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Bowden, Robert Cleckler ("Bobby")

BOWDEN, Robert Cleckler ("Bobby")

(b. 8 November 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama), one of the all-time leading college football coaches, with a career spanning more than forty-five years.

Bowden was one of two children born to Robert Pierce Bowden, a banker, and Sunset Cleckler, a homemaker. Bowden grew up loving athletics, especially football. With his father Bowden attended many of the games played by Woodlawn High School—where he later became an all-star quarterback—and Howard College (now Samford University). After his 1949 graduation from high school, Bowden went to the University of Alabama, where he made the football team as a freshman. While he had always dreamed of quarterbacking the Crimson Tide of Alabama, he soon left the university and transferred to Howard College in his hometown. He went home to play for Howard and, more importantly, to marry his childhood sweetheart, Julia Ann Estock. They married in 1950 and had six children.

As Howard's quarterback, Bowden made Little All-American in 1951. He secured his bachelor's degree in education at Howard in 1953 and his master's degree, also in education, from George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. Later in 1953, Bowden returned to Howard as an assistant coach, a post he held until 1955. That year, he became the head football and basketball coach at South Georgia Junior College in Douglas, Georgia, where he compiled a gridiron record of 22–11. In the summers he worked as a lifeguard and was a dockworker for a tobacco warehouse.

Bowden returned to Howard in 1959 as head football coach. In four seasons his record was 31–6. Then, in 1963, respected as a consistent winner, Bowden was hired as a receivers coach by Florida State University (FSU). Three years later he became offensive coordinator at West Virginia University (WVU) under head coach Jim Carlen. Bowden became head coach at WVU when Carlen left to take the head job at Texas Tech University. Remaining at WVU until 1976, Bowden featured a wide-open offense with a balanced running and passing attack. Among his notable achievements at WVU was a 13–10 victory over North Carolina State University in the 1975 Peach Bowl.

In 1976 Bowden returned to FSU as the new head coach. He inherited a team that had won only four games in its last three seasons, but with Bowden in charge, the FSU Seminoles went 5–6 the first year. In the second (1977), the team went 9–2 and made it 10–2 after winning the Tangerine Bowl against Carlen's Texas Tech team. Although observers might not have recognized it, Bowden was building a powerful football powerhouse. He was 8–3 in 1978 and unbeaten in the regular season of 1979, losing only to the University of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. In 1980 FSU went 10–1 before again losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

An offensive mastermind with a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of trick plays, Bowden was a great recruiter of players and assistant coaches. He also had environment and geography working for him. Glamorous Florida was itself an attraction, and the climate allowed nearly year-round workouts. Bowden especially recruited for speed, a requirement in his wide-open offense and pursuit defense. He scheduled the top teams in the country—opponents such as the universities of Florida, Miami, and Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Ohio State. This rigorous schedule became yet another recruitment tool. The best high school stars sought programs with a high national profile and the highest level of competition.

Through the 1980s FSU continued to field winning teams. Special intrastate rivalries developed with both Miami and Florida. The 1987 season seemed typical. Bowden's team contended for the national championship before losing a regular-season game to Miami, a 26–25 heartbreaker. FSU bounced back, however, by defeating Nebraska 31–28 in the Fiesta Bowl and closing out the year at 11–1. More winning seasons followed: FSU was 11–1 in 1988, 10–2 in 1989, and 10–2 in 1990. The early seasons of the new decade were much like those of the 1980s; ten-and eleven-win seasons became commonplace. Yet a national championship eluded Bowden, as year after year his great teams were thwarted. FSU was consistently in the top ten but never number one.

Change came in the 1993 season. FSU went 11–1; their only loss was at the hands of Notre Dame, 31–24. Although Notre Dame was then favored to remain unbeaten, they lost to Boston College in their last game. After beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, FSU was tabbed the national champion in both polls. In 1994 the Seminoles went 10–1–1 and earned another top-five finish; a 10–2 season came next, with FSU coming from behind to beat Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. That victory was Bowden's eleventh straight bowl victory. The season was his ninth straight with at least ten wins.

Bowden's success rolled on during the late 1990s. His Seminoles won another national championship in 1999 and finished every season of the decade no lower than fifth in national football polls. In 2000 FSU was again playing for the national championship, but lost to Oklahoma by a score of 13–2. Going into the 2001 season, Bowden had 314 wins and was closing in on Bear Bryant's record number of wins (323) for a college coach. Also indicative of his coaching and recruiting skills, Bowden's bowl record is a remarkable 16–4–1.

Bowden also helped to populate the coaching ranks of college football. Three of his sons—Terry, Tommy, and Jeff—became coaches. His daughter Robyn's husband, Jack Hines, also became a college coach.

Bowden has garnered many awards during his sports career, including induction into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1986. Various polls and organizations have also named him Coach of the Year several times.

To study Bowden' coaching talents, read Ben Brown, Saint Bobby and the Barbarians (1992); Ben Brown, Bobby Bowden, and Terry Bowden, Winning Is Only Part of the Game (1996); and Jim Bettinger, Julie S. Bettinger, and Bobby Bowden, The Book of Bowden (2001). Useful articles on Bowden include Mike Lopresti, "Bowden Brought, Instilled New Attitude to Fla. State," USA Today (5 Jan. 2000); and Chris Dufreshe, "The Inside Track: Bowden's Mark on Game Is Downright Laughable," Los Angeles Times (1 Jan. 2001). Also see the lengthy article by Don Markus, "For Bowdens, Cheers, Tears," Baltimore Sun (2 Jan. 1999). An extremely informative article can be accessed online at <www.theledger.com/bowden/day2.htm>.

James M. Smallwood

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