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Was Bobby Bowden's the best coaching job ever?

By Frank Giardina

EARLIER THIS week, I had a radio visit with former WVU and Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, and it brought to mind this question: Is what Bowden did at Florida State the best coaching job in recent college football history?

When you compare him with the coaching colleagues of his era, you can make a good case for the Alabama native who spent 10 years in Morgantown from 1966-75. Here is a thumbnail of some of his coaching contemporaries. 

  • Tom Osborne, Nebraska: Osborne did an incredible job in Lincoln, but the program certainly was not broken when he took over as head coach in the fall of 1973. The Cornhuskers had won a national championship under Bob Devaney in 1971 and the 1972 team defeated Notre Dame 40-6 in the 1973 Orange Bowl. 
  • Joe Paterno, Penn State: Paterno raised the bar for Nittany Lion football in Happy Valley, but he inherited a good eastern program from his predecessor Rip Engle. Penn State had been playing winning football for years when Paterno took over as head coach in 1966.
  • Barry Switzer, Oklahoma: Like Osborne and Paterno, Switzer inherited a good program from Chuck Fairbanks when he took over in the fall of 1973. Oklahoma had been a national power since the 1950s.
  • When Bowden took over at Florida State, the Seminole program was at a low ebb, going 0-11 in 1973 and 1-10 in 1974. Prior to Bowden's arrival, Larry Jones had a three-year record of 15-19, while Darrell Mudra had a two-year record of 4-18. There was even some talk of de-emphasizing the program.

    Unlike Osborne, Paterno and Switzer, the program that Bowden inherited was not rich in tradition. Florida State was an all-women's school until 1947. In football, the Seminoles had some success in the 1960s under Bill Peterson, when Bowden was an assistant on the staff. For example, FSU went 9-1-1 in 1964 with quarterback Steve Tensi and wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, and smacked Oklahoma in the Gator Bowl 36-19.   

    It did not take Bowden long to make an impact in Tallahassee. After a 5-6 season in 1976, he compiled a 39-8 record over the next four years and played Oklahoma in back-to-back Orange Bowls in 1979-1980. 

    Bowden earned the nickname "King of the Road" after the hit Roger Miller song of 1964, taking his rising power of a program on the road to places like LSU, Nebraska, Michigan and Pitt and began to win. He also started beating Florida, which was unusual. Prior to Bowden's arrival, the Seminoles were 2-15-1 against the Gators, but Bowden beat them four of the first five times he faced them. 

    You know the rest of the story. Bowden built Florida State into a national football power, winning national championships in 1993 and 1999, and produced two Heisman Trophy winners. His teams finished among AP's top five for 14 straight seasons (1987-2000). 

    There have been many outstanding coaching performances in college football, none better recently than state native Nick Saban, who has won two of the last three national championships at Alabama. 

    But, in all of college football history, when it comes to taking over a struggling program and building it into a consistent national power, I'm not sure anything tops the job done by Bowden at Florida State. 

    Reach Frank Giardina at flg16@hotmail.com.

     


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