives inaugural Florida Medal of Freedom

Bowden was noted for his gregarious personality and quick wit, but behind the humor was an intense coach and a stern taskmaster. He rarely swore, with the extent of his profanity being an occasional “Dadgumit.” The Miami Herald, in a column during the early 1980s, referred to Bowden as a “Dadgum kind of guy.”

Mike Freeman, author of the 2009 book, “Bowden: How Bobby Bowden Forged a Football Dynasty,” said Bowden was “easily the most sincere coach I’ve ever encountered.”

He was also one of the most innovative and daring. In a tie game against Clemson in 1988, the Seminoles faced a fourth-and-4 situation at their own 21-yard line with 90 seconds to play. Bowden called a play that would be immortalized as the “puntrooskie.” This was a play where the punter fakes taking the snap, which goes to one of the upbacks. Dayne Williams took the snap and handed off to LeRoy Butler, who raced 78 yards to the Tigers’ 1-yard line. FSU kicked a field goal seconds later to win the game.

“Might be the best play I ever called,” Bowden said.

Analyst Beano Cook was more emphatic.

“The greatest play since ‘My Fair Lady,’” Cook said.

Robert Cleckler Bowden was born Nov. 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama. He lived in the Woodlawn section of Birmingham, and his family’s home was adjacent to the east end zone of perennial prep football power Woodlawn High School. That is how Bowden developed his love for the game.

At 13 he was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and was bedridden for a year and was forced to lie on his back for six months. Doctors told Bowden’s family that he had an enlarged heart. During that time, Bowden became fascinated with World War II and military history.

He once retraced World War II from the landings at Omaha Beach to the Battle of the Bulge and also climbed a Sherman tank in Normandy.

Bowden married Julia Ann Estock, eloping across the state line on April 1, 1949, in Rising Fawn, Georgia. Bowden had met her at a barbecue when she was 14 and called her “the prettiest thing I had ever seen.”

Bowden graduated from Howard College (now known as Samford University) in January 1953 and earned his master’s degree seven months later at the Birmingham school. He began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater in the fall of 1953.

Bowden’s career as a head coach career began in 1955 in Douglas, Georgia, when he took over the program at South Georgia College, a two-year school tucked away in the southeastern part of the state. He returned to Howard College in 1959 after South Georgia dropped its football program.

In 1963, Bowden joined the Florida State staff as an assistant. He moved to West Virginia as the Mountaineers’ offensive coordinator and was elevated to head coach in 1970.

In 1976 Bowden took over a struggling program at FSU, which had gone 4-29 the previous three seasons.

Bowden once said he could think of only two jobs worse than coaching at FSU in 1976: becoming mayor of Atlanta shortly after Gen. William Sherman left town or being the general who replaced George Custer at the final stages of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In 1981, Bowden navigated the Seminoles through a grueling October schedule that included five consecutive road games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU. “Octoberfest,” as Bowden called it, was a success as the Seminoles beat Ohio State, Notre Dame and LSU.

“I was struck by how he won so consistently, but always did it with humility and grace,” former NFL coach Tony Dungy wrote in the foreword of “Born to Coach.”

A religious man, Bowden gave thousands of sermons through the years, beginning with a sermon at his home church, Ruhama Baptist, in 1953.

Bowden’s sons also became coaches. Terry Bowden won his first 20 games at Auburn University in 1993-94. Tommy Bowden coached at Tulane and Clemson and faced his father on Oct. 23, 1999, in the first college football game that pitted a father and son as opposing coaches. Bobby Bowden won the “Bowden Bowl,” edging Clemson 17-14.

“I hope people remember me for three things,” Bowden wrote in 2010. “I hope people believe I was one of the best who ever coached the game. More important, I hope they say Bobby Bowden did it the right way.

“The most important thing I hope people would say about me is that Bobby Bowden served God’s purpose for his life.”

A member of South Carolina’s band once wrote how Bowden was the reason he chose Florida State as his graduate school, The Gainesville Sun reported.

“I was never a fan of FSU football,” the band member wrote. “But always been a fan of Bobby Bowden and the way he lived his life.”