Birmingham native Robert Cleckler “Bobby” Bowden (1929-2021) was one of the winningest head coaches in college football. Over 34 seasons, Bowden led the Florida State University (FSU) Seminoles to two national championships (1993 and 1999) and 12 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championships. His 377-129-4 career record ranks only behind Penn State’s Joe Paterno in all time Football Bowl Series wins.
Bobby Bowden, 1952 Bowden was born November 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, to Bob Pierce Bowden, a banker at First National Bank in Birmingham, and Sunset Clecker Bowden, a homemaker. He had one older sister. The family lived near Woodlawn High School, and as a child Bowden would watch the school football team practice with his father. Bowden was an active child and began playing football when he was nine. At age 13, he was stricken with rheumatic fever and spent almost a year bedridden. During this time, he listened to University of Alabama football games on the radio and became a Crimson Tide fan. The experience also inspired his lifelong devotion to his Baptist faith. Restricted from physical activity, Bowden learned to play trombone and joined the Woodlawn High School Orchestra. He also performed with a local jazz group, The Lee Jordan Band.
When Bowden was 15, doctors declared that he had recovered sufficiently from his ailment to try out for the football team. An injury in the fall of 1946, however, ended his season and Bowden sat out a semester to have two years of eligibility left. Bowden played in the offensive backfield and in the defensive secondary for the Woodlawn Colonels in 1947 and 1948, earning All-State honors. Bowden graduated in January 1949 and entered the University of Alabama that spring. He practiced with the freshman team but left school after one semester and returned to Birmingham after marrying his high-school sweetheart Julia Ann Estock. The couple had six children. Sons Tommy, Terry, and Jeff would also coach college football.
Bobby Bowden, 1952 In the fall of 1949, Bowden enrolled at Howard College (present-day Samford University) in Birmingham and joined the football team. After three losing seasons, he became the team’s quarterback as a senior. Bowden then led the Howard Bulldogs to a 5-4 record in 1952 and was named a Little All-American, an award for the best players at the nation’s small colleges. After graduating in 1953, he remained at Howard as an assistant football coach for two seasons. During this time, he also earned a master’s degree in education at George Peabody College in Nashville. In 1955, Bowden took a head coaching job at South Georgia College, a junior college in Douglas, Georgia. In four seasons, he led the Tigers to a 22-11 record, won three Georgia junior college championships and was named the state’s Junior College Coach of the Year in 1955 and 1957. Bowden also served as the school’s athletic director and coached the basketball and baseball teams.
When South Georgia College shuttered the football program after the 1958 season, Bowden returned to Birmingham to take over a struggling Howard football program. Bowden brought several South Georgia College players with him and transformed the team, posting a 9-1 record in 1959 with six shutouts. Howard then went 31-6 over the following four seasons. In 1963, Bowden took over as receivers coach for Florida State University and three years later became offensive coordinator at West Virginia University. He became head coach in 1970, and over the next five years the Mountaineers earned a 42-26 record including two bowl appearances, with a Peach Bowl win against North Carolina State.
Despite his success at West Virginia, Bowden returned to Florida in 1976 to take over a lackluster Seminole program and proceeded to transform it into a college football powerhouse. In his first season as head coach, the team finished 5-6. It would be his only losing season in 33 years as the Seminole’s head coach. Between 1987 and 2000, the Seminoles finished with 10 wins every season and finished in the top 5 of the Associated Press (AP) poll. In 1993, Florida State won the national championship with an 18-16 victory over the University of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. That year, quarterback Charlie Ward became Florida State’s first Heisman Trophy winner. Bowden’s second national championship came in 1999 when he led the team to a 12-0 record and a 46-29 win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Quarterback Chris Weinke became the second of Bowden’s players to win the Heisman Trophy, in 2000. Bowden’s record suffered when FSU was forced to vacate 12 wins from the 2006 and 2007 seasons after the National Collegiate Athletic Association ruled the Seminoles had used academically ineligible players during those seasons. Bowden retired in 2009.
During his tenure at FSU, Bowden was named the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year (1980), the Walter Camp Coach of the Year (1991), the ACC Head Coach of the Year (1993, 1997), and the Home Depot Coach of the Year (1996). He won the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award in 2011. He is the only coach in Football Bowl Subdivision history to compile 14 straight top-five finishes in the AP poll (1987-2000) and his 20-9-1 bowl record remains the second best all time. After his retirement from coaching, Bowden became a popular Christian speaker and motivational sports speaker. He co-authored several books concerning his life as a coach and his faith. Bowden died of pancreatic cancer at his home on August 8, 2021, at age 91.
Two national awards are named in his honor: The Bobby Bowden National Coach of the Year Award, presented by the Mountain Touchdown Club of Birmingham and the Bobby Bowden Athlete of the Year Award, presented by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The field of FSU’s Doak S. Campbell Stadium was named Bobby Bowden Field in 2004. That same year, Bowden was honored with a statue of his likeness in the Les and Ruth Akers Plaza outside of the stadium. A statue of Bowden was dedicated outside of Samford’s Seibert Stadium in 2013. Bowden is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Florida State University Hall of Fame, and the West Virginia University Hall of Fame. In 2006, Bowden received the National Football Foundation’s highest award—the Gold Medal.
Bowden, Bobby. Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith, and Football. New York, N.Y.: Howard Books, 2010.
———. More than Just a Game. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994.
Freedman, Lew. Rise of the Seminoles: FSU Football Under Bobby Bowden. New York, N.Y.: Sports Publishing, 2015.