Bobby Bowden, the folksy Hall of Fame coach who built Florida State into an unprecedented college football dynasty, has died. He was 91.
Bobby's son, Terry, confirmed to The Associated Press that his father died at home in Tallahassee, Florida, surrounded by family early Sunday morning.
“It was truly peaceful,” Terry Bowden said in a text message to AP.
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Bobby Bowden announced on July 21 he had a terminal illness that Terry Bowden later said was pancreatic cancer. Bobby Bowden had been treated for prostate cancer more than a decade ago.
“I’ve always tried to serve God’s purpose for my life, on and off the field, and I am prepared for what is to come,” Bowden, a devout Christian, said at the time. “My wife, Ann, and our family have been life’s greatest blessing. I am at peace.”
Bowden was beloved by Seminoles fans, respected by his peers and throughout his life one of the most accessible stars in college football. His home number was listed in the Tallahassee phone book for years.
With Southern charm and wit, Bowden piled up 377 wins during his 40 years as a major college coach, from tiny Samford — his alma mater, then known as Howard College — to West Virginia and finally at Florida State, where he went 315-98-4. The Seminoles were a force during his 34 seasons as coach, winning 12 Atlantic Coast Conference championships and national titles in 1993 and 1999.
Florida State had an unmatched run of 14 consecutive seasons (1987-2000) finishing ranked in the top five of The Associated Press college football poll under Bowden.
“Florida State University has lost a legend in the passing of Bobby Bowden," university President John Thrasher said in a statement. “Coach Bowden built a football dynasty and raised the national profile of Florida State University, and he did it with class and a sense of humor.”
Bowden retired following the 2009 season with a Gator Bowl win over West Virginia in Florida State’s 28th straight postseason appearance, a victory that gave him his 33rd consecutive winning season. However, a month after he resigned, the NCAA stripped Florida State of victories in 10 sports because of an academic cheating scandal in 2006 and ’07 involving 61 athletes.
Still, only Penn State's Joe Paterno is credited with winning more games (409) as a major college football coach. Bowden's win total ranks fourth across all divisions in college football history.
Bowden was replaced in 2010 by his offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, who had been Bowden’s replacement-in-waiting.
“He’s one of the great human beings that’s ever coached and one of the great coaches that’s ever coached,” Fisher said.
Bowden won the national championship in 1993 with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Charlie Ward and again in 1999 with his second Heisman winner, quarterback Chris Weinke, and All-American receiver Peter Warrick.
The Seminoles were a contender to win the title every season for more than a decade. Florida State lost national championship games against Florida, Tennessee and Oklahoma and narrowly missed out on the playing for titles in several other seasons because of losses to archrival Miami.
Bowden once quipped that his headstone would read, “But he played Miami,” a one-liner that came the day after the Hurricanes escaped with a 17-16 win in 1991 when the Seminoles missed a field goal wide right in the final seconds. Miami also won in similar fashion in 2002 when a field-goal try went wide left, much to Bowden’s chagrin.
Florida State dominated the ACC under Bowden, winning championships in 12 of its first 14 seasons after joining the league in 1992.
“Bobby Bowden has meant everything to Florida State athletics and so much to college football in general,” Florida State athletic director David Coburn said. “He is a part of the heart and soul of FSU, but it goes beyond even that — he is a big part of the history of the game.”
Bowden was also the patriarch of college football’s most colorful coaching family. Son Tommy Bowden had a 90-49 record at Tulane and Clemson, and son Terry Bowden was 47-17-1 at Auburn. Another son, Jeff, served 13 years coaching wide receivers for his father at Florida State and six seasons as offensive coordinator before he resigned in 2006.
Success also brought a glaring spotlight and Bowden’s program was touched by scandal on a few occasions. The school was put on NCAA probation for five years after several players in 1993 accepted free shoes and other sporting goods from a local store. The episode led former Florida coach Steve Spurrier to dub FSU “Free Shoes University.”
Bowden prided himself on adapting to the times and giving players a second chance, but critics said he was soft on discipline with an eye on winning games.
“If short hair and good manners won football games, Army and Navy would play for the national championship every year,” Bowden retorted.
Randy Moss, one of the most talented athletes to attend Florida State, never played a down for the Seminoles and was kicked out of school after a redshirt season for smoking marijuana. In 1999, Warrick was caught in a shopping scam that led to his suspension for two games and probably cost him the Heisman Trophy that year.
“There’s only about 6 inches that turns that halo into a noose,” Bowden was fond of saying during the good days, when he was often called “Saint Bobby” by the Florida State faithful.
But he was considered one of the best handlers of great individual talents, recruiting and developing the likes of Simmons, Ward, Weinke, Warrick, Butler and Deion Sanders, who earned the nickname “Prime Time” during his days as a Seminole.
“God bless the Bowden Family, Friends & Loved ones,” Sanders posted on Twitter. “My Prayers are with u. I’ve lost 1 of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Despite those tough days near the end of his career, Bowden stayed in the public eye after retirement, writing a book, making speeches and going public with his treatment for prostate cancer in 2007. His fear of retiring from coaching resulted in part from the death of his longtime idol, former Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who died within weeks of leaving the sidelines.
“After you retire, there’s only one big event left,” Bowden frequently said.
Florida state said funeral arrangements for Bowden were pending.
Bowden is survived by wife Ann; sons Terry, Tommy, Jeff and Steve; and daughters Robyn Hines and Ginger Madden.