December 02, 2009
By the time you hit 80 years old, you've been "the old man" a long time already. In Bobby Bowden's case, he's been the legend in residence for two generations who know him only as the folksy, slightly aloof caretaker who leaves most of the shop to his staff while playing the more leisurely role of backslapping, hard-laughing spokesman and the occasionally cumbersome role of proud father. The younger of those generations knows Bowden only as a charismatic has-been who probably should have hung it up years ago, before it came to back-to-back-to-back losses to Wake Forest.
Bowden slipped so easily into the role of homespun magnate of the dominant operation of its era that it's hard for anyone who came of age after the beginning of Florida State's unprecedented run among the national elite in 1987 to imagine him as just another ambitious, hard-working coach trying to get some obscure program off the ground. But Bowden was in his late 40s when he was hired at Florida State -- after applying once before and being turned down, just as he was to his infamous fortune at Marshall, just before the tragic plane crash that killed the guy who took the job, Rick Tolley, along with most of the Marshall team -- and he had been in Tallahassee less than five years before he interviewed at LSU in 1979 (the guy who got that job, Bo Rein, was also killed in a plane crash shortly after). He'd been at Florida State more than a decade when he was turned down in favor of Bill Curry at Alabama.
It was only after missing out on his dream job in his home state that the foundation he'd been building at FSU rose into the perennial power it would remain throughout the nineties. By his own timeline, he hasn't been "Saint Bobby" the happy-go-lucky Hall-of-Famer for very long at all compared to the time he spent as a tireless builder.
In retrospect, it's easy to get the impression the Florida State dynasty in the late eighties and early nineties was built almost solely on Bowden's personality. He walked the right line at the right time -- outgoing but humble, devout and "aw shucks" enough for the straight-laced media and boosters, but also progressive and flexible enough to recruit the increasingly flamboyant athlete he saw turn Miami into an overnight juggernaut at an obscure private school at the other end of the state. Bowden grew up listening to Bear Bryant, and tried to play for him, briefly, but he didn't coach like him, unless you think an old-school hardass like the Bear or Woody Hayes would have conceded to the realities of earrings, touchdowns dances, Deion Sanders and the Seminole Rap before almost anyone else -- much less still occasionally refer to the same players as "sweet, innocent boys."
Today, every big school blares hip hop at practices and relishes being name-checked by Lil Wayne, but no coach -- with the possible exception of Bowden's contemporary, Barry Switzer -- bridged the militaristic mindset that dominated the game for a century and the black youth culture that's entrenched itself over the last 20 years. Like Oklahoma under Switzer, that got Florida State labeled as a win-at-all costs, thug school built around the football program rather than vice versa -- you will recall the Criminoles, Free Shoes University, etc. -- and Bowden was personally tagged as too lenient and permissive when wins were at stake.
Unlike Switzer, though, the culture under Bowden never spun out of control to the extent that his job was ever in question, or that his personal integrity came in for any really serious beating. Bowden won at the highest level while keeping the plates spinning on sticks -- players over here, boosters over here, media over there -- for almost two solid decades without a down year, and set the template for the 21st Century powerhouse in the process.
That may be a simplistic summary of a nearly unmatched career, and it would probably be too simplistic to suggest the rest of the country "caught up" as Bowden fell behind; personally, I'm more inclined to blame Jeff Bowden, offensive coordinator -- the man who once said, on the record, "I don't want to deal with the running game. I'm not going to sit here wondering why we're not blocking this guy or that guy." -- than any other single factor. It's certainly difficult to blame recruiting, although the consistently strong efforts on the trail haven't been producing the pro prospects they used to. They haven't had a reliable quarterback since Chris Weinke, and when they finally fielded a solid passer this year, the defense did its part by collapsing at his never has before under outgoing coordinator Mickey Andrews. Maybe the rest of the Southeast did catch up the outsized football culture of the super program Bowden helped usher in and reaped the benefits as he lost the younger man's knack for adaptation after so many years of wild success. It happens to all the great ones eventually.
And if it doesn't, by some chance, the rest of us sit around wondering what might have been if only the genius had stuck around instead of going out on top. In Bowden's case, we've seen what was and wished we could have reversed the planet's orbit until we were back in 2001, encasing his legacy in carbonite, instead of watching him play out the sad spectacle of trying to resurrect the thing, always just one year away, like Joe Paterno had managed after his even more dire over-the-hill stretch at Penn State. As if it could be replicated, as if he could get all those plates spinning again at the same time. That's the thing with successful people, I guess: If they could accept walking away from their achievement when it begins to crumble, it never would have existed in the first place.