Conversations With Outstanding Americans: Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden has been a college football coach all his adult life. His hard-earned success has taught him a lot about the sport and the young men who play it as well as the value of delegating responsibility and not letting criticism beat you down.
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — Winning football coaches are treated like royalty on college campuses these days. Bobby Bowden is about as regal as they come.
During the past 21 years at Florida State University, he's lifted the Seminoles off skid row and polished it into a beacon of excellence and prosperity - and done it with an overarching rectitude befitting his "Saint Bobby" nickname and reputation for being a minister with a whistle.
He is the only coach in the country to lead a major-college team to 10 or more wins 10 years in a row, or to place a squad annually among the top four in the Associated Press's year-end rankings during that same span.
Entering Bowden's luxurious office does nothing to dispel the notion that he is probably the biggest man, figuratively speaking, on the Florida State campus.
He sits at the far end of a handsomely decorated room that gives visitors a first-and-10 feeling. One wall serves as a huge picture window overlooking the north end zone of Doak Campbell Stadium.
Asked if big-time college football might have grown a little out of control, Bowden doesn't stiff-arm away the question.
"There's no doubt in my mind it's too big," he says, adding that he's been a major beneficiary in this environment.
In describing his situation, he says much has fallen in place: "good salary, good job, good town, good state, good school."
And yet he knows it all rests precariously on winning. "You lose this many games and they fire you," he says. "You graduate all your players ... but you lose so many games and they fire you. There's something wrong there."
He wishes the game were "a little more amateurish," yet he doesn't see that happening. "It would be mighty hard to go backward because of the money." He concludes, "Because it's grown so big it takes money to be successful, therefore we have to win to draw crowds."
Certainly, huge crowds and national TV exposure are a given for the Seminoles, whether they're playing on the road or at home. Two years ago they set a school single-season attendance mark by drawing 465,000 fans during six games at Doak Campbell Stadium.
The stadium is an unusual fusion of academic and athletic worlds dictated by campus space needs, with an impressive new brick classroom and office building wrapping partway around the field.
On many campuses, the football stadium is divorced from the halls of academia. The head coach, however, must be aware of the academic demands on his players, lest poor grades jeopardize their athletic eligibility.
As with most major colleges, Florida State has an academic support staff to aid and guide its athletes. This is not the Ivy League, though, and Bowden, who grew up in the shadows of Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., is quick to acknowledge that the demands of fielding winning teams at the Division I level must be viewed realistically.
"Hey, we could all raise our academic standards if we went out and signed nothing but A and B students," he says, "but they can't play football. Some can, but there aren't enough. Some of the borderline guys are super, so you've got to have the right sprinkling of them. If you don't have any of them, then you're going to get beat."
While some Seminoles may scrape by in the classroom, others have excelled. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Charlie Ward was an Atlantic Coast Conference all-academic selection in 1992 and '93, an honor All-American linebacker Derrick Brooks earned in '92, '93, and '94. Quarterback Danny Kanell was awarded a post-graduate scholarship in 1995.
Bowden himself owns an honorary degree in pedagogy (the science of teaching) from Samford University in Birmingham. Though not a professor, he says he definitely feels like a teacher, and not just of football. To be a coach, he says, "you better be a teacher in how to live. I want my players not only to graduate, but to play at their highest potential, to be prepared for the future, and to come out of school with a higher standard of life, a life of honesty and integrity."
A major-college program, however, swims in the shark-infested waters of outside influences. Agents and boosters can be major predators and Bowden's charges have not always escaped. After winning the 1993 national championship, a handful of Seminoles went on a $6,000 shopping spree financed by an unscrupulous agent.
This disclosure led the National Collegiate Athletic Association to impose a one-year probation on the Florida State football program, which has otherwise enjoyed a clean image under Bowden. He was not a party to these violations, but the school's football image momentarily took a hit.
Such episodes can sting, as did the comments made last season by Steve Spurrier, the University of Florida coach, who suggested the Seminoles were unnecessarily rough with Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel during their first game, a charge Bowden denies. After losing to FSU in the regular season, Florida won the national championship by beating the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl.
No one is totally impervious to the slings and arrows a college coach fields, yet withstanding criticism is a job requirement, Bowden says. "You have to be very thick-skinned," he states. "I guess that's the first thing I learned when I became a head coach."
Although he had been the head man earlier in his career at South Georgia Junior College and at his alma mater, Howard College (now Samford University), Bowden says those jobs didn't fully prepare him for the pressure-cooker world of big-time head coaching.
"In those jobs you were never tested by pressure," he observes. "Who cares how many games we won at South Georgia College? Who cares how many we won at Howard College? Only me and my coaches and the players, and maybe a handful of boosters who didn't give enough money to do anything about it if they didn't like what you were doing.
"Once you get to the major-college level, though, [the boosters] have the money and you better hope they like what you're doing or they'll quit contributing. And when those contributions cease, usually the head coach's job ceases."
For Bowden, the first big test of his ability to bend but not break under fan and media criticism came early.
All was rosy when he succeeded Jim Carlen in 1970 at West Virginia. The team, thanks to his contributions as an offensive assistant, was coming off a 10-1 season that ended with the 17th-ranked Mountaineers winning the Peach Bowl. Carlen accepted a job with Texas Tech, leaving Bowden to keep a winning program on track.
The season began promisingly before the wheels suddenly fell off. "We lost two games in a row, and, buddy, that made me think, 'Should I be in this profession?' We lost a homecoming game against Indiana in which we were favored. I got booed very roundly for that and remember the headlines, 'Bowden Blows the Game,' that kind of thing.
"The next week brought the blackest day of my history in athletics. We were playing Pitt [Pittsburgh], our biggest rival, and were ahead 35-8 at the half and got beat. That drove me crazy. I really caught it then.
"We ended up winning eight ballgames and beating a good team in a big upset at the end. I got through it, but I got tested. Can you take the criticism? That's the key."
Since the buck stops with the head coach, he must ultimately accept the blame for his team's shortcomings. Inwardly, however, Bowden says coaches realize that they don't personally deserve the flak they receive every time a young man is outplayed.
Bowden explains, "We look at it and say, 'If this kid hadn't got whipped we would have won. If this kid here had only done this; we didn't tell him to do that. Why'd he do that? We can objectively clear our conscience most of the time.... You might have had six guys injured, but the public doesn't want to hear that.... You aren't good enough without these six guys. The public could care less."
In 1974, Bowden needed to draw on all his mental toughness to survive a 4-7 campaign that got ugly off the field. He was hung in effigy and "For Sale" signs were stuck in his yard. The next season he orchestrated a major turnaround, posting a 9-3 record and Peach Bowl victory that attracted Florida State to his doorstep.
The Seminoles were in ruin, having won just four games during the three previous seasons. Talk circulated that the program might be terminated. Seeing its potential, however, Bowden took the job with FSU at its nadir. He later joked, "When I was at West Virginia, all I heard was 'Beat Pitt.' When I got to FSU, their bumper stickers read, 'Beat Anybody.' "
He has gone on to win more games than the seven previous Florida State coaches combined did, building the program the hard way, but adopting a "have team, will travel" approach in his early years. Playing wherever and whenever a vaunted opponent would schedule Florida State earned him a reputation as "King of the Road."
Most head coaches are hesitant to play the powerful teams away from home without some sort of reciprocal arrangement. Bowden's lack of hesitancy, however, helped to infuse the program with confidence, that begat success, that begat exposure, and on and on it went.
The final hurdle, once FSU was a perennial power, was to figure out how to beat major nemesis Miami, whose Hurricanes seemed to have Florida State's number. When the team won in 1993, the way was paved to the first national championship in school history.
Asked to explain the foundational elements of his program, Bowden cites two points he insists on in assembling a coaching staff.
"No. 1, I demand loyalty," he explains. "I want you to be loyal to me and I'm going to be loyal to you. I want us to be loyal to the athletic director, loyal to the [college] president, and loyal to the university. Loyalty is a big issue. You don't say anything bad about me in public, and I won't say anything bad about you.
"The second rule is: We're not going to cheat. All your assistant coaches are coming together for the first time and they're going to do what the head coach says. You can go back and look at my notes from 1970. They say, 'I will not defend you if you cheat.' If I find out you're cheating, you're gone. We're going to build this program right. We took some lickings early, but it finally began to come together in the '80s. Now we've got a real solid program."
Part of the reason, he's convinced, is the staff's stability. "We hardly ever lose a coach," he says. "That's big. Kids like to know if they go to a school if the coach is going to stay or is he going to leave. Look at some of these coaches [at other schools]. Every four years they get another job."
To be a good head coach, Bowden is convinced, means being a delegator. He gives his assistants a lot of responsibility and freedom, and doesn't want to be surrounded by "yes" men.
"If I had to tell you how to do it," he tells them, "I didn't need you."
This approach grows out of an experience he once had as an assistant. "The head coach wanted to tell me how to tie my shoes," he remembers. "I wanted to tie them my own way and I couldn't. I think a coach has more initiative when you let him do it his way. You can give suggestions."
The victories, though, are really only part of it for Bowden, a devout Southern Baptist who uses his position to tend an extended football flock, sometimes actually taking the pulpit. This leadership is centered, of course, in his own family, which has been called "the first family" of college football. Three sons and a son-in-law are all college coaches, including son Jeff, an assistant at Florida State, and Terry, the Auburn University head coach who makes up half of the only father-son tandem guiding major-college programs.
Having coached his own sons, Bowden says, has helped him change with the times. He began when the coach had unquestioned authority and has adapted to the long-hair period in the '60s, when providing a reason for everything became important. Now players who wear earrings don't raise his eyebrows. "If it's not very important, let it ride," has become his motto.
He does, however, have serious reservations about the antics some players engage in after making big plays.
"I'm from the generation that wants to say, 'Son, don't flaunt yourself," he says. " 'We saw you score that touchdown. I wish you would just turn around and hand the ball to the official.'
"That's not the nature of the game nowadays, though. The nature is to showboat. I'd rather you not, but we want to keep the enthusiasm and exuberance in the game, the excitement. The crowd's up there in the stands acting like a bunch of fools, doing the chop and all this other stuff. They're doing their thing, but you've got to put a harness on it at a certain point."
The important thing, he emphasizes, is to be selective in the recruiting process. He says: "I tell my coaches, 'You go out and sign 85 people and it's hard enough to keep them good. You go out and bring in some rotten eggs with them and you're going to spoil the whole basket.' "
Asked if football can build character, Bowden replies, "Yes, it can, but a lot of times it doesn't. If anybody thinks, 'I played four years of football, look at how much character I've got,' I say, 'Oh, no son, it doesn't work that way.' I never never felt that just because you played football you'd be a better person, because I've seen too many go the other way."
The appeal for him is in feeling like an insurance salesman who sells a policy with long-range returns.
"When I coach these players and try to build them into a champion," he says, "even if we're not a champion on the field, one player might come back to me 10, 20, 30 years later and say, 'Coach, I'm glad you didn't let me do this.'
"You get letters from kids. I got one from a kid up in West Virginia probably two weeks ago. I haven't even thought about him for 25 years and he writes me and says, 'Will you send me an autographed picture to put on my desk? I want to thank you for what you said about this and that.'
"Those are our dividends that come down the road and make you love coaching in college and working with these young men."
Bowden's Football History
All-star quarterback at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala.
Small-college All-American quarterback, at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham.
1954-55 Assistant, Howard College
1956-58 Head Coach, South Georgia Junior College
1959-62 Head Coach, Howard College
1963-65 Assistant, Florida State University
1966-69 Assistant, West Virginia University
1970-75 Head Coach, West Virginia University
1976- Head Coach, Florida State University
More PR, Less Field Duty
At this point in his career, Bowden says he hands off most on-field responsibility to his staff.
"Coaching is more public relations, speaking, and public appearances, and leading, then trying to lead the other coaches and the players," he explains.
"I might help put together a game plan a little bit. I might say, 'We ought to do this,' or 'Let's be sure to do that.' "My input might be 5 to 10 percent of the overall game plan. Mainly, though, I suggest things. Then I observe them and if I think they're not doing it right I tell them, correct them."
During a game, he sometimes suggests plays. Otherwise he concentrates on making the high-pressure calls that no assistant should shoulder - the critical, fourth-down-type decisions. He also works at motivating players.
Beyond the field, he has become a much-demanded ambassador-celebrity around the country and on campus.
Where is the satisfaction greatest at this stage of a career that began so humbly as an assistant at Howard College in the 1950s? "My enjoyment comes in winning," he says. "It's been mighty enjoyable the last 10 years.... I could retire, but I don't want to.... At least I'm ready when the time comes. I've had my thrills."
- Excerpt from interview
Bobby Bowden on changes in motivating players ...
'When I first started coaching [in the 1950s] you didn't have to motivate them. They did what you told them; they didn't bat an eye. They had to. Back then it was "yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, sir." That changed completely.... Motivation has come around to showing a player what he can gain by doing it my way: 'Son, if you do it our way here, this is what you'll gain.' You have to sell them, you have to coax them more.'
On letting players wear earrings ...
'My culture says maybe you can't wear an earring and be a man, but some of these kids are from another culture and I'm not going to infringe on that. I'm not going to let that be an issue at Florida State because to me that doesn't decide whether you go to heaven or not.'
On the transcendent importance of winning to a major-college coach ...
'You can do all the good things you want to do. You can speak to all the Kiwanis clubs, all the touchdown clubs, go to all the churches, do this, do that, but if you don't win, you're out.'
On the age gap ...
'Football's a young man's game, but you don't have to be a young man to coach as long as you can communicate and keep up with the times without sacrificing your ideals. You want to stay with the old basic truths.'
On recruiting priorities ...
'We look at athletic ability first, because if the players aren't good enough we're not going to win. They can go to Sunday School every Sunday, but if they can't block and tackle we're not going to win. Then we look at academics. Can they get into Florida State and can they stay in school and get a degree? And the third thing is character. We're going to check that out real good, and if it's bad we're not going to sign them. We're going to check to see what kind of home life they've got. What kind of work habits does the player have? Is he on time? Does he cut practice? Can you depend on him? Is he an honest kid?'