What did you sense differently that maybe you didn't sense at the start of preseason last year?
"Oh, it's not even close. It's not even close. This time last year we had so many question marks we didn't know what. Who is going to be the punter? Who is going to be the kicker? Who is going to be the quarterback? Who is going to be this? Who is going to be that? Nothing but question marks. I know definitely what I saw Saturday (first practice). These guys look like they know what they are doing. That's the difference. We have an experienced football team, that does have a punter back, does have a kicker, does have a quarterback back, does have your tailback back, does have all of your offensive linemen back, does have eight starters back on defense. So, it's entirely different than it was a year ago."
Where are you better than just besides having experience?
"That might be the only place we are better – experience. I would just soon have that than anything else I can think of. You can't coach experience. It has to happen. We got it. You don't have it you have to sit and wait for it to happen. You get pushed around a little bit while you are learning. So, there's nothing better than I don't think anything I would rather have than a guy whose got some experience."
You went through a season last year that you hadn't experienced in 14 years. For you what was that like in the offseason?
"It wasn't that tough on me. Why? I've been through it before. It's ain't like I've been coaching five years and that's the first bad year I ever had. I've been coaching 50 years and I've had a lot worse than that. So therefore when you go through something like that you can relate back to that. You all remember some of the sorry stories you all wrote? (laughing) Refer back to that, will ya. We lost to North Carolina. We lose to Miami. And then you lose another one. Then you say this reminds me of back in '65. Or this reminds me of back in '73. This is what we did then. So, again, it's part of the job.
Did you re-evaluate anything that you did last season?
"No, I couldn't do much more. When you lose a guy like Anquan Boldin and you lose a guy like Robert Morgan, how many of those guys would have taken for us to win two more games. One of the them might have contributed enough to beat North Carolina State when you are on their goal line and the game ends, if you score you win. They might have contributed something during that game we could have won that game. Maybe it could have kept us from losing the North Carolina game. Florida and Miami they were at their peaks – they were superior football teams. Yet, we go out there against Miami and turn it over, what six times, two of them for touchdowns and we still score 29 points and lose. We out-gain them, and out-rush them and out-pass them and lose. Maybe we wouldn't have made those same mistakes with a little bit more leadership. But that's all speculation.
You said it wasn't that bad on you last year. What if it were to happen again, how bad would it get?
"It gets bad then (laughing). Yes, if a pattern begins to show... if it happens in a couple years in a row it would bother me. It would be about time for ol' Robert to leave."
You had mentioned previously that if you had a bad season you would want to try to get it going again. Now you are at that season. Do you look at this season as a pivotal one for you?
"I don't care. I don't care if it is or not. I can go to Italy. There's a lot of good places to retire. It ain't the worse thing in the world for me to have to go to Panama City for a couple of weeks, then take off for Rome or some place. That ain't all that bad. I am not ready to retire yet. But that ain't bad. I hate to nail it down to wins and losses. Did I say 8-4? Didn't I say 4-7? (laughing). I wouldn't want to go through that again. I wouldn't dare say I would quit though. I can't recruit telling kids I might be leaving. I just can't do that. I don't think I can stand a lot of losing. At may age I don't think I can stand a lot of losing. I have to think some young guy better get in here. I don't plan on losing men. We will lose some games but I ain't planning on having a disaster season."
Is this a team that can win it all?
"There's probably about 10 teams in the country right now about like us that can win it all. If two things can happen. No. 1, avoid injury. And, two, get a couple of breaks. Get a couple of good bounces that you didn't practice. Probably 10 teams right now can win the national championship if that happens. Would be one of them? Yeah, we would be in that pack."
How much more can you do offensively compared to last year?
"Well, you can pick up where you left off. At least you are that far ahead. We will be able to add some things. We will be able to do some things with the quarterback now that we wouldn't dare have done this time a year. He wouldn't have been ready."
With all the ingredients you have on offense, how explosive can this unit be this season?
"If we can stay healthy we have a chance to move the ball. If we can stay healthy. But you will have to move it throwing and running. You have to be able to move it both ways. I don't think you win one-dimensional. You have to have a little of both. Running and throwing."
Will you be able to turn Chris Rix loose a little more? And do you like to have that ingredient in your game (quarterback who can run)?
"We like him to run when he escapes, not so much having designated runs for him. Probably have some designated runs. Most of the time we will run him when everything breaks down. If they can make a play."
The one-dimensional aspect that you mentioned, does that still revolve back to the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma?
"That and even North Carolina, when you try to go out there and try to beat North Carolina running the football. All they had was two first-round draft choices on the front line. We didn't figure that out until the end of the year. You don't run against those kind of people. Especially a team that plays nine up front. Now, Oklahoma, a lot of your breakdowns in running that day was we didn't call runs. It wasn't so much that we didn't run pretty good. I can remember several times when we would run on first down and come up with second-and-five. That's excellent. We quit running."
Does this team have the potential to be as good as any team you've had?
"It's got potential to be pretty good. That used to be the trend (poor mouthing your team). And that used to be mine – it used to go over good back in the ‘60s and early'70s when they were hanging me in effigy. When I came up, that's the way you were supposed to coach. Tell them you are not good. I think that has changed with most coaches. I think most coaches try to throw a little optimism to their players. A little positive to their players."
How difficult was it to see your defense struggle last season?
"That was the biggest dropoff last year that we had was our defense was not as productive as it had been the previous 14 years. You can tell it when you look at the statistics. Whereas our defense had dominated the ACC every year, we were No. 1 against the rush, we were No. 1 against the pass, we were No. 1 in total defense, we were No. 1 in scoring. Last year we were four and five. That ain't a good sign. Mickey (Andrews) had lost everybody he had. It was one of those years when we had three starters back. This year it's just the opposite, we have eight starters back. They were only sophomores last year. We started eight sophomores. So, you have two more years. This year might even be a year early for us. But that was one of the big differences. Everyone talked about the inexperienced quarterback and that's true. And some other things happend. We just simply were not as good defensively as we had been in the past. But now with them back, we expect to climb back."
Talk about your offensive line.
"I just hope they can stay healthy. When a pro coach goes into a new job and he's got to completely rebuild, first thing you have to get is your quarterback. To me, the second place you start is the offensive line. I don't care how good a quarterback you got or runners, if you don't have those blockers up front. ...so we have five starters back, so now I hope they can just stay healthy."
Your pass rush wasn't up to previous standards.
"No, it was not. Or the results of our pass rush. We didn't have as many sacks. A lot of that was due to the fact we didn't rush the passer as much as we normally do. We played the third game of the year against North Carolina and they hit three bombs on us. I am not talking about 20-yard passes. I am talking about 50-yard passes for touchdowns. I think that scared Mickey a little bit. I don't know if our corners can play good enough man-to-man. So, we are going to have to go a little bit more zone and we are going to have to rush three and drop eight, or rush four and drop seven. We can't bring five, six people anymore because we can't play man-to-man good enough. That's usually the case with blitzing. If you don't have corners who can cover, you are going to have a hard time blitzing. You are going to give up cheap touchdowns. Mickey don't like giving up cheap touchdowns. Will we do better? I would imagine with a year's experience we might be able to cover a little better and we might come after you a little more. I expect that pick up."
You have never been preoccupied with your place in history. Have you given it more thought this year? (Bowden enters the season tied with Paul "Bear" Bryant in all-time Division I coaching victories at 323, four behind Joe Paterno).
"I really don't. I don't think about that at all, it's amazing. There's no accomplishment to me. .. there's no feeling of accomplishment in regard to that. I would think when I retire – if I ever retire – then you would look back and say, ‘Oh boy, look at here.' But right now that's not (meaningful) to me. The goal is to win a national championship. The thing I think about Joe, whichever one of us ends up with it, just think we have 100 more to get Eddie Robinson. Just 100 more and we can be No.1. It doesn't matter how Joe and I come out, Eddie Robinson still won more games than anybody."
When you went through Alabama and spoke to people, was it uncomfortable for you to be thrown into that conversation?
"In a way because they are so dogmatic about Bear. He was my idol. And you can imagine he was their idol. I don't dare say I should be there with him. They won't accept that."
Whichever one of you (Paterno) gets that record, do you feel that will be an unbreakable record? Do you see any young coaches who could have that success and do it more 36 years?
"It could happen but it doesn't seem to be the trend right now. It doesn't seem to be the trend that coaches stay with it that long anymore. Just like Tommy (Bowden) coaching at Clemson. When I talk to Tommy it's kind of like well I am going to try to coach 10 more years. I like to coach 10 more years. I say, Tommy, 10 more years? You will only be 70 (laughing) why don't you keep going? I think that's kind of the trend. I don't know if we are going to see coaches who want to stay any longer. It does get tougher. Coaching is getting tougher. If I didn't like it so much I know I would be out of it. Kids are so much different now. You have so much more responsibility. It used to be responsible you just went out there and played football. That was fun. Then you have to get in, ‘Coach, if they don't make those grades, it's your fault. We will look for another coach.' Then, ‘Hey, coach, your boys in trouble last night. It's your fault.' Now I ami in charge of his character, his grades and his playing. And then you lose one to death. Now I am responsible for them living. The pressure just keeps jumping, jumping, jmping. I got a feeling a lot of coaches ain't going to stay with this dadgum thing because of what all it entails. I still love it no matter what. But I didn't used to have all these pressures that we've got nowadays."
How is your health?
"I feel good. I can tell you all because you all are younger than me. Getting old is good if you've got good health. If you've good health, so what? Whether you are 70, 90 or 50, I've seen old people who are 50. It's all up there (head), and if you have good health. The good Lord has blessed me with good health. Now I have to keep from dropping dead when I walk out of the building (laughing)."