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Bowden continues to amaze

Bobby Bowden coached the West Virginia back in the early 1970s before coming to FSU. [file photo]

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 6, 2000


NEW ORLEANS -- It was 1976, two dozen Januarys ago. I'd been in Pittsburgh, covering the Steelers beating Oakland in the AFC Championship Game. Headed for Super Bowl X glory. A mushrooming pro football dynasty. My flight was headed home to Florida. An airplane packed with pale sun-seekers.

There was a familiar face a couple of rows behind me. I'd never met him, but I was pretty sure it was Bobby Bowden, football coach at West Virginia University.

Ah, a rumor to check ...

Bowden was friendly, approachable and open. Characteristics all the world would get to know. My imagination wasn't fiesty enough that Monday in 1976 to imagine what a long, fruitful, entertaining, professional relationship I was beginning with Bobby, a joyous, chuckling Southern gentleman about whom I would write a million words.

Bobby didn't duck my question. "It's true," he admitted. "I'm going to talk with Florida State University about going there to coach."

History in the making.

After working the old American Bowl all-star game at Tampa, he and wife Ann continued on to Tallahassee, where Darrell Mudra had been fired after 1-10 and 3-8 records. Bobby took over on Jan. 12, 1976.

It's difficult to imagine, seeing the 'Noles now as two-time national champions and an astonishing 13 consecutive seasons of national ranking in the Top 4, but in 1976 he was taking on one of the most difficult artistic/financial/emotional college football challenges ever.

As he is cheered for Tuesday night's glory in New Orleans, now a multimillionaire at age 70, soaring alongside Joe Paterno of Penn State as college coaches of a generation, flashback seems apropos on Robert Cleckler Bowden, whose life is now (12-0) perfect.

FSU football was threadbare in 1976. After an encouraging '50s infancy with Tom Nugent as coach, then some escalating '60s under Bill Peterson, the Seminoles were smacked with NCAA sanctions and spiraling into artistic rot, bottoming out with an 0-11 fright in 1973.

Crowds at Doak Campbell Stadium got smaller and angrier. Alumni support was meager. FSU athletics, on the whole, were running -- or crawling -- in the monetary red.

Bowden, a native Alabaman, was eager to return to the warmer South. Probably looking for a Leon County steppingstone that could get him a coaching shot back home, with the Auburn Tigers or Alabama Crimson Tide.

Instead of a stone, it became a monument.

After a 5-6 first season, Bowden boomed to 10-2 in 1977. Until the mid-'80s, the 'Noles would be consistent winners. Somewhat prominent. Then, in 1987, an astonishing Seminoles run began.

They were 11-2, winding up No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. A season later, another 11-1 record and a No. 3 ranking. It kept coming until 1993, the year Charlie Ward was a Heisman Trophy quarterback and FSU (12-1) finally won a national championship.

It's now long-run wonderworks. Twice winding up No. 1. Will it ever subside? Will the 70-year-old Bowden coach until he threatens the endurance of Amos Alonzo Stagg, who worked at the whistle-tooting craft until he turned 98?

This is dynasty-plus.

Bowden no longer calls offensive plays. He's more CEO than coach. But the magic keeps happening. Considering where it all began in 1976, including sobering facts about an FSU sports treasury that was lower than empty, plus a deep slump in 'Noles institutional mentality, I say Ann Bowden's guy has done more for FSU than any coach has done for any major football school.

Speaking of monuments, it's time we saw a new one in Tallahassee. There's a Bryant/Denny Stadium at Alabama, a Jordan/Hare at Auburn, a Neyland Stadium at Tennessee and a Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech.

Carve the marble, you 'Noles.

FSU owes the biggest of debts. Handsome brickwork envelops the old "erector set" ballpark where the 'Noles play. Now, in the double-dip glow, it should be rechristened Bowden/Campbell Stadium. Don't ask Bobby; just do it!

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