In sports or life, enthusiasm can be contagious
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Now less than two months shy of his 90th birthday, former West Virginia University and Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden still enjoys talking about the sport and waxing on what playing football means to college-age athletes.
Bowden, who already had a reputation as a homespun teller of tales and a wrap-his-arms-around-most-anybody fellow from the deep South, came to West Virginia University to energize the fan base with a high-scoring offense, winning more games than he lost.
He came with a reputation as an offensive innovator, who threw the football and scored points with his fly-in-the-face-of-conservative tactics.
Could he beat Pittsburgh? Could he beat Penn State? If he couldn’t, he better beat everybody else.
Bowden and his wife, Ann, were from just outside Birmingham, Alabama. His parents lived in Alabama. And her parents were also in the Heart of Dixie.
West Virginia was not his dream job. And the snow-covered hills in December, January and February weren’t his dream vistas.
Coaching at the University of Alabama was his dream job.
Bowden’s first four teams at WVU won a goodly portion of their games. But he couldn’t beat Penn State. And in his fifth season there were more losses than wins, and one day he was hung in effigy from a maple tree. There was no movement afoot to fire him. But getting out of Morgantown had a certain appeal to it for the Bowden’s, even though his sons had played football for the Mountaineers.
When his 1975 team went 8-3 in the regular season and then won in the Peach Bowl, there were some inquiries as to Bowden’s readiness to take another job.
One of the worst programs in the country came calling. Florida State had been 4-29 in recent years and was in need of another transfusion of enthusiasm if it wanted to shed the doldrums a losing football team produces on campus.
Bowden took the Seminole position and immediately brought a near-euphoria to Tallahassee when his first team in 1976 went 5-6.
It was his only losing season in what became a much-decorated career with the Seminoles. He actually won at least 10 games for 14 straight seasons. And all 14 of those teams were ranked no lower than fourth overall when their seasons closed.
Bumper stickers were attached to vehicles all over the state that read “Saint Bowden” and “In Bowden We Trust”.
But as he approached 80 years of age, his teams would lose three, then four games. And then came a five-loss season.
He still was an active recruiter, coming in to see recruits when getting their signature on a grant-in-aid was at hand.
And still came to the main practice field where an open gate was under a large sign that basically said, “Come here with enthusiasm. Practice with enthusiasm.”
Following the 2009 season, Bowden explained to school president T.K. Wetherell that he wanted just one more season and then he would retire. Wetherell had been one of Bowden’s players at FSU. But he didn’t give the one-time resurrectionist of the Seminoles from the football ashes another season.
Jimbo Fisher was on Bowden’s last staff. And he was promoted to head coach.
Now Fisher is off in College Station, Texas as coach of the Texas A&M Aggies. And Willie Taggart is in his second year as the head coach of the Seminoles, taking his overall record in Tallahassee of 6-9 into this week’s home game versus Louisville.
Enthusiasm got Bowden a 42-26 record in Morgantown and two national championships at Florida State.
And he still may be homespun and cackles at jokes at the drop of a hat, but he could still use his enthusiasm to recruit well enough to win eight games at most football outposts in the country.