Bowden Memories

Part Two of our feature on former WVU head coach Bobby Bowden focuses on his West Virginia memories.

Speaking of memories, Bowden has been looking back on a lot of them as he prepares for the 2005 Gator Bowl. Playing against West Virginia, a team where he served as head coach from 1970-75, is a little different than facing some of the teams he has met in past bowl seasons.

"It does bring back a different feeling but not one of animosity towards them," assured Bowden. "It brings more of a sentimental feeling. I was there for 10 years, I had four children graduate from there, I love the people there, and it is different to play them. I remember what it was like when I was up there, and I am looking forward to seeing some of the people. There is a different feeling playing them than anybody else we could probably play.

"I really have no hard feelings what so ever. In fact, I kind of felt bad about leaving. West Virginia is my children's home. You can ask any of my children where they are from, and they will say West Virginia."

Bowden's days in the Mountain State, though, were not all "Almost Heaven." The biggest change at first was moving away from the south where the coach had spent his entire coaching career.

"It was a big culture change for me to leave the south," he admitted. "My coaching had been in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Now all of the sudden I went to West Virginia. West Virginia is not south. We were eight miles from the Pennsylvania line. I was thrown into a culture of two different parts of the country. I grew with it, learned from it, and I made a lot of friends. I made enough friends that we nearly did not take this job (at Florida State in 1976). We lucked into this job."

The move to West Virginia also brought about another major challenge for the man who would become one of college football's most successful coaches. For the first time in his career, all the responsibility was thrown on Bowden.

"Every head coach, when he goes into his first job, has to experience a lot," said the FSU mentor who has more wins (350) than any coach in major college football history. "For most of them, it is a battle. For me, it was a battle. It was my first head job at a major college. The biggest challenge when an assistant coach becomes a head coach is that he all of the sudden gets the blame for everything. All the responsibility falls right back on him. If the defensive line fails, it is the head coach. If the offensive line fails, it is the head coach. If the quarterback fails, it is the head coach. So the criticism is going to jump up.

"When you are an assistant coach (as he was at WVU from 1966-69), you don't hardly get criticism. When you are at a small college, you don't get much. When I was the head coach at South Georgia College, it hurt me just like it hurts now to lose a ballgame, but nobody else cared. When I went to Howard College and we lost, it hurt me, but nobody else cared. Even when I was at Florida State as an assistant, it didn't hurt me, it hurt the head coach. They weren't yelling at me, they were yelling at him. But when you become a head coach for the first time, you are getting criticized publicly for anything that doesn't go right. That is when you find out if you can make it as a head coach."

The results on the field did not help a lot, either. Although Bowden did win 23 games in his first three seasons in Morgantown, the ones that got away are the ones that are still remembered today.

"The loss I remember the most was my first year as head coach when we had Pitt 35-8 at the half and got beat 36-35," Bowden recalled. "That not only is the darkest day I had there, but the darkest of anywhere I have been."

The days only got darker as Bowden went just 6-5 in 1973 before falling to rock bottom with a 4-7 season in 1974.

"We lost our first- and second-team quarterbacks and had to start a freshman that wasn't even close to being ready," said Bowden of the season he would rather just forget. "But history loses all of that.

"I was mighty ashamed back in those days, I know that. But I don't remember making an issue of it or even bringing it up to the staff or the team. If you stay in this darn game, that is just something you are going to have to live with."

But the West Virginia fans did not make it easy. A likeness of Bowden was hung in effigy on the WVU campus, and a message to him was hung up just across from his office.

"I saw it many times," admitted Bowden. "Right across the street from my office was a boys' dorm. Some kid hung a big sheet out there that said, ‘Bye, bye Bobby,' I can't ever forget that. I eventually got used to it, though. I just thought it was part of the scenery."

Bowden, however, could never get used to the way the criticism hurt his family. Everywhere his wife and children went, they heard the criticisms of the Mountaineer fans.

"I would imagine the attitude of the people would have been very similar to how it is here or anywhere else right now," said Bowden. "Back in those days, the press was not as well informed, and you didn't have talk shows. It just wasn't exploited like it is today. But imagine the attitude of the people was much the same. They were probably saying, ‘Let's get rid of this daggum coach and get somebody in here that can coach.'

"Anytime a coach has problems, he can hide," Bowden continued. "He can go in the office and not talk to anybody. He can quit reading the paper or watching television. But the poor family is right in the middle of it. They go to the grocery store, or they go to school, and they are naturally going to be reminded of it."

That is what eventually forced Bowden out of the Mountain State and into the Sunshine State. His record at WVU would improve, and the criticisms would slow down, but the reactions from the 1974 season had already sealed the coach's eventual fate.

"There is a very high possibility that I would not have (gone if it were not for that season)," admitted the father of the Bowden coaching legacy. "I have always tried to be a very loyal person. My loyalty there would have probably kept me there. But in '74, I saw just how quickly people will turn on you. I saw how quickly friends would turn on you. People that used to invite me to their parties quit inviting me. People that used to invite me to lunch quit inviting me. I remember saying to Ann, ‘If you and I ever get a chance to leave here, we have every right in the world to do it, because people are fickle.'"

That is just what Bowden did after the 1975 season. When the opportunity came to move to Tallahassee, Bowden hit the road despite West Virginia's desire to keep him around. He would leave on a positive note, though, after a 1975 season where the Mountaineers finished 9-3 and champions of the Peach Bowl. That season would also give Bowden his fondest memory of his time at WVU.

"The win I remember was my last year there when we beat Pitt 17-14 on the last play of the game," said Bowden, still brimming with excitement. "Johnny Majors was the head coach at Pitt, and (Tony) Dorsett was a junior. They were good. We played them at our place, it was my birthday, Tommy (Bowden) played wide receiver and caught a couple of big passes, and then we kicked a field goal as time ran out to win the game. That was definitely the highlight of being up there."

Bowden accepted the Florida State job shortly after his Peach Bowl victory over North Carolina State, and 29 years later, he is still there. But do not assume that the coach looks back on that time in disgust.

"I can honestly say that I did enjoy my 10 years at West Virginia," said Bowden. "Ann and I both did. We loved the beautiful mountains, we loved the state, we loved the people, and we loved the university. I sometimes feel like I need to apologize to the people of West Virginia for some of the mistakes I made that I eventually learned not to make."

Now, almost three decades later, Bowden will be facing his former team for just the second time. (FSU also defeated the Mountaineers in the 1982 Gator Bowl.) To make matters even more interesting, he will be facing a West Virginia coach who has always been close to his family, working as his son Tommy's offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson, and who was a staff member at the Bowden Academy football camps.

"He is one of the most likable guys I have been around," said Bowden of WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez. "We had more fun together when he was down there (at the Bowden Academy). When Tommy went to Tulane I called and told him he should hire Rich with him. I have a great admiration for him."

The longtime coach, who has seen almost everything over his coaching career, is expecting nothing less that a fired-up West Virginia team when the schools meet at Altell Stadium on New Year's Day.

"We are going to catch a hungry West Virginia team," said Bowden. "Two of the years when I was there, we played in the Peach Bowl, and that was like the Super Bowl to us. I can only imagine their hunger for a game like the Gator Bowl."


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