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Dadgumit, 30 years and counting

Bobby Bowden said in 1976 he didn't plan on staying long at FSU. Then again, he didn't know he would be the founder of one of college football's elite programs.

By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published August 29, 2005


Even before he rummaged through the boxes strewn about so he could properly decorate his new office at Florida State, Bobby Bowden had formed an exit strategy.

He would use this latest coaching stop as a way to re-establish contacts in the South after 10 years in West Virginia, then land a job in his home state at Alabama.

"I didn't come to stay," he said.

And the clock, he told himself, was already running. If he remained for more than five years, he would face a daunting schedule in 1981 that included a five-game stretch against perennial powers Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU. All would be on the road.

"I looked at that and said, "Gee whiz, I better be gone before that occurs. They'll probably be wanting you to leave right after that one,"' he said.

It didn't work out that way.

Bowden enjoyed unprecedented success in his first five years, survived 1981 to earn the "King of the Road" nickname and settled down to build FSU into one of the nation's premier programs.

Entering his 30th season in Tallahassee, which begins Labor Day evening against Miami, Bowden's set to join an exclusive fraternity. Only Amos Alonzo Stagg (41 years at Chicago), Joe Paterno (entering his 40th at Penn State), Frank Howard (30 at Clemson) and Dan McGugin (30 at Vanderbilt) have spent at least three decades at the same school. Bowden, the all-time Division I-A wins leader, will receive a $250,000 bonus for his uncommon longevity at season's end.

"I couldn't have planned it that way," said Bowden, 75, who shows no inklings of retirement. "My whole career, I couldn't have planned. One thing just led to another."

* * *

For Bowden, the road from Morgantown, W.Va., back to Tallahassee, where he had been an assistant, began in Tampa in January 1976.

In town to help coach the North team in a postseason all-star game, Bowden received a phone call from FSU athletic director John Bridgers, who asked if he and school president Stanley Marshall could fly down and talk to him about the vacant job.

Bowden had just come off a 9-3 season at West Virginia, including a Peach Bowl win. Things were good, but Bowden hadn't forgotten 1974 when his team struggled and fans called for his removal; some hung him in effigy, others planted a For Sale sign in his front yard. So, he would listen to FSU's pitch.

"I was feeling them out and they were feeling me out," he said of the meeting, held clandestinely in an airport hotel.

Bowden wasn't the first or only candidate FSU had considered as a replacement for Darrell Mudra, who had gone 1-10 and 3-8 in two seasons. Former FSU coach Bill Peterson and Tallahassee Leon High coach Gene Cox were possibilities with significant fan support. East Carolina coach Pat Dye also was on the list.

"Bobby was a great person and one of my favorite coaches," recalled Bridgers, a native of Birmingham like Bowden. "He answered every question I had. Before he left, I tried to convince him to come to Tallahassee for a visit."

After the all-star game, Bowden and his wife, Ann, decided to reroute their Sunday flight home.

Bridgers offered him the job before dropping him off at the airport later that day. Bowden would get a four-year deal at $37,500 annually. He was making $28,000 and had a one-year deal at West Virginia.

Bowden promised he would get back to him.

The wait was a matter of hours.

"By the time we got to the airport in West Virginia, we had already made up our minds; we were going back to Florida State," Bowden said.

The official announcement came Jan.12, 1976.

"It's always difficult to lose a good person and he was a heck of a good person as well as a good coach," then West Virginia athletic director Leland Byrd recalled. "But you don't stand in the way of a person doing better. I wished him well, and I knew he'd do well."

* * *

FSU players heard that they had a new coach, so they weren't surprised to find notes taped to their dorm room doors telling them of an important meeting.

"I knew things were changing so I made sure I was there early," said Roger Overby, a former Robinson High star who would be a junior receiver in 1976.

Others apparently figured they would breeze in a fashionably late, only to find the doors locked. Something like that wouldn't have happened under Mudra, who was a laid back coach. Nor would he have given the short speech that Bowden did that day.

"I talked to them sternly," he said. "I remember telling them, "I know how to win, y'all don't. We're going to do it my way and if you don't, you're not going to be around here long."'

He had rules that had to be followed. Bowden said every player had to go to church at least once. ("That had a real impact on my life," said Larry Key, a former Citrus High star running back who was then a sophomore. "I came up in a Christian home but had kind of gotten away from that.") There also would be no cursing on the field. The players would wear jackets and dress shirts on trips. Long hair and mustaches, however trendy, wouldn't be allowed.

"Afros and facial hair was a big deal for guys like me,"' said Bobby Jackson, a sophomore defensive back when Bowden arrived. "The first thing he said was, "Everybody has to cut his hair,' and I was like, "Oh no. Where did we get this guy from?"'

* * *

But did Bowden really know how to win?

After an opening loss at Memphis State, the Seminoles went to Miami and lost 47-0. A game at No.4-ranked Oklahoma loomed a week away and Bowden decided to start anew.

Seven freshmen - receivers Kurt Unglaub and Jackie Flowers, fullback Mark Lyles, guard Mike Good, defensive tackles Scott Warren and Walter Carter and kicker Dave Cappelen - would supplant upperclassmen who Bowden didn't sense truly believed the Seminoles could win.

"He told us, "If I'm going to lose big, I'm going to get beat with young guys,"' said assistant Jim Gladden, a graduate assistant under Mudra whom Bowden retained.

Oklahoma won 24-9, but the hard-fought game provided the Seminoles with confidence, both in themselves and their coach. They followed with wins against Kansas State and at No.13 Boston College before losing narrowly to Florida, Auburn and Clemson.

Through it all, Bowden preached a simple motto:

"He said, "No matter what, in the fourth quarter, we were the best team. We were the best conditioned team. We were the best prepared team and we were going to win. We were going to find a way to win,"' Key said with palpable excitement all this time later.

Against visiting Southern Mississippi in week nine, the Seminoles trailed 27-10 entering the final quarter, but rallied for three touchdowns. That culminated with a 95-yard pass and run from Jimmy Black to Rudy Thomas on a third and 13 with 4:05 left.

A week later, playing on a fresh blanket of snow - something most of the Seminoles hadn't seen before other than on television - at North Texas State, FSU erased a 20-13 deficit in the final moments and won the game in vintage style for "The Riverboat Gambler." Instead of going for a tie with a PAT, Bowden went for two and had Key lob a pass to Unglaub. Earlier in the game, Unglaub had scored on a 91-yard pass play.

In the finale against Virginia Tech, the Seminoles rallied in the fourth on a 96-yard Unglaub touchdown from Jimmy Jordan. Key had scored on a 97-yard run, still the longest carry in school history.

"If you look back at the (big) plays we made in those games, you're like, "How'd that happen?"' Overby said. "But we had started to play like a team and lots of good things were happening. The way we came back and won those last three games, that's when we knew we had something going here."

* * *

The Seminoles were just 5-6 in 1976, but that was one more win than the program had in the three previous years combined. It also turned out to be Bowden's lone losing season at FSU.

"It got it going about as well as you could have expected," he said. "That first year, you want to get things turned around."

By the time the freshmen he turned to in 1976 were seniors, FSU burst onto the national scene with an 11-0 regular-season record before losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. He followed with a 10-2 mark, then fell to 6-5 in 1981, even though his team was 3-2 in that five-game road stretch he had fretted about years before.

He survived and, despite offers over the years from other schools and even the NFL, he stayed put. Last season, FSU dedicated a bronze statue and a stunning stained glass window with its beloved coach's likeness. It also named the field for him.

"When you think of Florida State, it's Bobby Bowden," Dye said. "He didn't have the luxury that I did when I came to Auburn. Auburn had a football tradition. Florida State didn't have any when he got there. He's created it all."

"That's why first impressions aren't always right," added Jackson with a laugh. "What seemed to be like, "How did I end up at Florida State?' turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me by Coach Bowden coming. It was a blessing."

One that's going on 30.