There’s a baseball story that goes like this: One night, after a fair amount of drinking, Boston’s Tom Yawkey and New York’s Lee MacPhail shook hands on a deal that would have swapped Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio. The trade never happened, of course, but thinking about DiMaggio aiming for Fenway Park’s Green Monster in left, thinking about Williams hitting for the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, that is enough to keep any baseball fan’s mind whirring through the winter.
There’s a basketball story that goes like this: Tim Duncan was training to become an Olympic swimmer for the Virgin Islands. Basketball was not in his life until two things happened. One, Hurricane Hugo blew threw and destroyed the swimming pool where he trained. Two, his mother, Ione, died. In his grief, he began playing basketball. It’s hard, but fascinating, to imagine the sport the last 15 years without him.
In 1987, there was a college football what-if story that not only changed the sport’s landscape but one that has a direct effect on what’s happening this year.
Alabama and Florida State seem fated to play in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Alabama has been digging its way back to the top after a loss to Ole Miss and a near crash against Arkansas. Florida State has been pulling escape acts week after week in its tenuous attempt to go undefeated for a second consecutive year.
Alabama and Florida State are college football royalty now — seven combined national championships over the last quarter-century — and it does seem poetic that the first College Football Playoff should get them together for the first time on a national stage.
But if not for a convoluted coaching search in 1987, it all might have been different.
That was the time that Alabama could have hired Bobby Bowden.
* * *
He doesn’t remember a time without football. When Bobby Bowden was born, his family lived by a high school football field in Birmingham. Some of his memories are of footballs raining into his backyard, and of sitting on top of the garage with his Daddy and watching the high school kids practice. It was so thrilling. He couldn’t put words to it yet, but he loved it. From the start, he wanted to be around the game.
When Bowden was 6, the family moved to a new house, this one a block away from Samford University – Howard College it was called in those days – and on the way back to school he would walk by football practice. He would run home, grab some peanuts and an apple, head back out and, in his words: “Watch those players hit their dummies … son, that’s all I ever knew.”
Of course, he wanted to go Alabama. Every red-blooded young man who ever caught a football in the state wanted to go to Alabama. An old Navy man named Harold Drew was coaching the team then, and young Bobby went to Alabama for a semester with the plans of playing football. But he found that if you were married in those days, you couldn’t get a scholarship. Well, Bobby married Ann in 1949. And he went back to Birmingham to play football at Howard. And then, he stayed to coach.
“I never really thought about it. I just loved to coach,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about the impact I could make or the kind of life it was or none of that stuff. I just loved it.” Before he graduated, he was told to get his Masters degree and come back to coach at Howard College. So he did that. Bowden became an assistant football coach and the head track coach. He coached track out of a book. He coached football out of something deep in his soul.
Why was he good at it? Why did his teams always win – first at South Georgia College, then Howard, then West Virginia and finally, triumphantly, at Florida State for 411 career wins (377 by the NCAA’s count)? The man’s 85 now, but even after thinking it over he can’t come up with an answer that satisfies him. “I suppose it’s teaching,” he says. “That’s all coaching is … teaching. You gotta teach THEM how to do block and tackle and run. It don’t matter how fast you are because you don’t count. I guess I was a pretty good teacher.”
He stops again to think about it.
“I’ll tell you one thing I figured out early. I felt like whoever gets the best players is going to win. The coach can only mess that up. … Now some coaches do mess that up. I guess that was one thing I was pretty good at. For the most part, I didn’t mess it up.”
* * *
That year, 1986, Bowden was back home in Birmingham on New Year’s Eve for the All-American Bowl. It hadn’t been the best year at Florida State but it wasn’t the worst, either. Florida State wasn’t Florida State yet. Things went up and down. The Seminoles had a superb season in 1979, going undefeated all the way to the Orange Bowl, where a traditional power, Oklahoma, beat them pretty convincingly. They went back to the Orange Bowl in 1980 and lost to the Sooners again, but this time by only a point.
Mostly, they were just a good team that was happy to get into pretty good bowl games – the Gator, the Peach, the Citrus, the All-American. Florida State was still a fledgling independent then with a stadium capacity of about 45,000. Everything felt uphill. They didn’t have the money. They didn’t have the history. They were 4-29 in the three seasons before Bowden arrived. Heck, the Seminoles had to go on the road to play any good teams. In 1981, they played consecutive games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU. None of those teams offered return visits.
Bowden readily admitted he was only coaching FSU temporarily until the perfect job back home in Alabama came open. Of course: There was only one perfect job back home at Alabama.
While Florida State prepared to play Indiana in Birmingham, rumors circulated that Alabama coach Ray Perkins was going to resign and take a job with the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And Bowden, despite himself, started to feel a little giddy.
“I don’t know, it started to feel like something that was meant to be,” Bowden would say. There he was, coaching football back home in Birmingham, and his dream job was about to open up. Talk about fate. And, as if to add to the scene, Perkins took the Tampa Bay job on the same day that Bowden’s Seminoles beat Indiana, 27-13.
“Would you accept the Alabama job?” he was asked after the game. And Bowden was so lightheaded about the chance to coach at the school he had loved all his life that he lost all comportment.
“It would take about that long,” he said, and he snapped his fingers.
The next day, he got a call from Guy Hunt – the man about to replace George Wallace as the governor of Alabama.
“Bobby,” Hunt said. “We want you to be the next coach at Alabama.”
* * *
He does not know for sure, but Bobby Bowden suspects he was one of the first – maybe even THE first – football coach to let his players drink water during practice. Understand, everybody coached like Bear Bryant then, Junction Boys-style, no water, no rest, no mercy. Coaches meant to tear down young men and then build them up tougher and meaner than before.
None of this made sense to Bowden, though. The way he figured it, players were allowed to drink water during the game, why couldn’t they drink during practice? He was at South Georgia College then, and it was absurdly hot, and “when the boys would do something good, I’d say, ‘Go on, get yourself some water.’ … Why kill ’em? Why make ’em suffer? Go have some water. Football’s hard enough.”
It was a novel approach. Bowden didn’t see why football had to just be grueling and punishing and tedious. Why did it have to be boring? He started putting trick plays into the gameplans – partly for strategy but mostly to keep things novel. At West Virginia, he started to install reverses into the offense – crazy reverses, double reverses, triple reverses, fake reverses.
“I’ll never forget the first reverse I ran at West Virginia,” he says. “I always wanted to run them … back in those days, no one would ever let me do it. So I became head coach at West Virginia and I didn’t have to listen to anybody else. We ran it. And … it lost 17 yards. Golly, I’ll never forget that. But we didn’t give up on it. We kept running them.”
The thing everyone noticed about Bowden’s teams at West Virginia and his early teams at Florida State was how enthusiastic the players were, how emotionally they played, how much fun they seemed to be having. The trick plays, the fun practices, the go-for-it style – the players were drawn in by it. The other coaches began to talk about it. Bowden’s teams had this whole different look, a full-color spectacle compared to the staid black-and-white force of coaches like Woody Hayes and the Bear.
“When Coach Bowden spoke,” Florida State linebacker Travis Johnson would say, “we all sat up in our chairs and were on the edge of our seats. It wasn’t a fear thing. He never got mad. I think I’ve seen him mad twice, maybe. I think I once almost heard a curse word. No, it wasn’t a fear thing. We wanted to hear him speak. He inspired us.”
* * *
The one and only condition Bowden had for the Governor of Alabama was this: He would not interview for the job. Bowden was already 57. He’d been coaching football for more than 30 years, and he wasn’t about to interview for ANY job, even the one he had dreamed about since he was a little kid. He’d be happy to meet with the president and the athletic director, talk to them for a spell, make sure everyone felt comfortable with things. But, dadgum it, he wasn’t going to interview. He’d earned that.
So, when Bowden showed up to meet school President Joab Thomas, and he saw 17 other people in the room, he began to get a sinking feeling. He sunk even lower when one of the people in the room, Walter Lewis – the first African-American to start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide – asked Bowden if he would feel comfortable starting a black quarterback.
“I already did at West Virginia 15 years ago,” Bowden said, wearily. They did not know him at all. They were talking to him like he was an unknown assistant at some unknown school.
Even though Thomas and Alabama had broken his only condition – they were clearly interviewing him for the job – Bowden still would not give up on coaching at Alabama. He would remember playing the perfect interviewee, telling them just what he thought they wanted to hear — that he would coach just like Bear Bryant did with grueling training camps and toughness and motivation. He basically spoke against every principle that had marked his coaching – THAT is how badly he wanted to coach at Alabama.
And when the meeting broke up, Bowden realized something.
“They didn’t offer me the dadgum job,” he would say.
Oh, he wanted it, still wanted it. There were rumors — these have evolved into legends, so Bowden won’t confirm or deny – that his family had gone into a sporting goods store to buy Alabama gear to wear at the welcome press conference. When he got back to Tallahassee, he found his front yard overflowing with television camera crews. “Nobody offered me the Alabama job,” he said. “I will not go chasing after it.” A few hours later, he heard – Alabama wanted Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry instead.
Bowden went back out to the press and said he was withdrawing his name from consideration at Alabama. “I’m happy at Florida State,” he said. “This is home.”
* * *
The very next year, Florida State went 11-1 and came within a two-point conversation against Miami of winning the national championship (Bowden has said many times since that, in retrospect, he wishes he had gone for the tie).
The next year, 1988, is the one I believe that began the real legend of Bobby Bowden. Florida State lost its opening game to Miami 31-0 and, two weeks later, was playing a superb Clemson team in Clemson’s Death Valley. The score was tied 21-21 with barely more than a minute remaining, and Florida State was punting from its own 21 yard line.
“We had been running this play, the puntrooskie, in practice during the summertime,” Bowden says. “And it worked every dadgum time. I mean EVERY dadgum time. So I had this thought that if the thing worked against us every time, it might just work against somebody else.”
Bowden planned to use it in the Clemson game and was so sure that it was an automatic touchdown that when his team trailed by a touchdown he was running up and down the sideline saying, “This is a tie game, boys, because we’ve got the ’rooskie.”
The ball was snapped and Florida State’s punter Tim Corlew leaped in the air like the ball had sailed over his head. The ball was actually snapped to the up-man Dayne Williams, who began to run right. But before he ran, he slipped the ball between the legs of teammate LeRoy Butler, who ran left. Everybody fell for it, including the announcers and the people running the cameras.
Well, not everyone. There actually was a Clemson player – Jerome Henderson – who sniffed it out. Henderson would go on to an NFL career and he’s currently the secondary coach for the Dallas Cowboys. He saw that Butler had the ball almost immediately and began to charge after him. But Butler was faster than Henderson and he ran the ball all the way to the Clemson 3.
“You know something about that puntrooskie?” Bowden asks. “On the play before, it was third-and-8, and our quarterback hit their linebacker right in the chest with a pass. I mean RIGHT in the chest. He dropped it.”
Bowden laughs. “Fate’s a funny thing, boy,” he says.
Florida State kicked the game-winning field goal and did not lose the rest of the season. The Seminoles had arrived – they would win at least 10 games every single year of the 1990s. They would win two national championships. Between 1987 and 1999, they won 10 New Year’s Day bowl games. Bowden would recruit some of the greatest college football players of the last half-century – Deion Sanders, Warrick Dunn, Derrick Brooks, Peter Warrick, Heisman Trophy winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, on and on.
“I think the lower you are in football, the more motivation matters,” Bowden says. “It’s very important in elementary school, in high school. But the higher up you go, the more THEY have to do it. The best thing you can do is sign players that are self motivated. You want to win as a coach – go sign Derrick Brooks and Charlie Ward and Deion Sanders. They’ll make you look like the greatest motivator who ever lived.”
There was a vibe about Florida State. They joined the ACC. The stadium capacity almost doubled. They became television ratings gold. No, it wasn’t all roses for Bowden. There were controversies, some off-the-field incidents (rival Steve Spurrier famously called FSU “Free Shoes University” after agents bought some shoes for some players), the NCAA bizarrely vacated a dozen of Bowden’s victories because of a cheating incident. And it did not end happily – the team struggled in his final years. But for two decades after Alabama passed on Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles became a new kind of football power, cool and fun and full of Bowden’s down-home Alabama charm. Bowden coached based on faith (with parents’ permission, he took players to church on Sundays) and joy and a sense of wonder. “Don’t go to the grave with any life unused,” he used to tell his players.
And Alabama? Well, Bill Curry won games and brought his high ethical standards to the program, but the Crimson Tide couldn’t beat Auburn. That was all it took. Someone threw a brick though his office window. Gene Stallings, one of the Junction Boys, led Alabama to a national championship and some national prominence, but then the team hired a series of ineffective coaches – Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Shula – and Alabama lost its mojo.
In 2007 – just as Bowden was coming to his end at Florida State – Alabama hired Nick Saban and reestablished itself as a national power.
What would have happened has Alabama hired Bowden? The man himself shrugs. “Maybe I would have done a terrible job and gotten myself fired,” he says, but he doesn’t believe that. What he believes is that he would have done at Alabama what he did at Florida State, that he would carried Bear Bryant’s great football tradition into the 21st Century, made Alabama football thrilling and unbeatable.
And what would have happened at Florida State?
“No way to know, I guess,” Bowden says.
* * *
Funny final piece to the story: Curry was forced out three years after he took the job, and this time Alabama was not about to make the same mistake it made the first time. Bowden was called by athletic director Hootie Ingram and by the new President E. Roger Sayers and, this time, Bowden was basically offered the job over the phone.
It was only three years later – but three significant years had passed. The puntrooskie had happened. Florida State had almost won the national championship. And Bowden had turned 60. He took an hour to talk about it with Ann and then turned down his dream.
“I thought, ‘Naw, I’m 60 years old now,’” he says. “I’m too old to be taking new jobs.”
But, I said to him, you were 57 the first time the job came open.
“That’s true,” he says, and there’s a twinkle in his eyes. “But a man can learn a lot between ages 57 and 60.”
What did you learn?
“Well,” he said. “I learned if they won’t hire me at Alabama, maybe we can make our own Alabama.”