Nine things you don’t know about Bobby Bowden
By Charlie Barnes, Executive Director - Seminole Boosters
As transparent as Bobby Bowden has been through a long series of books and countless articles and interviews, he remains an intensely private man. Bowden has learned how to balance life in the media glare since he first became a collegiate football head coach 50 years ago this season.
The picture book of Bobby Bowden’s life has been writ large in the public eye for half a century. But here are six selections from among the more obscure snapshots of his life and personality, from the back pages of that album.
He plays piano
During one of our long, dark night drives on the annual Bobby Bowden Tour, he made offhand mention of having worked out a musical arrangement for a song he liked. I had seen a piano in his home, but I didn’t know he played.
“Did you take lessons as a kid?” I asked. He said his mother had paid for lessons. “But I hated it,” he laughed, and said the lessons didn’t last long. “I didn’t like the lessons, but I liked the piano; I just learned to play by ear.”
I asked if anyone else in his family played. “Naw, just me,” he said.
‘Just me’ is an insight into Bowden’s private personality. Though almost constantly surrounded by friends, staff, family and clouds of grandchildren, he remains a surprisingly solitary figure. He goes his own way, keeps his own counsel and spends more time by himself that you might imagine.
He made a record in 1984
We took a fan bus from our hotel to the Orange Bowl last January, and the tape of Seminole music from the overhead speakers included an obscure melody I recognized. I turned to the fans next to me and asked if they knew who was singing that catchy, lilting tune. They shook their heads no, but they liked the song.
Marvin Goldstein is a musical treasure. He received his advanced degrees in music from Florida State University, and has been a scholar in residence in Tel Aviv and Salzburg, Austria.
It was Goldstein who wrote the music and words to a pretty good song called “The Seminoles of FSU,” and somehow convinced then-University President Bernie Sliger and Coach Bowden to record it together.
The record was made as a 45 rpm, as well as a cassette tape. Today, Goldstein does have it available on CD and the music is not bad. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
His most memorable lunch conversation
On one of his vacation trips to Germany, Bowden enjoyed a private lunch with the mayor of Stuttgart, Manfred Rommel. One year older than Bowden, Manfred Rommel was only 15 years old when he served as part of an anti-aircraft crew near his hometown. He was at home the day in 1944 when Hitler’s henchmen came to call on his famous father, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox.”
Bowden always carried a military historian’s fascination for Rommel, for his renowned tactical brilliance, for his ability to inspire his troops and to make best use of limited resources.
The field marshall called his son into an upstairs room and said, “Manfred, within the quarter of an hour I will be dead.” Rommel had been part of a conspiracy of senior officers to assassinate Hitler. He told his young son that he would get into a dark green staff car with the two German generals who had come for him, and that he would swallow a poison pill.
In return for cooperation in his own suicide, Rommel would be given a hero’s funeral with full honors, his wife and sons and his military aides would be spared.
His favorite song
Bowden’s favorite song is “Three Coins in the Fountain.”
He taught his sons to chew tobacco
The Bowdens raised six children, four boys and two girls. On another of our long drives, he mentioned that he and his boys had chewed tobacco together when they were growing up. He was laughing at me because I always cringe when he chews tobacco in my car, and I told him I was surprised that he’d encourage the boys to embrace the habit.
“Well, it’s tough raising boys, and I didn’t want them to drink or smoke and some other things I didn’t want them to get involved with,” he said. “But, dad-gum-it, boys have got to do something wrong, so we’d sneak off behind the house away from Ann, and we’d break off a chaw together.”
He was elected president of his college fraternity, twice
This obscure fact is interesting only in that it leads to other glimpses of Bowden’s remarkable talent for leadership. He and Ann attended Howard College, now Samford University, in Birmingham. Bobby Bowden was already a married man and a father, yet he played football, baseball and ran track for the Howard College Bulldogs.
It’s far too early to give much consideration to it now, but when the time comes for us to choose a new coach for the Seminoles, it is instructive to know that before he arrived here in 1976, Bobby Bowden had been a successful, winning head coach at three other collegiate football programs. The genes of a thoroughbred are usually evident from the earliest days.
He’ll Leave Tallahassee Immediately Upon Retirement
Bobby and Ann Bowden intend to leave Tallahassee immediately after he retires. For some time the family has been assembling a compound of homes in the western Panhandle. Bowden will likely never leave Florida. “I like the heat, can’t stand the cold,” he says.
However, his specific inclination to leave Tallahassee has its roots in his arrival here thirty-one years ago. At that time the Seminole football program itself was less than thirty years old, yet no fewer than five former Florida State Head Football Coaches were still living in Tallahassee!
Coaches Ed Williamson (1947), Don Veller (1948-52), Tom Nugent (1953-58), Bill Peterson (1960-70) and Darrell Mudra (1974-75) all made their homes here. “They were all great fellows,” says Bowden, “but every time the newspapers or the radio and TV needed an interview or a quote about the Seminoles, they called one of our former coaches who lived here.”
Bowden stresses that he felt all those men gave him support, but he does not intend to be the next go-to guy for the media. It will be tough enough for Bowden’s replacement without living in the long shadow of the legend. By the time a new coach is on board, the Bowden’s will be gone. “I probably won’t even come back for a year, maybe longer.”
The Twilight Zone Connection
Bowden has always said he’d rather be lucky than good. He’s fortunate that luck won out because a great coach, even the winningest coach of all time, would not have survived had not luck intervened in a pair of close calls. One such incident in a lifetime is unusual; twice creeps into the realm of downright eerie.
When he was offensive coordinator at West Virginia Bowden was offered the job as Head Coach at down-state rival Marshall University. He considered but turned down the offer, so Marshall hired their second choice, a young Marshall assistant coach named Rick Tolley.
A plane carrying the Wichita State team had crashed just the month before in October, so a cautious Marshall administration chartered a larger, safer plane for their trip to East Carolina. In the dark and rain and fog of November 14, 1970, the DC-9 crashed into a West Virginia mountainside. Coach Tolley along with all 75 players, coaches and fans on board were killed instantly.
In his fourth season at FSU, Bowden took his Seminole team to play LSU in Baton Rouge. He had originally expected his coaching stay in Tallahassee to last no more than three-to-five years, and after some confidential discussions LSU sent him a contract and the offer to be a Head Coach in the SEC.
He tucked the contract into his desk, and decided to let the outcome of the game against the Tigers determine the issue. Later he said, “FSU had the better team. I figured if we could go into Death Valley and beat the Tigers, as we should, Florida State might have the potential to be a major player in the south.” If not, then he and Ann would go to Baton Rouge where he’d take on the task of returning LSU to their earlier glories.
The game was close; FSU won by less than a touchdown and the clock ran out with LSU driving. Bobby Bowden stayed and joined his future to that of the Seminoles.
Unsuccessful at luring Bobby Bowden, LSU hired a young coaching phenomenon named Bo Rein at the end of that 1979 season. On the morning of January 10, 1980 Rein climbed into the twin-engine Cessna Conquest for the 40-minute hop from Baton Rouge to Shreveport to see a recruit.
The only people on board were the pilot and Rein. Instead of following the flight plan and heading west toward Shreveport, the Cessna drifted east and eventually vanished into the ocean off the coast of North Carolina. No wreckage or remains were ever recovered.
The 18-year-old Robert C. Bowden who graduated from Woodlawn High School in 1948 was asked to provide the yearbook with his favorite quote from classic lore. He chose the lines Tennyson attributed to Ulysses: “One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
As was the custom at Woodlawn, each student was asked to provide a favorite quote. A young sophomore named Julia Ann Estock selected the very same lines from Tennyson. Within a year she would become Ann Bowden.