Southern Fiction Author, Infrequent Blogger & Retired Clown

Dadgum Heartbroken: Memories of Bobby Bowden

Dadgum Heartbroken: Memories of Bobby Bowden

I was maybe two weeks into my internship in the Florida State University Sports Information office when one of the Graduate Assistants asked me if I could help out at football practice. 

“I hate to even ask,” he said, “you’d have to stay late and I’m sure you have plans or something better to do.”

Something better to do?

All 21 years and nine months of my life to that point revolved around FSU football. I applied to Florida State University because of FSU football. In fact, it was the only school I applied to because, in my mind, other universities existed for the exclusive purpose of being opponents to FSU football. And after three years of attending games in the stands, I was actually working inside the athletics department for FSU football.

And this guy thought I might have something better to do than attend practice for FSU football?

In a monumental effort to maintain my professionalism, I managed to accept the offer with a polite smile and a very casual, “Oh, I don’t mind,” that somehow slipped past my lips despite the fact that my heart had most certainly stopped beating moments earlier. 

We walked out to the practice field where a gaggle of media members clustered outside the closed gates. We cut through the crowd and flashed our badges to the security guard who swung the gates open to grant us entry. I held my breath as my feet first fell on the sacred turf inside. Josh, the GA, pointed to a tower positioned between the two practice fields where a lone figure in a ball cap and wraparound sunglasses paced anxiously.

“When Coach comes down, he’ll head over here in his golf cart,” he said. “Don’t get in his way, he might run you over, but when he stops just let the media inside and record whatever he says on this.” He dropped a microcassette recorder in my hand and took off across the field, leaving me alone with the panicked voice of my own internal hysteria.

You are about to meet Bobby Bowden. 

A whistle blew across the field. Coach started making his way down the steps of the tower.

You are about to meet Bobby Bowden.

Sweat broke out at my temples and trickled down the back of my neck. It had nothing to do with the blazing August sun overhead. 

You are about to meet Bobby Bowden.

Coach hopped in his golf cart and mashed the accelerator, headed in my direction.

You are about to meet Bobby Bowden.

Security opened the gates and the beat reporters swarmed inside. Coach brought the golf cart to a skidding top at my feet.

You are standing next to Bobby Bowden.

Nothing short of a miracle (and a modicum of that aforementioned professionalism) drew my arm up to hold the recorder next to Coach Bobby Bowden’s right shoulder. The reporters filled in around him, firing off questions about practice and our upcoming game. I could not hear a single one of his responses over the sound of my own heartbeat, which was playing louder than the Marching Chiefs’ drumline inside my skull.

Ten, maybe fifteen minutes passed, and then the questions came to an end, the crowd parted, and Coach zipped off the field headed back toward his office inside Moore Athletic Center.

I looked down and thought, Oh God, I hope I pressed record.

Thankfully I did, and apparently my transcription of Coach’s quotes that day was good enough that it became my regular Wednesday gig for the rest of the season. One day, a few weeks in, Coach had to leave practice early without stopping to talk to the media to go film his weekly call-in show. I was standing by the fence, watching practice, when he zoomed past in his golf cart. He raised his arm and waved.

“Hey girl! How ya doin’?”

My head whipped from side to side, certain he had to be talking to someone else. But no one was around. By the time I realized I was the intended recipient of his greeting, he was long gone. I couldn’t wait to call my dad that night and tell him about the encounter. 

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to put into words what Bobby Bowden means to me.

I know many others who are struggling today with the same notion. How do you explain to people who don’t love football, how a coach for a team you mostly watched on TV somehow existed in your day-to-day world as a fully formed, tangible human who shaped the outcome of your life?

I know it sounds crazy. I hear it.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

For as long as I can remember, Bobby Bowden’s name has been a regular part of conversation in my household. My dad became an FSU fan in 1964, when the guys at his new bank job took him out for a few beers and asked if he was a Gator or a Seminole. Though he is a Jacksonville native, my dad never paid much attention to college sports. He went in the Navy at seventeen and had recently returned home after serving several years on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean.

“Which team do you root for?” He asked the group. They were all Gator fans, and looked at him expectantly for his own response. Ever the contrarian (and never afraid of a good bar fight) my dad took a swig of his beer and said, “Then I guess I’ll be a Seminole.”

That was it.

By the time I came along 20 years later, my Dad was Garnet & Gold to his core, largely because of a new coach from Alabama who took over the program in 1976 and turned it around. We spent every fall Saturday in front of the TV, watching Coach Bobby trot up and down the sidelines while the Seminoles charged to victory.

Maybe because of the frequency at which I heard his name, or the fact that I knew he was from Alabama like my mom’s side of the family, I’m pretty sure I spent the first five or six years of my life believing Coach Bobby was some distant relative who never made it to our Thanksgiving or Christmas gatherings on account of him having to coach those Seminoles.

I was nine when FSU won their first National Championship. My parents let me stay up late to watch the game and within a few days of our triumphant victory, I wrote myself a fake acceptance letter to Florida State. As far as I was concerned, the deal was sealed.

My internship in the Sports Information office during my senior year of undergrad turned into a Graduate Assistant position while I stayed at FSU to pursue my master’s degree in Sports Administration. For a kid who had essentially committed to FSU in the third grade because of a football game, getting to work for the athletics department and, in essence, be a part of the Seminole sports legacy was beyond even my wildest dreams.

I met Heisman trophy winner Chris Weinke in the press box once and watched Heisman trophy winner Charlie Ward give a speech to the current roster of FSU football players just days before his induction to the College Football Hall of Fame. Every home game Saturday, I spent the entire day inside the press box of Doak Campbell Stadium, running game notes, setting up stat monitors, and occasionally slipping up to the roof to watch the game from just below the stadium lights.

I felt like I was on top of the world.

But none of those experiences came even close to the handful of interactions I had with Coach Bobby. Every time he saw me in the halls he would give me the same warm smile and the now familiar, “Hey girl! How ya doin’?” I finally learned how to speak in his presence, at least enough to manage a “Great, Coach! How are you?” in response.

One day, I was headed to the elevator when our paths crossed. We shared our usual exchange, which left me beaming as I climbed into the elevator. Just as the doors were closing, another intern walked by and I heard him say, “Hey girl! How ya doin’?” with the exact same inflection he always used on me. I was devastated.

But the very next time I saw him and he offered me the familiar greeting again, I felt the same surge of warmth and kindness that I always did with him. Bobby Bowden didn’t have to know your name to make you feel special. He always made you feel like you were important to him and that he genuinely appreciated whatever role you played in the massive machine that was Florida State athletics. 

Part of that role for me as a GA was gathering all the daily news clips published about Florida State football to share with the rest of the athletic department. Most people received links to the news stories via email, but Coach Bobby did not have a computer in his office, much less was he interested in email. So, we had to print every story and put it together with a binder clip that was delivered to Coach Bobby’s longtime assistant, Sue Hall, who would then pass it on to him to read.

This was 2008, right around the time beat writers were starting to publish separate digital stories online to their publications’ respective blogs. In the online forum, the reporters typically shared more candid opinions than their straight news print pieces allowed. A few of them chose to use the freedom of their new platform to critique Coach Bobby a little more openly and question if maybe he was losing his edge and maybe it was time for him to start thinking about retirement.

Coach Bobby called the GA’s office one day — the only time in my tenure that he ever reached out to us directly. Myself and my fellow GA, Layne, both clambered for the phone when we saw whose name was on the caller ID. I picked it up first.

“You know these web-log things that go in the clips packets?”

“Yes, Coach.”

“I don’t wanna see’em anymore! Take’em out!” 

He hung up. We never printed a blog post for him again.

It reminded me of the last time rumors had started to circulate about Coach Bobby potentially being pushed into retirement back when I was in high school. I got worried that Coach Bobby might leave before I got to Tallahassee, so I wrote him a letter. I don’t exactly remember what it said, but I’m pretty sure the gist was that I, a very football savvy 17 year-old girl, knew more than any old TV analysts or athletics administrators and I was certain he still had a few good years left to lead the Seminoles.

Obviously, my letter worked…for a little while, anyway.

In December 2007, I was at the press conference where Jimbo Fisher was announced as the official “Head Coach in Waiting” who would eventually take the helm from Coach Bobby. It was, for me and a lot of others, a sad day.

Just over two years later, I was in the stands when Bobby Bowden coached his last game for Florida State, a 33-21 Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia. Leaving the stadium that day, the FSU crowd had never looked so somber post victory. 

Today, I’m running through the same list of questions I had then.

Bobby Bowden Field

How can Florida State even exist without him?

How can the sun ever rise again in Tallahassee without Bobby Bowden stepping onto Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium again?

In my lifetime, I’ve never seen a Florida State University without Bobby Bowden. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know what I want to know what looks like. 

I studied sports business in graduate school (again, because of Bobby Bowden) and the academic research says there are 16 factors that influence the brand of any sports team. They are divided into three categories for Attributes, Attitudes, and Behaviors and range from star player and team logo to nostalgia and peer acceptance. The research science is sound, and its data-driven analysis has helped many marketers increase ticket sales and grow fanbases around the world.

But for those of us who have been ensconced in a college football community for our entire lives, research and data has no place in our sacred world.

Florida State is not a brand to me.

Florida State is what gave me the life I have today.

It’s the goal that kept me motivated through difficult moments in my childhood. It’s the driving force in the successful marketing career I have built, which provides for the roof over my head and the food on my table. It’s the catalyst for some of my deepest, closest friendships with some of the people I admire most in this world. It’s the reason why there are four beautiful kids in my life, my pseudo-nieces and nephews who belong to two of my college roommates (and lifelong best friends) that I still celebrate “Tallahassee Thanksgiving” with every year. It’s the backdrop for almost all of my favorite memories with my dad, from three National Championships we watched together at home, to the ACC Championship we watched together, in person, in 2004.

All of those of priceless, positive pieces of my life were inspired or driven by Florida State. 

And Florida State, the way we know it today, would not exist without Bobby Bowden.

That’s as close as I can get to explaining why he means so much to me. 

Of course he was also, by all accounts, a good man and an exemplary Christian with a wonderful family that is sadly grieving an immeasurable loss today. It’s enough to be saddened just by the fact that they lost a husband, father, grandfather and friend. And the world lost a tremendously kind human, regardless of his profession or achievements. 

Only time will tell what Bobby Bowden’s legacy will be at Florida State and in the greater community beyond Tallahassee, but there’s no doubt that he left one. His influence extended beyond his players, beyond students at FSU, beyond fans who never even set foot on campus, and beyond football all together. We will all find our own little ways to continue and honor that legacy, and to thank the man who shaped the lives we lead today.

More Bobby Bowden Links:

These are a few of my favorite stories I’ve read today honoring Coach Bobby.

A few photos from my Florida State albums:

Unfortunately, I never got my picture taken with Coach Bobby, but here are a few images to show my history with FSU!



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