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Winning Record: Bobby Bowden

Listen to Coach Bowden’s in-depth interview with SUCCESS contributing editor Don Yaeger here.

Florida State University football Coach Bobby Bowden
was in a tough spot. Charlie Ward was his most talented
quarterback, but he was having an off night, throwing
two interceptions that had put the Seminoles in a deep
hole against conference rival Georgia Tech.

On that evening in 1992, Bowden briefly pulled his team leader
from the field, sending the backup quarterback into the game. When
Bowden signaled for Ward to return, fans jeered. But Bowden knew
this was an opportunity to make a difference, both in the life of his
struggling player and for his football team.

Ward, FSU’s first African-American starting quarterback, came
back into the game in the fourth quarter, his team trailing by two
touchdowns. To take advantage of Ward’s athleticism, Bowden made
some mid-game changes in the offense. Buoyed by those changes
and his coach’s faith, Ward led FSU to three
touchdowns in that last quarter and a dramatic
29-24 win. The victory assured FSU of the
conference championship.

“That was one of those moments,” Bowden tells
SUCCESS, “when you know that your choice will
make a difference in a lot of ways. I can’t tell you I
thought it would turn out as it did, but it did turn
out pretty well.”

"We
all have to have a reason to get up each day. Those young men give me mine."

With more than five decades’ experience as
a coach, Bowden has sought to build leaders on
and off the field. Without question, he says, his
commitment to making a difference in the lives
of each athlete contributes to his desire to show
up each fall as leader of one of America’s preeminent
football programs.

Even as he turns 80 in November, an age when most of his peers
are enjoying retirement, Bowden’s passion for building young
leaders burns as strong as his competitive spirit.

Lifetime Achievement

As the 2009 college football season opened and SUCCESS
headed to press, Bowden had 382 career victories, one less than his
colleague and friend, Joe Paterno of Penn State, in the race for the
NCAA’s all-time Division I wins record.

On most Saturdays in autumn, Bowden tells reporters he doesn’t
pay attention to whether Paterno’s team wins or loses—not much, at
least. “You don’t want to admit it,” he says, smiling sheepishly, “but
I do catch myself keeping up and striving to end up with the record
because you’d like to leave something for your grandchildren and
your great-grandchildren, something they can say like, ‘Look, my
granddaddy was this’ or ‘my great-granddaddy was this.’ ”

No matter what happens, Bowden’s and Paterno’s win totals
won’t be equaled for a long time, if ever. Virginia Tech’s Frank
Beamer, who will be 63 in October, ranks third
among active coaches with 219 victories, 163
behind Bowden.

The Alabama-born Bowden has served as head
coach at four schools: South Georgia, a two-year
school; Howard, now Samford University, and
Bowden’s alma mater; West Virginia, and FSU.

Married to his high-school sweetheart, Ann,
in 1949, the couple has six children, including
sons Tommy and Terry, former head coaches at
Clemson and Auburn, respectively, and son Jeff,
who was offensive coordinator at FSU.

Bowden and Paterno are among only four
active coaches inducted into the College Football
Hall of Fame. If 82-year-old Paterno ends up the
record holder, Bowden says “that’s good because it
couldn’t go to a better guy than Joe Paterno.” But
Bowden admits the competition with Paterno is
motivating: “You’d like to keep winning; you’d like
to stay in the fight. You’d like to have the record.”

Bowden knows a little something about records,
and how big dreams can lead to huge payoffs. He
acknowledges that some of FSU’s records might’ve
seemed illogical if they were included on any list
of goals. “I want as a goal to win the conference
and be in the running for a national championship
every year. Could I have ever set as a
goal that we’d have all those years
at the top of the polls? No way.
Nobody could have thought
that was possible.”

That was a run like no college
football team has ever had. From
1987 to 2000, FSU registered
an NCAA-record
14 consecutive
Top-5 finishes
i n t h e
Associated
P r e s s
poll and
an astonishing
152
victories.
Though wins
have been harder
to come by in recent years, Bowden is determined to drive the
Seminoles back into the national spotlight.

Sowing the Seeds

Entering his 34th season at FSU, Bowden remains confident he
has a solid plan in place for the Seminoles. He believes the team’s
recruiting classes have been steadily improving and the Seminoles’
efforts last season are good signs.

Bowden admits the all-time win record is important, but it’s not
the only reason he keeps coaching. “That drives you but all of that
is
secondary… I desire to coach and work with
these young men,” he says. “And I think the key is
I haven’t gotten tired of recruiting. The thing that
drives most coaches out of coaching in college is
they get tired of the grind of recruiting.”

Bowden knows very well that the seeds of those
championship seasons may be sown in conversations
in a recruit’s living room, and they’re nurtured along
the way as these young players are empowered and grow into
leaders.

Back in 1992, when FSU was losing to Georgia Tech, Bowden
says “allowing Charlie to take control of that team even when
things weren’t going well really allowed him to grow and it
allowed the other players to grow. This game is won on the
field, so we needed his growth to make the whole team more
successful.”

Charlie Ward went on to win the Heisman Trophy the next
season and lead FSU to its first-ever national championship. A
point guard on the university’s basketball team, he chose an
NBA career over playing in the NFL, and was a first-round pick
of the New York Knicks. After retiring from the NBA, he became a
high school coach in Houston. Ward has sought to instill lessons he
learned from Bowden in his own players.

“When Coach Bowden took that chance at Georgia Tech, it gave
me the confidence I needed,” Ward says. “If he had decided to keep
me on the bench—and I couldn’t have argued, given how I was
playing—I doubt that I would have been the same quarterback I
became. Coaches have the chance to shape people in moments like
that and he definitely changed my future.”

Read more about how Coach Bowden developed his winning strategies
here.

Listen to Coach Bowden’s in-depth interview with SUCCESS contributing editor Don Yaeger here.

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