Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Me & Bobby Bowden

The plaudits that are now pouring in for Bobby Bowden in the wake of Monday’s announcement that he is resigning as the Florida State head coach come from every quarter – from Hall of Fame players and coaches and luminaries of every ilk, many well outside the arena of college football.
It would be the height of arrogance to expect that he would pay any particular attention to my compliments, of course.
But then a memory stirs of my first meeting with the legendary coach and I pause to think that my words of congratulations might indeed carry a weight beyond all proportion to my status.
It was early August of 1989 and the Seminoles were well into preparations for the season when I made arrangements to visit campus to do a story on a freshman player on the Seminoles’ roster.
At that time, I was a sports writer at the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald and had been sent to Tallahassee to do a story on Terrell Buckley, who had been a star player on the Pascagoula High state title team of 1987.
Although Buckley was a prized prospect and would go on to win the Jim Thorpe Award at FSU in a few years, the Seminoles were such a power that little time or attention was wasted on a raw rookie.
Of course, Buckley was still a luminous star in his hometown, which is why I was dispatched to Tallahassee. Florida State was, at that time, just coming into its glory under Bowden. In fact, the ensuing decade would bring two national championships to the school, cementing Bowden’s status as a college football legend.
Mindful of the status of both the FSU program and its famous coach and equally mindful that I was just a small-town newspaper reporter doing a story on a player who wouldn’t sniff the field that season, I was hopeful that I might get two or three minutes of Bowden’s time, perhaps out by the practice field or between meetings. I was nervous. I figured I had better be ready to get the most I could in a small amount of time.
But when I arrived, I was stunned to find myself being ushered into Bowden’s office. There he was, rising up from his big desk and moving quickly toward me, thrusting out his hand and smiling broadly.
“Hello, Hello!’’ he said, pumping my hand as if I were a dear friend he hadn’t seen in ages. “How was your drive over? You thirsty?’’
Before I could answer, he was shouting out to his secretary, “Can you bring Slim here something to drink? What would you like? A Coke? Water? Boy, it’s good to see you! I appreciate you driving over! Here, please sit down!’’
This was not the reception I had anticipated.
After ushering me into a comfortable chair across from his desk, Bowden sank into his big chair, leaned back and asked what he could do for me. He seemed relaxed, like he had all the time in the world and that my arrival was a pleasing respite from his busy day.
I explained the purpose of my visit and Bowden went into another long soliloquy about what a great kid Terrell Buckley was, what a wonderful town Pascagoula was, what great coaching he had, what a wonderful mama he had, etc., etc.
I had hoped for a few minutes. After a half-hour, I began to feel a bit guilty, even though there was nothing in Bowden’s demeanor to suggest that he wouldn’t have been content to talk all afternoon, maybe even delay practice to continue the discussion.
When I rose to leave, he thanked me again for coming. “You let me know if there’s anything else you need for your story, OK? Anything at all. Boy, it was sure good to meet you, Slim! You come back and see us, all right?’’
Monday, when Bowden stepped down after 44 years as a head coach, including 34 seasons at Florida State where he transformed FSU from a joke to a power, I remember that day 20 years ago when he treated a small-town sports writer as if he were the lead columnist for The New York Times.
One need only examine his won-loss record to recognize that Bowden was a great coach.
My testimony is that he was an even better man.
So congratulations, coach Bowden.
And thanks for the hospitality.

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