As a young lad growing up in Central Florida, I didn’t know a whole lot about Bobby Bowden when, 30 years ago this year, he was named the head coach at Florida State University.
My first recollection of the Seminoles was to watch incredulously as they went 11-0 during the 1979 regular season, which also happened to be the first year I paid rapt attention to college football. Even though I was just eight years old, I already had an understanding of the hierarchy that made up the college football elite. Florida State was not in that group and not even an 11-0 record did much to change my perception.
The way I saw it, there was Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, Penn State…and that was about it. Those teams were college football, just like GM, Ford, AT&T and GE were the American economy.
Seeing Oklahoma beat FSU, 24-7, in the 1980 Orange Bowl only confirmed my previous perception of the Seminoles as not being ready for prime time.
Then something interesting happened in 1980.
Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles–at the time, an independent program–scheduled a slate that included road games against Louisiana State and Nebraska and a home game versus Pitt.
Mind you, that was a Louisiana State squad that had nearly toppled No. 1 USC in Death Valley in 1979, while Nebraska was simply a powerhouse that few teams outside the Big 8 deigned to reckon with. Then there was Pitt, which had Dan Marino and Heisman runner-up Hugh Green and had won a national title in 1976.
So what happened? Bowden’s ‘Noles waltzed into Death Valley and blanked LSU, 16-0, then traveled to Lincoln and beat Nebraska, 18-14.
As I listened to the games on the radio in between intense games of paper football with my older brother, I came away impressed. I never imagined that FSU could go on the road and be so successful against those programs.
Whatever the case, there was no way that FSU could come back the next week and beat mighty Pitt the week after vanquishing Nebraska!
But they did.
The season ended up at 10-2 following a heartbreaking 18-17 loss to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But there was no doubt in my mind that the Seminoles had arrived.
FSU continued its impressive scheduling methods over the next couple years.
For all the talk and excuses now about how teams need to schedule seven or even eight home games, the Seminoles played just five games in Tallahassee in 1977 (a 10-2 year), six in 1978, and five in 1979 (the 11-1 year). There were no complaints and no whining. Just tough competition by Bowden’s teams.
In 1981, the ‘Noles went just 6-5, but beat Art Schlichter and Ohio State in Columbus and Notre Dame in South Bend. A return trip to Nebraska was a bad loss (the second game of a road and road series–imagine that!) and Pitt finally got its revenge.
But the important thing was that, through it all, Florida State had arrived as a legitimate program. Bowden got it done by playing anyone, anytime, anywhere.
FSU didn’t get instant gratification from that method. No national titles were in the immediate offing. But by the time 1987 rolled around, the program was weathered and toughened and established and a dynasty began to take root. Fourteen consecutive top four finishes ensued.
It’s almost sad to see the state that Bowden and his program is in now, especially when one looks back on what used to be. He may be past his prime now, but there was a time when he was the crafty, cutting edge coach that other teams wanted no part of. That’s no longer the case.
But as he winds down his career, it should always be remembered how he got there. He turned a moribund program into a national power by going balls-out against the best programs in the country on their home turf. He didn’t pad his record by scheduling the Little Sisters of the Poor. He went against the elites and, more often than not, ended up shocking the college football world.
He truly is one of the all-time greats.
The great Bobby Bowden