By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Legendary Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden died Sunday morning at age 91, about two weeks after announcing he had a terminal illness.
University President John Thrasher recounted knowing the larger-than-life coach for years, describing Bowden as an “incredible” man known as much for his quick wit and humor as for his investment in the lives of athletes he coached.
“Coach Bowden impacted the college football scene tremendously, but he also impacted lives. And not just football players, he impacted lives all over this country. Anybody who met Bobby Bowden understood what a genuine, honest, sincere person he was. A person of faith, and a person of great leadership,” Thrasher, who is retiring as president next week, said Sunday.
As Bowden over the years led what Thrasher called the “gold standard” of college football programs, the university as a whole saw a boost in stature, including from an academic standpoint, the president said.
“I think the front porch for a lot of people is athletics, and it was for Florida State — still is by the way. But he did, he incrementally increased the value of coming to Florida State University. I think a lot of young people probably said, ‘That’s a good place to go,’” said Thrasher, who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from the Tallahassee school.
Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House who was a perennial advocate for FSU in the Legislature, recalled Bowden once sending him a signed football made out to “Speaker John.” Thrasher also laughed when telling a story about Bowden asking during a meeting with Thrasher whether the then-lawmaker could get the football program an airplane through the Legislature.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1929, Bowden landed his first head-coaching job at the University of West Virginia in 1970. Bowden took over as head coach of a struggling Seminoles team in 1976 and built the program into a powerhouse during 34 years at the helm until his retirement in 2009.
He led FSU to two national championships and 12 Atlantic Coast Conference championships and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Bowden issued a statement last month about having a terminal illness. While the statement did not detail the illness, numerous media outlets later quoted his son Terry as saying that Bowden had pancreatic cancer.
In the statement in July, Bobby Bowden focused on his family and his faith.
“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. My wife, Ann, and our family have been life’s greatest blessing. I am at peace,” he said.
Even in his final years, the retired coach maintained a presence in the FSU football program. In October, current coach Mike Norvell told reporters Bowden remained connected to the program, including speaking with players and staff. Former Seminole football players spanning decades went on social media Sunday to share photos and stories of playing for Bowden.
“That’s what he did, he went out and recruited those kinds of young men, and he molded them in a way that allowed them to be successful. Both on the football field, certainly, but also in life. And that to me is a legacy he leaves,” Thrasher said.
To Thrasher, his longtime friend is an example of living a full life, and in football vernacular, leaving it all on the field.
“What a great man, what a great life. We all talk about lives well-lived,” Thrasher said of Bowden. “If you open the book and find that definition, his would be there. We love him, we’ll miss him.”
Bowden will lie in honor in the Florida Capitol rotunda from 10 a.m to 1 p.m. Friday and will lie in repose in the university’s Moore Athletic Center from 2 p.m to 7 p.m. A funeral service open to the public will be held at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Bowden also will lie in repose Sunday at his alma mater, Samford University in Birmingham. A family-only burial service will be held in Trussville, Ala., according to FSU.