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Legendary former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden dead at 91

College Football Hall of Fame coach, who led Seminoles from 1976-2009, second on all-time wins list
Bobby Bowden, pictured in 2009, dead at 91
Posted at 7:11 AM, Aug 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-08 22:15:13-04

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Bobby Bowden, the longtime Florida State football coach who led the Seminoles to a pair of national championships in the 1990s, has died. He was 91.

Bowden, who battled with the late Joe Paterno of Penn State for the all-time wins record, died early Sunday after a bout with pancreatic cancer, the school announced on its athletic website.

Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2006, Bowden announced in July 2021 that he had a terminal medical condition, telling the Tallahassee Democrat in a statement that he was "at peace."

The two-time Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year won a dozen ACC championships and two national titles during his 34 seasons in Tallahassee. He also coached Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke.

Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden hugged after beating Nebraska in Orange Bowl to win 1993 national championship
Florida State head football coach Bobby Bowden receives a congratulatory hug after the Seminoles defeated Nebraska 18-16 in the Orange Bowl, Jan. 1, 1994, in Miami.

Bowden tested positive for coronavirus in October 2020, shortly after spending two weeks in a Tallahassee hospital, where he was being treated for a leg infection. He was readmitted to the hospital three days later, spending another week there before being released.

Bowden was back in the public eye by April 2021, when he was awarded the inaugural Florida Medal of Freedom by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The civilian award recognizes individuals who have greatly contributed to the state of Florida.

"I appreciate you giving me this honor," Bowden said at an April 7 news conference outside the governor's mansion, where his humor was on full display. "I will treasure it the rest of my life, which I don't how long it's gonna be. Once you get 90, boy, you don't think about the future too much. You worry about that same day."

WATCH: Bobby Bowden receives Florida Medal of Freedom

Bobby Bowden receives Florida's Medal of Freedom

The patriarch of a football family that includes former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden and former Auburn coach Terry Bowden, the elder Bowden coached the Seminoles from 1976 until his retirement after the 2009 season. He was 80 when he coached his final game.

As the years turned to decades, Bowden's age became a constant target that was used against him on the recruiting trail, and Bowden was frequently asked about when he intended to step away from the game.

"After you retire, there's only big event left, and I ain't ready for that," Bowden once said, recalling the deaths of his father and another football legend, Alabama's Paul "Bear" Bryant, both of whom died within a month of their retirements.

Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden carried off field after 2010 Gator Bowl victory
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden is carried off the field on the shoulders of his players after their 33-21 win over West Virginia at the Gator Bowl, Friday, Jan. 1, 2010, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Born Nov. 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama, Bowden spent his youth listening to radio broadcasts of the finest football programs of that era -- Notre Dame and Alabama. After graduating from Woodlawn High School, Bowden began his collegiate career playing quarterback for the Crimson Tide. But one semester removed from Ann Estock -- his high school sweetheart who would soon become his first and only wife -- was enough to lure Bowden away from Tuscaloosa. He finished his playing career at Howard College, now Samford University.

It was while playing quarterback for the Bulldogs that Bowden first set foot on the field that would later bear his name. Bowden's team lost 20-6 on Oct. 14, 1950. It was just the second game ever played at Doak S. Campbell Stadium.

Bowden also began his major college coaching career at Samford in 1959.

The first of Bowden's 377 victories came Sept. 19 of that year against Maryville -- a 14-0 shutout by the Bulldogs. His first season was a successful 9-1 campaign, but it would take another 18 years for Bowden to improve in the wins column. A 10-win season at Florida State in 1977 was the first of 18 double-digit-win seasons for a Bowden-led team, all of them at FSU.

Bowden, who was 31-6 in four seasons at Howard, left in 1963 to become wide receivers coach under Bill Peterson at FSU. Among the receivers Bowden coached during his three seasons in Tallahassee was Fred Biletnikoff, who went on to have a Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Oakland Raiders.

In 1966, Bowden left FSU to become first-year head coach Jim Carlen's offensive coordinator at West Virginia. After Carlen bolted for Texas Tech, Bowden was promoted, leading the Mountaineers to a 42-26 record from 1970-75.

When Bowden decided to succeed Darrell Mudra at FSU, not even Bowden knew that his next coaching stop would be his last.

Bobby Bowden after 1975 Peach Bowl victory as head coach of West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia head coach Bobby Bowden reaches for a congratulatory handshake as he rides the shoulders of his players after the Mountaineers defeated North Carolina State 13-10 in the Peach Bowl, Dec. 31, 1975, in Atlanta.

"I did not come here with the idea of staying at Florida State," Bowden said in October 2003, after Florida State's 48-24 win against Wake Forest moved him ahead of Paterno on the all-time wins list. "I was up in West Virginia for 10 years. I said, 'I'm going back home. I'm going back south. My mother lives up there in Birmingham. My wife's mother lives up there. We'll spend the rest of our life with them. I'll go to Florida State, hang around awhile and come back up to Alabama.' But then the longer I was here, the more I liked it here, the more I felt like we could do something here, so I stayed here and I'm glad I stayed here."

Twice, Bowden considered fleeing FSU for the Southeastern Conference, which later flirted with having the Seminoles join in the early 1990s.

LSU actively pursued Bowden in 1979 to replace the departing Charles McClendon, but FSU's 24-19 victory at Tiger Stadium that season convinced him otherwise. He was rewarded with a contract extension worth $128,000.

RELATED: Coaches, former players remember Bowden

"Now I look back and see it wasn't God's will," Bowden, who was never shy about sharing his faith, recalled in 2003.

Bowden routinely spoke about his commitment to faith, family and football, in that order.

"I felt like God's will was for me to stay at Florida State," Bowden continued.

Bowden was nearly lured away from FSU again in December 1986, when he returned to Birmingham to coach in the All-American Bowl against Indiana. He considered returning to his home state after it was announced that Ray Perkins would not be back at Alabama for the 1987 season.

Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden with arms around
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden puts his arms around running back Sammy Smith, left, and quarterback Danny McManus, right, during the team's media day, Aug. 16, 1987, in Tallahassee, Fla.

"At one time, I would have gone to Alabama," Bowden admitted in 2003. "In 1987, had they offered me a job, I would've gone."

But the offer never came.

"I thought that was what I was supposed to do and, for some reason, they didn't offer the job," he recalled.

Introduced as FSU's head coach Jan. 12, 1976, Bowden had previously interviewed for the position vacated by Peterson after the 1970 season. He lost out to Larry Jones, a Tennessee assistant who helmed the Seminoles from 1971-73. For a base salary of $37,500 -- a $12,500 increase from his salary at West Virginia -- Bowden turned the program around in less than two years' time.

Bobby Bowden hired as Florida State Seminoles head coach in 1976
Bobby Bowden was hired as head football coach at Florida State in 1976.

FSU had won just three games in a three-year span before Bowden. At first, it seemed FSU's losing ways would continue as the Seminoles endured three consecutive losses, all on the road. But things changed Oct. 2, 1976, when the Seminoles defeated Kansas State 20-10 in their home opener. It was the first win in Tallahassee since Sept. 20 of the previous year.

Bowden's Seminoles finished with a 5-6 record -- his only losing campaign at FSU and the school's last losing season until 2018.

The Seminoles ended 1976 by winning their last three games, setting the tone for Bowden's 10-2 sophomore season. The Tangerine Bowl victory Dec. 23 was the first bowl trip for FSU since 1971. FSU also became the first team in the state to win 10 games in a season.

Two years later, the Seminoles coasted through their first undefeated regular season in school history, earning a spot in the Orange Bowl. Although the Seminoles fell 14 points shy of a national championship in a 21-7 loss to Oklahoma on New Year's Day, Bowden coached the Seminoles to their best ranking at the time -- a No. 6 finish in The Associated Press poll. It would soon be broken.

The Seminoles won 10 or more games and finished among the top five in the final rankings for 14 straight seasons under Bowden from 1987-2000. During that span, FSU won two national championships and played for three others.

Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden lounges with Charlie Ward's Heisman Trophy
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden relaxes at Doak S. Campbell Stadium with the Heisman Trophy awarded to Charlie Ward in 1993, Aug. 8, 1994, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Even before the dynasty era began, Bowden may have realized the untapped potential at FSU with the outcome of a 1981 scheduled dubbed by many as "murderer's row." Coming off another 10-win season in 1980, the Seminoles were sent on the road for games at Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU in successive weekends. The team went 3-2 against the heavyweight programs, beating the Buckeyes, Fighting Irish and Tigers on their home turf.

FSU's dominance continued as Bowden transitioned the Seminoles into the ACC, winning nine consecutive championships in their first nine years. The Seminoles were 70-2 in ACC play from 1992-2000.

RELATED: 5 most memorable wins in Bowden era

In 1999, Bowden notched his 300th win in Division I football's first-ever father vs. son coaching battle. The Seminoles needed a late-game field goal to stave off Clemson as Bowden beat his eldest son, Tommy, who was in his first season as Tigers coach.

The Seminoles went on to beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and finish with a perfect 12-0 record, culminating with Bowden's second national championship.

Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden doused with water after winning 1999 national championship at Sugar Bowl
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden gets doused with water after the Seminoles beat Virginia Tech 46-29 in the Sugar Bowl, Jan. 4, 2000, in New Orleans.

His first came during the 1993 season, when FSU held on for an 18-16 victory against undefeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

Bowden laid the foundation for the success that the Seminoles continued under predecessor Jimbo Fisher, who helped FSU win the 2013 national championship before leaving for Texas A&M in December 2017.

"He's as fine a man as there ever was and he means the world to me and it's a very sad day for me," Fisher told reporters in July after learning of Bowden's terminal illness.

Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher on sideline in 2009
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, left, talks to offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher during the second half of a game against Florida, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2009, in Gainesville, Fla.

The Seminoles set an NCAA record with 11 consecutive bowl victories and 14 straight without a loss (having tied with Georgia in the 1984 Citrus Bowl). They also never lost a game in Tallahassee for a decade, riding a 54-game unbeaten streak and 37-game winning streak from 1992-2001.

RELATED: 5 milestone FSU victories under Bowden

Of course, it wasn't all championships and confetti. Bowden's tenure in Tallahassee was tenuous at times, among them the decision to promote his youngest son, Jeff, from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator in 2001. The younger Bowden resigned under pressure in 2006, three days after a 30-0 loss to Wake Forest. It was the first time the Seminoles were shut out in 233 games.

"I am disappointed in Jeff's decision," the elder Bowden said after his son's resignation, having ignored pleas from fans for a change. "This is a big loss to me personally. His decision is an emotional one for me."

Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden and offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden ride to practice in 2005
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, right, and his son, offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, ride to the practice field for the first day of practice, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2005, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Bowden revamped his staff for the 2007 season, bringing in LSU's Fisher to lead the offense. After his first season in Tallahassee, Fisher was named "head coach-in-waiting" and received a new contract that would pay him $5 million if he didn't succeed Bowden by 2011.

In 2009, the NCAA ruled that Florida State would have to vacate wins from the 2006 and 2007 seasons because of an academic cheating scandal. Bowden was stripped of 12 victories, dropping his total to 377.

Florida State Seminoles head coach Bobby Bowden from behind watches team in loss at Maryland in 2006
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden watches his team during the second half of their game against Maryland, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006, in College Park, Md. The Terrapins won 27-24.

There were also the heartbreaking losses to Miami that all but kept Bowden from winning a few more national titles.

Bowden was 14-21 against the Hurricanes, who claimed five national championships, all during the Bowden era.

Eight times throughout the course of the rivalry, FSU lost by 3 points or less. On three of those occasions, it was the only blemish to an otherwise perfect regular season for the Seminoles. A 17-16 loss to Miami on Nov. 16, 1991 -- now affectionately known as "Wide Right I" -- cost FSU its No. 1 ranking and dashed the Seminoles' dreams of becoming national champions.

"On my tombstone they'll write, 'But he played Miami,'" Bowden said after the game.

As the losses continued to mount -- the Seminoles lost six games in three of Bowden's last four seasons -- some fans and high-profile boosters questioned whether Bowden was hanging on too long. His fate was sealed after a 37-10 drubbing by rival Florida in 2009. The Seminoles trailed 30-0 late in the third quarter on their way to a sixth straight loss against the Gators.

FSU and Bowden announced his retirement three days later. He hung up his coach's hat after a 33-21 win against West Virginia in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day, turning the reins over to Fisher.

Bobby Bowden and Jimbo Fisher in locker room after 2010 Gator Bowl
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, left, and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, right, meet in the locker room after the Seminoles' 33-21 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, Friday, Jan. 1, 2010, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Bowden later said then-FSU President T.K. Wetherell forced him to resign, severing his relationship with the former receiver whom he once coached when he was an assistant at the school in the 1960s.

Wetherell, who died of cancer in 2018, gave him an ultimatum, Bowden said, to either serve as an "ambassador coach" -- meaning he wouldn't be allowed to coach from the field -- or step down.

"So I said, 'What's the next alternative?' The next alternative, we ain't going to renew your contract," Bowden told The Associated Press in 2010. "Does that sound like I resigned?"

Bobby Bowden: Year-By-Year Florida State Coaching Record

SeasonRecordBowlFinal Ranking
1976 5-6
197710-2TangerineNo. 14
197911-1OrangeNo. 6
198010-2OrangeNo. 5
19829-3Gator No. 13
19847-3-2Florida CitrusNo. 17
19859-3GatorNo. 15
198711-1FiestaNo. 2
198811-1SugarNo. 3
198910-2FiestaNo. 3
199010-2BlockbusterNo. 4
199111-2CottonNo. 4
199211-1OrangeNo. 2
199312-1OrangeNo. 1
199410-1-1SugarNo. 4
199510-2OrangeNo. 4
199611-1SugarNo. 3
199711-1SugarNo. 3
199811-2FiestaNo. 3
199912-0SugarNo. 1
200011-2OrangeNo. 5
20018-4GatorNo. 15
20029-5SugarNo. 21
200310-3OrangeNo. 11
20049-3GatorNo. 15
20058-5OrangeNo. 22
20077-6Music City
20089-4Champs SportsNo. 21