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Why didn't Bowden get 1 more year?

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

Bobby Bowden, the high priest of Florida State football lo these many years, is moving about in retirement as you might expect--without acrimony or regret.

It has been well documented that he was not ready to quit coaching, and he confirmed that notion here in a recent conversation.

"I was enjoying it," he said with a deep-throated and generous chuckle, which defines him. "I would like to have coached one more year. Everybody has goals, and I wanted to win 400 games. Joe (Paterno with 394 career wins) will. I won't."

He won't because the school that he took to elite status, in phoenix-like fashion, wouldn't let him. When Bowden arrived in Tallahassee as head coach in 1976, the Seminoles never had a sniff of a national championship. Bowden won two and was in the hunt for several more.

"The problem with winning the championship is that they expect you to do it every year after that," he laughed.

Doak Campbell Stadium had the look of an erector set when he arrived and now is the largest stadium in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the largest continuous brick facility in the United States.

Bowden won 389 games in his career, which was so exceptional that he (and Paterno) became the only coaches to be elected to the College Football Hall of Fame while still actively coaching. None of that mattered, however, when the hot-breath critics lost their grip on reason and grumbled for change.

Bowden was shortchanged, but the kids he coached were not. Nor were the families of the kids he coached, many who offer grateful appreciation to him for second chances given their sons. He would give a kid an opportunity to redeem himself. Many critics even found fault with that.

"I believe in forgiveness," Bowden says. "I always believed that you can save a kid when he has gone wrong. Every one of them was punished. Most of them came back better citizens."

Bowden came here, not expecting to stay. A native of Alabama, he reasoned that an address closer to his home in Birmingham -- as opposed to Morgantown, West Virginia, where he was -- might get him to Auburn or Alabama. He grew up emotionally attached to Alabama and remembers the time Charley Trippi "broke his heart" by leading Georgia to victory over his favorite team. Trippi gets his vote as the greatest all-around college player he has ever seen. "I'd pay to see a highlight film of him," Bowden says.

By the time Alabama came calling, Bowden was too entrenched at Florida State for the opportunity to turn his head. Loyalty should be a two-way street, and if there is anything redeeming about this longtime coach, it is his unmitigated loyalty, which he inspired in others. When Sam Mrvos left South Georgia Junior College in 1956 to return to Athens, Bowden drove to St. Augustine, Fla., and talked Vince Gibson, a high school coach, into moving to Douglas to become his assistant. Gibson took a pay cut to make the move, a reflection of Bowden's acumen as a salesman. Gibson also gave Bowden a quarter to cover the bridge toll over the St. John's River on the return home.

"We were not a well-heeled athletic department when I was at South Georgia," Bowden laughed.

At South Georgia, Bowden coached a couple of players who were Korean veterans and who were older than he was. It was mostly a team of misfits, motivated to overachievement.

"With coach Bowden, you always believed you could win no matter how superior the competition was," says one of his players, Vernon Brinson, a successful New Orleans businessman who became president of the Sugar Bowl after transferring to Georgia and graduating.

Every summer, Bowden journeys to Douglas for a reunion of his South Georgia players. He never misses a reunion of the team, which he says was his "closest" in 57 years of coaching.

A man with that kind of loyalty and love of coaching ought to be remembered as much for his contributions to the game as anything. One more year? How could his wish not be granted?