Tallahassee, Fl.- Bobby Bowden, the folksy Hall of Fame coach who built Florida State into one of college football’s great dynasties who won more than 350 games and two national championships, has died. He was 91 years old.
He was sick since last fall.
Bobby’s son, Terry, confirmed to The Associated Press that his father died Sunday morning at his home in Tallahassee, Florida surrounded by family.
“It was really peaceful,” Terry Bowden said in a text message to the AP.
Bobby Bowden announced on July 21 that he had an incurable disease that Terry Bowden later described as pancreatic cancer.
Florida State scored an unmatched 14 consecutive seasons (1987–2000), ranked in the top five of The Associate Press College Football Poll under Bowden.
“Florida State University has lost a legend in the passing of Bobby Bowden,” University President John Thrasher said in a statement. “Coach Bowden built a football dynasty and raised Florida State University’s national profile, and he did it with class and a sense of humor.”
Bowden retired after the 2009 season with a Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia in Florida State’s 28th straight postseason appearance, a victory that gave them their 33rd consecutive winning season. However, a month after resigning, the NCAA stripped Florida State of victories in 10 sports due to an academic cheating scandal involving 61 athletes in 2006 and ’07.
Still, only Penn State’s Joe Paterno is credited with winning many games (409) as a leading college football coach. Bowden’s win overall ranks fourth among all divisions in college football history.
Bowden was replaced in 2010 by their offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, who was Bowden’s replacement-in-waiting.
“He is one of the greatest human beings that has ever been trained and one of the greatest coaches that’s ever coached,” Fisher said.
Bowden won the national championship in 1993 with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Charlie Ward, and again in 1999 with his second Heisman winner, quarterback Chris Weinke, and All-American receiver Peter Warrick.
The Seminoles were a contender to win the title every season for more than a decade. Florida State lost the national championship game against Florida, Tennessee, and Oklahoma and missed out on playing for the title in several other seasons, due to losing to archrival Miami.
Bowden once quipped that his headstone would read, “But he played Miami,” a one-liner that came a day after the Hurricanes left with a 17–16 victory in 1991 when the Seminoles missed a field goal in the final seconds. Miami had a similar win in 2002 when a field-goal effort went too far to the left, much to Bowden’s chagrin.
Both coaches who gave birth to the college football powerhouse in Florida during the 1980s have died this year. Howard Schnellenberger, who led Miami to its first national championship in 1983, died in March at the age of 87.
After joining the league in 1992, Florida State dominated the ACC under Bowden, winning the championship in 12 of its first 14 seasons.
“Bobby Bowden means a lot to Florida State athletics and to college football in general,” said Florida State Athletics director David Coburn. “He is part of the heart and soul of FSU, but it goes beyond even that – he is a huge part of the history of the sport.”
Bowden was also the patron of college football’s most colorful coaching family. Son Tommy Bowden had a 90–49 record at Tulane and Clemson, and son Terry Bowden had a 47–17–1 record at Auburn. Another son, Jeff, served as a 13-year coaching wide receiver for his father and six seasons as offensive coordinator for his father at Florida State before resigning in 2006.
Jeff Bowden’s time at Florida State was rocky and emblematic of the decline of the program in the early 2000s. Florida state’s crime had fallen to its lowest production in a quarter-century and Jeff Bowden was paid $537,500 to resign by Booster.
Bobby Bowden left West Virginia in 1976 to take over the Florida state program, which had won just four in the previous three seasons. The Seminoles went 5-6 in Bowden’s first year and never again experienced a losing season under a man who said he was ready for football games like World War II generals who prepared for battle.
“You face the same tasks of motivation, preparation, teamwork, discipline,” Bowden said. “I probably get the most satisfaction from putting in strategies and watching them play out.”
By 1979, Bowden had positioned Florida State for one of the greatest runs in college football history.
Led by All-American nose guard Ron Simmons, the Seminoles enjoyed the regular season 11–0 but lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. In 1993, Florida State won its first national title since almost getting there in 1987, 1988, 1991, and 1992, despite a late slip at Notre Dame.
Bowden’s only perfect season came in 1999 when the Seminoles became the first team to go wire-to-wire in The Associated Press rankings, No. 1 from preseason to end.
“The first championship was more of a relief,” Bowden said. “I think I was able to enjoy the other a little more.”
The success also brought a lucrative spotlight, and Bowden’s program was touched by scandal on a few occasions. In 1993 the school was placed on NCAA probation for five years after several players accepted free shoes and other sporting goods from a local store. The episode led to former Florida coach Steve Spurrier dubbing FSU “Free Shoes University”.
Bowden took pride in adapting to the times and giving players second chances, but critics said he was too soft on discipline to win games.
“If short hair and good manners won football games, the Army and Navy would play for national championships every year,” Bowden replied.
Randy Moss, one of the most talented athletes to ever attend Florida State, never played down for the Seminoles and was dropped out of school after a redshirt season for smoking marijuana. In 1999, Warrick was caught in a shopping scandal, which led to his suspension for two games and possibly cost him the Heisman Trophy that year.
“There’s only about 6 inches that turns that halo into a noose,” Bowden was fond of saying during the good days, when he was often called “Saint Bobby” by Florida state faithful.
The Seminoles won 10 or more games in 18 of Bowden’s 34 seasons at Florida State but were a relatively mortal 74–42 on the field from 2001–09.
The cheating scandal that resulted in the loss of a dozen wins from Bowden’s final resume took place in an online music history course from the fall of 2006 to the summer of 2007. The NCAA said some athletes were provided with test answers and, in some cases, had papers for them.
Despite those difficult days at the end of his career, Bowden remained in the public eye after retirement, writing a book, giving speeches, and going public with prostate cancer treatment in 2007. His fear of retiring from coaching resulted in the death of Former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a longtime idol who died within weeks of leaving the sidelines, has died.
“After you retire, there’s only one big event left,” Bowden often said.
Bowden remained active into his 80s, eventually slowing down over the past year or so. He was admitted to the hospital in October 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. The test was done a few days after he returned home after a long hospital stay due to a foot infection.
Born on November 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, Robert Cleckler Bowden overcame rheumatic fever as a child at Woodlawn High School quarterback in Birmingham, then in Alabama for a semester before transferring back to his hometown, Howard University. where he starred as a quarterback.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Ann, and they were together for 72 years.
Bobby Bowden built the Florida state schedule by scheduling his toughest opponents, and he would play them anywhere, usually at his stadium. He was dubbed the “Off of the Road” in 1981 after playing consecutive road games and winning three out of five at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and LSU.
His daring play-calling also earned him the nickname of the Riverboat Gambler in some quarters. Bowden’s most famous trick play came in 1988 at Clemson. He sent his punt team onto the field with 1:33 left in a tie game with a fourth-and-4 and the ball at Florida State’s 21. Florida State’s punter leaped high into the air and acted as if he were chasing down a high snap while the upback took the ball and slipped it between his legs where LeRoy Butler grabbed it and raced 78 yards to the Clemson 1 to set up the winning field goal.
“We were determined that someone was going to win that game,” Bowden said after “Pantrowski.”
Through Bowden’s career, Florida State won games in many of the toughest stadiums in the country, including at Michigan, Southern California, and, of course, rivals Florida and Miami. In 1987, the Seminoles crushed Big Ten champion Michigan State 31–3 at East Lansing and defeated Southeast Conference champion Auburn 34–6 at their home ground.
Bobby Bowden was considered one of the best handlers of great individual talent, recruiting and developing the likes of Simmons, Ward, Weinke, Warrick, Butler, and Deion Sanders, who earned the nickname “Prime Time” during his days as a Seminole.
“God bless the Bowden family, friends, and loved ones,” Sanders posted on Twitter. “My prayers are with you. I have lost one of the best coaches I have ever had.”
Florida State’s recruiting classes were almost always among the top nationally. By the 1990s, the Seminoles poured star talent into the NFL on an annual basis, including four of the top 19 picks in the 2006 draft, the same year Bowden was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame.
The state of Florida said that arrangements for Bowden’s funeral were pending.
Bowden is survived by wife Ann; sons Terry, Tommy, Jeff, and Steve; and daughters Robin Hines and Ginger Madden.
Stay tuned for more updates and Tallahassee News.