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 The AP.
Bobby Bowden announced on July 21 he had a terminal illness that Terry Bowden later said was pancreatic cancer.
“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. .
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. 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.
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.
Bobby Bowden left West Virginia to take over a Florida State program in 1976 that had produced just four wins the three previous seasons. The Seminoles went 5-6 in Bowden’s first year and never again experienced a losing season under Bowden.
By 1979, Bowden had Florida State positioned for one of the great runs in the annals of college football. Florida State dominated the ACC under Bowden, winning championships in 12 of its first 14 seasons after joining the league in 1992.
In 1993, despite a late slip at Notre Dame, Florida State won its first national title after nearly getting there in 1987, 1988, 1991 and 1992. Bowden’s lone perfect season came in 1999 when the Seminoles became the first team to go wire-to-wire in The Associated Press rankings, No. 1 from the preseason to finish.
“The first championship was more of a relief,” Bowden said. “I think I was able to enjoy the second one a little more.”
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.”
“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.
The Seminoles won 10 or more games in 18 of Bowden’s 34 seasons at Florida State, but were a relatively mortal 74-42 on the field from 2001-09.
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.
Bowden was hospitalized in October 2020 after testing positive for COVID-19. The test came a few days after he returned home from a long hospital stay for a leg infection.
Born Nov. 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, Robert Cleckler Bowden overcame rheumatic fever as a child to quarterback Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, then attended Alabama for a semester before transferring back to his hometown Howard College, where he starred at quarterback.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Ann, and they stayed together for 72 years. Florida State said a service was scheduled for Saturday at the basketball arena on campus.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Alabama, AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo in New York and former AP Sports Deputy Editor John Affleck contributed to this report.