The passing of Coach Bobby Bowden brings me a deep sadness like that of few others outside of family.
It was 61 years ago this month that I met Coach Bowden as a freshman at Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Alabama. He was 30 and in his second year as our head football coach. I was 18 and beginning to work my way through Howard as the student sports publicity guy in the public relations department. It was also the beginning of my four years as sports editor of the student newspaper, The Crimson. Never in our wildest imagination could any of us at Howard dream that Coach Bowden would become the second winningest coach in college football history.
Even then, he was a joy to be around. He had charisma and personality, plus endless energy, good looks, a growing family and a superb handball game. He was also solid in his faith in God. He was called by God to be a football coach. So through Howard College, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, football and Billy Graham, I have had the pleasure, honor and privilege of his friendship over these decades.
He was an evangelist in the rugged world of college football. He told me when I came to serve at the Billy Graham Library that “Billy Graham has been my lifelong, all-time hero.”
Ministering to the lost
Coach Bowden grew up in the Ruhama Baptist Church section of Birmingham, where he often sang old standards such as “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” It gave him great joy to wear lapel pins of the cross, and I have worn those he gave to me for years. He taught a Sunday School class most of his years as Florida State’s head coach, even during football season.
In his retirement years, he spoke hundreds of times, and he would ask the host pastor, “Are there going to be any lost people here tonight?” He was there to tell humorous stories but the main attraction was his unique way of telling people why they need Jesus Christ in their life as Lord and Savior.
George Henshaw, one of his former assistant coaches, tells this story:
“It was the night before Florida State was to play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl for the 2000 National Championship.
“I couldn’t wait to hear what the great Bobby Bowden was going to say to the team to get them primed up for the big battle the next night. I’m geared up myself to hear the best of Bobby Bowden. The team was in their seats anticipating a game plan talk and fiery words of motivation. He entered the room, and this is what he said. ‘Men, tonight I want to talk to just the five-year seniors because tonight will be the last time I have to make sure you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. So I’m going to tell you how you can receive Christ into your heart and go to heaven when you die — one more time.’ Then, he proceeded to give the gospel message his way and with words from Scripture and a devotion.”
George told the story in awe of Coach Bowden. Coach Bowden cared for his players but more so for their eternal destination than a national championship. That Florida State team went on to win the game, 46-29.
Coach Bowden shared his testimony at two Billy Graham Crusades. One was in Tallahassee in 1985 and another was in Ft. Lauderdale in 1986. While in Tallahassee, Billy Graham visited Coach Bowden in his office and spoke to the players.
Last May, Tommy and Terry reached out to me for video copies. Their daddy wanted to show his grandchildren when the entire Bowden family met for their annual beach vacation. He visited the Billy Graham Library twice and did a book signing for us on March 14, 2015. That book was “The Wisdom of Faith.” He told me that day was the “highlight of my year.” He was also so blessed by the library tour I gave him.
‘Winsome, happy and loose’
In 2011, my friend Pat Williams wrote “Bobby Bowden On Leadership.” Pat used what I wrote about Coach Bowden as the epilogue.
Here are some excerpts:
“Coach Bowden is among the 15% of leaders who are born and not made. … He was a college head coach at 25. … I remember his sons, Tommy (6) and Terry (4), clicking behind his heels on the practice field. … He was probably as good as anyone on the team and we had some good athletes. … As August practices began, the young general works his boys hard, the Bear Bryant way. … His four-year record was 31-6. … Nehemiah might have been thinking of Bobby Bowden when he wrote, ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Neh. 8:10). … His leadership reflected the job of a highly spirited man. He was winsome, he was happy; he was loose and full of pep always.
“His irresistible southern charm, his ‘dadgum’ statements and ‘Hello ole buddy, how ya doin’ slaps on the back caught on with the fans and media, and especially the boys. … He recruited the mommas and daddies. … He was an RC Cola, Moon Pie kind of guy [who] … never forgot his roots. … He lived in the same neighborhood as his idol Harry Gilmer, a great Alabama All-American, who was 3 1/2 years older. … He loved the Alabama Crimson Tide. … He told me during the height of his days at Florida State, ‘When I retire, I want to go to an Alabama football game. I want to sit in the stands, get a Coca-Cola and watch Alabama play a football game.’ ”
Of course, it is well documented that Bowden was on the Alabama football team as a freshman but married Ann and came back to play at Howard College, which was in his neighborhood. He was a Little All-American quarterback for the Bulldogs. He gave up Alabama football for Ann. It was a wise decision.
They were married 72 years. They were always available. Their home telephone number was always in the telephone book. You would get an answer from him or Ann. He would return a phone call from a Howard College player as quick as he would Deon Sanders or Charlie Ward.
Up until the last few months, I called him frequently, and we would discuss the Billy Graham ministry, Howard College days, family, FCA and football. His birthday was on Nov. 8, and I would remind him that Billy Graham’s was Nov. 7 and our friend Ray Perkins, who hired me at Alabama, was on Nov. 6. Takes my breath away when I think that all three are in paradise now.
‘Always had time for folks’
Books, films and documentaries have been published and produced on this coach’s life. As an FCA man, I am so pleased that in 2003, FCA’s national award to a player was named the Bobby Bowden Award. It is given for an athlete who conducts himself as a faith model in the community, in the classroom and on the field.
There are too many accolades to name, but I’m here to declare that he was also the most well-known graduate of Samford University, an outstanding Christian institution in Birmingham. He loved Samford. On Sept. 21, 2013, a bronze statue of Coach Bowden was unveiled outside Siebert Stadium, a most fitting gesture for this man who has given the school much fame, distinction and notoriety through his amazing career.
In 1995, Alabama had an open date and my daughter, Amy, and I went to Tallahassee to see the Florida State-Maryland game. Coach Bowden and his recruiter, Ronnie Cottrell, wanted Amy to come to school down there and be a Seminole girl. That didn’t happen, but more than the game, this is what I remember the most:
Coach Bowden had us to come into his office for a visit. We got to talking about days at Howard, football and family. Before I knew it, it was an hour and 15 minutes before the kickoff. I was getting mighty nervous as he kept on talking. His office was close to the Seminole locker room, thank goodness.
With just 65 minutes before the kickoff, he was still as calm as he could be but well aware of the time. He got up, thanked us for coming to see him and we said our goodbyes. I guess you could say, sure, he always had time for folks, but that was another story.
Coach Bowden passed away shortly after 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning (Aug. 8). That was the time he normally got up, got his coffee and got into his Bible devotion and prayer time. It was his time with the Lord. So what a time for him to meet Jesus, at his quiet time. I am so glad he wanted to be buried by his parents in Birmingham. He loved where he came from and was always a family man. Too, how good that a public viewing took place on Sunday afternoon at Reid Chapel on the Samford University campus. What a way to honor his beloved alma mater.
So long old friend, and thanks for the memories. You made us all feel good, and we were blessed to know you. One day we’ll meet again in heaven forever!
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Ps. 116:15).
“Well done, thy good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23).
EDITOR’S NOTE — Wayne Atcheson is the historian/regional manager of the Billy Graham Library for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Charlotte, North Carolina. Click here to view a brief video compiled by Atcheson’s 13-year old grandson, Giles Snyder.