• Mark Schipper

Bobby Bowden was One of College-Football's Greatest Chiefs: A Personal Remembrance of Florida State

By Mark Schipper

Image courtesy of Florida State University

This is going to be personal remembrance of Bobby Bowden because that’s what you do when someone who has impacted your life passes on. Bowden died in his sleep on a Sunday morning, aged 91, having told the world he was at peace with his fate after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer less than a year ago.

Bowden handled his own mortality like he handled everything else in his public life, including huge triumphs and devastating defeats, with an easy grace and folksy charm that made him a memorable character on the American-sporting scene. He had the hell of a nearly-century long run as an athlete and coach and lived a life that stayed blessed until the very end. May we all be so fortunate.

Alongside a couple of other major figures, like head-coaches Hayden Fry and Steve Spurrier, and far too many players to name who I idolized and tried to be when I was playing football, Bowden was integral to my love of the priceless game we play on Saturdays in the fall. I have always been a college-football man, almost one-hundred-percent though not quite because the Sunday game, if I'm being honest, has had its moments over the years. But as a general rule the National Football League I can take or leave. I do not feel the same way about college football.

The college game at its best is all heart and passion, the most personal of all sports, while the professional game is a cold-blooded business. That is part of what made Bowden a great personality for the college sport, because he embodied its ethos and his powerful teams at Florida State competed with an enthusiasm that matched their coach’s approach to competition and life.

I had a much-loved uncle who moved when I was very young, between five and six-years-old, from Iowa City to Naples, Florida, where he would live for the next twenty-plus years of his life. He had been a championship-level football player, was friends with football players at the University of Iowa, and in those days he still loved the sport.

My uncle was the kind of guy who would go to the high-school game on a Friday night in southwest Florida purely because he knew how good the sport was in that state at that level. As a result of that hobby I got word on multiple Division I prospects out of Barron Collier and Naples High and several other schools years before they would go on to sign with major college programs. In this era he could have written valuable scouting reports for a recruiting service. From up in Minneapolis I was totally fascinated with this warm state down south called Florida where they played such great football.

Even though my uncle lived ninety minutes across Alligator Alley from Miami, he had a hilarious contempt for the football program at that university and took up the mantle for Florida State instead. Bowden had a weekly show on the Sunshine Network that aired Sundays after the Saturday game. He liked the way Bowden talked about the sport and how he put into context what had happened the day before and the Seminoles grew into his team down south.

I had had my own personal experience with Florida State up north. It is a story I am going to tell in the book I’m writing this fall, but when my uncle started coming back with good intel on the state of football in Florida, I became a serious observer and partisan of the college game down there. The 1990s in Florida was the best time and place to become an aficionado of the sport in its 152-year history. Florida suddenly became the mecca of college football and the fiery intensity of the three-way rivalry between Florida State, Florida, and Miami, and the absolute-elite level of football each school played, drove the entire sport up to another level.

I have a photo in my house that bears out this personal history. I’m nine or ten-years-old, sitting with my suntanned uncle and two sisters, and I’m wearing a Florida State t-shirt. Seminoles is arced in mustard-gold across the chest and Chief Osceola’s head is pitched back in a war chant in the middle. I don’t remember if my uncle gave me that shirt as a gift, or if I wore it so we could be brothers in arms, but it was one or the other. I wish I still had the shirt, I’d wear it today.

The original Florida State mini-helmet

All of this happened just before the era in which everything could be bought. Getting an authentic jersey or helmet was not just rare, you had to know someone connected to the team. That kind of gear was not sold retail anywhere. But over Christmas of 1992, on the rare once-a-year or every-two-years we saw my uncle in person, he gave me a Riddell Florida State mini-helmet that came with a wooden pedestal and plaque. Attached to it was a note: “1993 National Champs, my pick.”

There always was a little bit of magic to my uncle. First of all, no one knew about mini-helmets in those days. They were a brand new product sold strictly in season-preview magazines. They were expensive, and they were sturdier than the ones they build now—essentially real helmets made in miniature. And now I had one. What a present for a kid to have! I would have died in a fire trying to get that helmet out of the house with me.

I still have that mini-helmet and I transformed it, using an aftermarket face-mask and decals, into an almost authentic Seminoles' helmet in miniature that looks exactly like what players in that era wore. My uncle's present is alive and well in 2021 and hanging on an office wall.

And, in the second place, Florida State did go on to win the national championship that year, finishing 11-1 and beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to put Bowden on top of the sport for the first time. It was a championship Bowden’s teams had lost in devastating fashion for about five consecutive seasons, missing it by margins that would have made men with a less-enduring purpose quit the profession. My uncle had picked the winner.

I had personally witnessed the Seminoles' preceding two cataclysms, which consisted of back-to-back Wide Right field-goal misses as time expired against the University of Miami. Those games were epic, physical clashes staged on hot, sunny Saturday afternoons in Tallahassee and Miami, and played out with as much drama and fatalism as a Greek tragedy. But Bowden never cursed the Gods, he just kept going forward until he reached the promised land.

I had observed the entirety of that 1993 season like a chemist studies a lab experiment. I watched all the games and listened to all of the interviews with Bowden. Alongside coach Fry at Iowa, Bowden was my top guy, the one I wanted to play for. Coach Spurrier at Florida was the most dangerous enemy and, while I was supposed to hate the Gators, I actually loved their orange-and-blue uniforms, their great stadium called The Swamp, and believed the Head Ball Coach had built the most-lethal offensive system I had ever seen.

Spurrier was one of my guys, too, partially defined by his battles with Bowden, but I kept that to myself. Head to head, I rooted always for Florida State. That rivalry would give me at least five of my favorite and greatest college football games of all time within a seven year stretch, and change forever the standard I set for college football. It was one of those natural peaks where everything came together at once into an incredible crescendo. You were lucky if you were there to watch it.

What has been gratifying to me in the years since, as more people began to talk publicly about how Bowden was, and candid footage of Bowden interacting with his teams over the years became easy to access, was how highly Bowden was thought of as a man. There are many good ways to develop a strong personal-value system, but Bowden was always out front with his path as a Christian. He treated people with a remarkable sameness no matter who they were and gave his charges multiple chances to demonstrate their good character, even after serious mistakes.

It was only interesting that he was a Christian because of the way he carried himself. Bowden led his football teams with personal values that transcended the sport, which is what all the greatest coaches and teachers do. He left people better than he found them.

I was glad to learn that Bowden was the real deal, and the man and team I had backed as a child were not some dressed-for-TV fraud but something sincere. Bowden did it his way, and his way was good.

My uncle passed away suddenly in 2016 and he can never be replaced, but there are a lot of great memories to hold on to. Now Coach Bowden is gone and that era is officially part of the past. I have my uncle to thank in many ways for those fantastic years with Florida State and Florida State has Bobby Bowden to thank for everything. He was one of the major figures in this rolling drama we call college-football and his place in its pantheon is secure.

Godspeed to Coach Bowden and deepest condolences to his family. I hope it is a consolation to know he will be remembered.

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