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Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Bowden delivered big wins, laughs

By Ivan Maisel
ESPN.com

The stereotype of the successful Southern football coach once consisted of all hard edges and steely stares. He led through intimidation, measured his words, and treated football as the serious business that it is. He looked and sounded a lot like Gen. Robert Neyland to one generation, Bear Bryant to another.

Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden directed the Seminoles to 315 wins in his 34 seasons in Tallahassee.

That is the world in which Bobby Bowden became a coach. Bowden is none of those things. He leads without intimidation and measures his words by the gross. He treats football as a serious business but always saw a bigger picture. He once wrote that his priorities in life are: God, Family, Others, Football.

And he won 388 games, more than twice as many as Neyland (173) and 65 more than Bryant (323). In his 34 years at Florida State, a tenure that comes to a painful end Tuesday, Bowden showed that he liked people almost as much as he liked winning. That's saying something.

Bowden could be hard if he needed to be. But he loved to sell. He sold himself and he sold Florida State football until the buyer couldn't tell one from another. No better salesman ever existed. Bowden sold Seminoles football by playing anyone anywhere. When the Noles arrived at LSU or Nebraska or Ohio State, they gave as good as they got.

Bowden would pull out a "barnyard" play, razzle the opponents with a little dazzle. He made it look as if playing at Florida State couldn't be more fun. He developed a national reputation as a gunslinger, and his results bore out the team's ability. He arrived at Florida State at the perfect time.

When high school football in the state of Florida grew and evolved into the wellspring of talent that it is today, no school in the country could have been in better shape to take advantage. In 1987, the Seminoles began their streak of 14 consecutive seasons with a top-five finish.

To illustrate how difficult that is, take a look at USC, which has plummeted into the middle of the Pac-10 this season. The Trojans, who have dominated football in this decade, broke their string of consecutive top-five seasons at seven.

That's exactly half of Florida State's streak of top-five seasons.

Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden's charm and personality helped establish the Florida State program.

The emphasis on speed led to a shift from the power running game to the passing game. Bowden helped lead that change and took full advantage of it. As the Seminoles became a national power, the barnyard plays returned to the barnyard. Bowden didn't need to create an advantage. Once he had the better players, he let them do their thing.

With a highly competent staff led by defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews and offensive coordinator Mark Richt, Bowden had the time to be the face of Florida State football.

No one conducted a better news conference. He answered every question, no matter how ill-informed, no matter how unprepared, no matter how mundane.

Writers knew that if Bowden repeated a question aloud, looking up as if in thought, that it meant that he wanted the writer to think he had just posed the most brilliant question uttered since Shakespeare.

No one worked a room of alumni better. No one worked a church better. Bowden put his religion at the forefront of his life. But he did that without the hard sell, too. He always preferred the carrot to the stick.

This next paragraph comes from a story I wrote in 2006, when Bowden went into the College Football Hall of Fame. The story appeared a couple of weeks after Bowden's Seminoles went 6-6, his first non-winning regular season in 30 years:

In his book, "The Bowden Way: 50 Years of Leadership Wisdom," written with his son Steve, Bobby Bowden wrote, "Sometimes the most unfair thing you do to a person is to allow him to continue his employment after the situation has become untenable."

The first time he went 6-6, they came for his son Jeff, the offensive coordinator. The second time he went 6-6, they came for him.

Something else Bowden said in that story is worth recalling. Speaking on the day in which he would enter the College Football Hall of Fame, Bowden said, "Any time something bad happens to me, something good follows."

That is the definition of a sunny disposition. As if winning 388 games while cracking jokes is not defining enough.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.