As the NCAA came down with tough sanctions that not only implemented a bowl ban, but took every win from Joe Paterno and Penn State dating back to 1998, former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden once again became the winningest coach in the history of major college football. Bowden’s 377 career wins are once again a NCAA record, but it did not come the way anyone would have hoped.
There will be debate as to whether or not Bowden’s wins record should be marked with an asterisk, but in the end, who really cares? Bowden’s record won’t define the man that Bobby Bowden is. Instead, his wins record should be viewed as a symbol of the justice that exists in doing what is right.
While Coach Bowden is a man who will be remembered largely for what he and his football teams did, Bowden never allowed football to define him as a man. Football was merely a platform for Bowden to implement what he believed.
Bowden, a devout Southern Christian, always made something much bigger than football what ran his day-to-day life. He conducted himself with integrity and character and never cheated to do something that in the grand scheme of things was a trivial as winning football games. Despite being a football lifer, Bowden’s god and his family always stood bigger than the game he loved.
His career however, did not go without controversy. Midway through the 1999 season, star receivers Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles were caught shoplifting at local department stores while the Seminoles were in the midst of a national championship run. Coles, who has been in trouble with the law on previous occasions, was dismissed from the team while Warrick was suspended for two games including a big one against rival Miami. People questioned Bowden’s decision to dismiss Coles, but keep Warrick, but as Bowden always said, “I’ll give you a second chance, but you won’t get a third.”
Tragedy struck the Florida State football program prior to the 2001 season when linebacker DeVaughn Darling died suddenly during what the program called mat drills, a conditioning technique. Darling’s twin brother Devard was also a member of the team who later transferred to Washington State following his brother’s death. While it was a difficult time for the Florida State program, the Darling family felt it the hardest. The mat drills at Florida State changed afterward and after unknowingly giving DeVaughn Darling’s number 53 to freshman linebacker A.J. Nicholson, Bowden gave Nicholson number 54 and made sure that jersey number 53 would not be worn again until after the entire recruiting class that came in with the Darlings had graduated.
Under Bowden, Florida State also had an academic cheating which stripped Bowden of a dozen victories and forced nearly 30 Seminoles to miss the 2007 Music City Bowl against Kentucky. But no evidence ever suggested that Bowden knew about or was involved with the incident.
While Bowden had his fair share of naysayers and those who doubted how genuine he truly was, his actions spoke louder. Following a plane accident that killed the entire Marshall football team in 1970, then West Virginia head coach Bobby Bowden opened his doors and his playbooks to the coaches who sought to rebuild the program. After Bowden’s Florida State team edged Tom Osborne’s Nebraska Cornhuskers 18-16 on New Year’s Day of 1994 to win Bowden and FSU’s first national title, Bowden invited Osborne to Tallahassee to watch how he and his coaches went through a typical day of practice.
Both FSU and Nebraska began the 1994 season in the top 10 and it would not have been a surprise had the schools met in the Orange Bowl for a third straight year following the 1994 regular season, but that did stop Bowden from opening his doors to Osborne. As Bowden said in his book, “The Bowden Way”, one of the few differences between Florida State’s and Nebraska’s practices was that Bowden and his coaches prayed together before beginning practice. Osborne soon implemented a pre-practice prayer with his coaches back in Lincoln. Nebraska went on to win or share three of the next four national championships not because God suddenly became a Cornhuskers’ fan, but perhaps because it brought just a bit more unity to the coaching staff.
At Florida State, Bowden brought the school more than 300 wins, two national championships, 12 ACC championships and 20 bowl victories not to mention countless amounts of revenue for the athletic department that led to state-of-the-art facilities and who knows much new interest from prospective students. All of that however, did not stop the Board of Trustees from forcing Bowden out after a third 6-6 regular season in four years that culminated with a 37-10 loss to arch-rival Florida, the school’s sixth straight loss to the hated Gators. But rather than pointing fingers at someone else or pointing out all the things that Bowden had done for a university that had won just four games combined in the previous three years prior to his arrival, Bowden went gracefully. To this day, Bowden has never wished anything, but the best for Florida State University.
Bobby Bowden is once again major college football’s all-time wins leader. But the record shouldn’t change Bowden’s legacy one bit. Instead, let Bowden’s 377 wins be a reminder of the type of man he was and the lives that he touched. In a day and age where the Jim Tressel’s and Bobby Petrino’s of the world steal the media headlines, Bowden never strayed from what he felt was right. With million dollar contracts, underachieving regular seasons and arch-rivals being championship-caliber for the final decade of his career, it would have been easy for Bowden to succumb to the media frenzy and the win at all costs nature of modern college football. But Bowden never did anything unethical; he wasn’t defined by football. It was God, his family and the young men whose parents counted on Bowden to be the parent away from home that Bowden treasured most. Bowden’s football legacy speaks for itself, but his legacy will forever remind us that there are still people who believe that doing things the right way exceed the importance of just winning and losing
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