The Aug. 8 passing from pancreatic cancer of Bobby Bowden, one of the winningest coaches in college football history, prompted considerable memorials and tributes from many in the sporting world.
My memories of the esteemed coach go back 45 years. While I was still living in Florida, Bowden announced he was leaving West Virginia University to coach Florida State University (FSU).
I especially remember the comment he made to the St. Petersburg Times about deciding to move south after battling freezing weather one morning when he went out to start his car. Little did I know that a few months later I would move to West Virginia.
But of all the things that stand out in my mind about Bowden, none tops the trip he made 30 years ago to his old home to speak to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) rally.
Trip to the Mountain
Since Bowden took a high profile on matters of faith, that may not sound like a big deal. Except for the fact that the coach who asked him to come in mid-September of 1991 made the call a scant three weeks earlier, after noticing FSU had an early season open date on its schedule.
The coach alerted me to the appearance, which was an unusual occurrence for a high school located in a one-stop-sign (not stoplight) town. One so small that the school has since been absorbed in a consolidation.
Back in those days, still scrambling to make a living as a freelancer, I contacted several publications to see if they were interested in a story about Bowden or the event.
Before it was all over, I wrote a dozen different pieces, including several on Bobby Bowden and another speaker at the FCA rally (and later one on Bowden’s wife, Ann).
The coach who organized the event had promised me a one-on-one interview with Bowden. What I didn’t know was it would take place while driving down the highway from the mountaintop airport where we went to pick Bowden up for the FCA meeting.
One tends to remember interviews conducted while rattling around the back seat of a car on winding country roads. I was thankful that I had brought my hand-held tape recorder and typed out questions in advance.
That and the fact that this one of the few times I interviewed a nationally-known coach. His flying visit over, he was back in Tallahassee that night in time to do a halftime interview on the ABC network’s game of the week.
The Funny Story
About a year after this meeting, I wrote another, in-depth feature for a Christian sports magazine. For it, I interviewed several other coaches and Clint Purvis, the longtime chaplain of FSU’s team.
I can’t remember which coach told me this Bobby Bowden joke, but it’s still one of my favorites.
It concerned him playing golf one time and being so quick his group found itself crowding the group ahead of them.
The players on the green waved them to come ahead and finish. As they approached the green, Bowden remarked that he had heard a funny Florida Gator story.
Suddenly a hulking guy glared at Bowden and remarked, “Before you tell that joke, Coach, you should know I’m a Florida Gator. You see that big guy standing beside me? He’s a Gator too. And that monster standing on the far side of the green? He’s a Gator too.
“Now, Coach, do you still want to tell that story?” he finished.
“No, fellas, don’t think I do,” Bowden replied. “Not if I’m going to have to explain it three separate times.”