Bobby Bowden can sit in his mammoth office at Florida State, close his eyes and make all of his trophies and awards and nice furniture disappear. All of the sudden, it's almost 60 years ago, and his big oak desk has transformed into the tiny, rickety version that sat in his grammar school in Birmingham.
That was when one of his teachers asked him to write about what he wanted to be when he grew up. So with his stubby little body bent over the paper, he ground out a few sentences about wanting to be an Army general, with medals, a helmet and a nice green uniform. Then he drew a picture of Douglas MacArthur at the bottom of the page, because World War II was on, and "Douglas MacArthur was just everything then."
Bowden allows himself a small wistful smile before opening his eyes again, snapping the trophies and fine furniture back into place. Then his smile widens into a mischievous grin.
"The way it ended up--well, I think it worked it okay," he said, his southern accent drawing out each word. "Besides, how could you have predicted this?"
Looking in on little Bobby in that Alabama schoolhouse, it would have been hard to imagine that the boy would grow up to spawn college football's premier powerhouse family. Yet there he will be Saturday, leading the Seminoles against Clemson in a game that could be both intimate and historic. He will be trying to become the seventh major-college coach to reach 300 career victories, and all he'll have to do is defeat his son, Tigers Coach Tommy Bowden, in the NCAA's first father-son coaching matchup. Another of Bobby's sons, Jeff, will serve as the Florida State receivers coach, while still another, Terry, will comment on the game as a studio analyst for ABC Sports. Even Bobby's son-in-law, Jack Hines, will be there as the Tigers' defensive backs coach, and so many other family members will be watching from the stands that a local South Carolina paper has re-named the game "Bowden-palooza."
The Seminoles (7-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) enter as the nation's No. 1-ranked team, and bookmakers have installed them as a 16-point favorite over the Tigers (3-3, 3-1). Bobby's wife, Ann, is also picking her husband over her son because, as Tommy jokes, "Dad's the one with her credit cards." Bobby goes one better, predicting that the entire extended family will be in his corner.
"They may whisper to Tommy--'Hey Tommy, we're really for you,'--but they know I got the will, and they know I can take them out of that will," Bobby said. "Really, I'm sure sympathy will be both ways. Some won't want the old man to lose; others might want the son to get a break."
Kids Learned Young
Either way, it will be quite a moment for a family whose life has revolved around this sport in a manner that Bobby never imagined. He didn't even know he wanted to be a football coach until he was in college, after he met Ann. They started dating when she was 14 and he was 17. They married two years later, so as Bobby says, "we've never known anyone else." Far from fantasizing about football games, they talked about having children (they wanted six) and about settling in Key West, Fla., which at the time "seemed like the end of the world."
The Bowdens did have six children--a girl, four boys and then another girl--but they didn't make it to Key West until a few years ago, and then only on a cruise. Instead, they have spent most of the 50 years they've been married moving from one college town to the next. From the very beginning, the children were immersed in football, especially the boys, who often ran wild in the front yard, imitating their fathers' players.
Back in those years, when Bobby was coaching first at Samford and then at West Virginia, he usually brought two or three of his sons with him on trips. They sat in the stands during games, and when they got sleepy on the team bus Bobby simply sent them upward, into the luggage racks. It was the only place they could stretch out and Bobby could still keep an eye on them, watching their little sneakers dangle down over his head.
"I'd take them recruiting," Bobby said, "and they'd swim in the hotel I was in, or hang out when I talked to the player. That's where they got the bug, I guess, just being around it all the time."
But while all the Bowden children were exposed to football at young ages, only Tommy, Bobby and Ann's second son, expressed an interest in the coaching profession early. Their first son, Steve, has stayed away from football, choosing a career in business instead, and even Terry, who went to law school, and Jeff, who majored in criminology in college, seemed headed in other directions before getting into the family business.
Tommy's early interest in coaching made sense, Ann said, because among the children, Tommy's personality is the most like Bobby's. Both are very conservative and religious, she said. Bobby chimed in, saying Tommy "was a scaredy cat--cautious, I guess you would say.
"It's like going into a cold swimming pool," Bobby continued. "Terry would just run and jump in there, never even look to see if they had water in there--all he would know is that he was going swimming. And Jeffrey, and my older son Steve, very much the same way.
"But Tommy, he was like me. I'd walk over there and tip-toe, stick my toe in, pull it out real quick, then get my whole foot, pull it out, then 15 minutes later I'm one of them."
Ann laughed. "I think Tommy has outgrown it. . . . I don't think Bobby ever has. He's still a scaredy cat, and he'll be the first to admit it."
As for Tommy, she said, "We encouraged him to go into dentistry, but he said 'I'm not about to put my hand's in anybody's mouth.' "
Now 45, Tommy Bowden still looks almost as young as he did when he was a wide receiver for his father at West Virginia in the early 1970s. Although his office at Clemson is not quite as large as his father's, he has a nice collection of awards started on the bookshelves behind his desk. Most are in recognition of his first head coaching job, at Tulane from 1997 to '99. Tommy took a team that had been 4-18 in the two years before he arrived and led it to an 18-4 record in the two years he was there, including a 12-0 mark last season.
The Green Wave's performance earned him the offer from Clemson, which was worth about $750,000 a year, as well as the chance to chart his own legacy in big-time college football, which was priceless. Clemson is a place for serious football, where the roads leading from the highway into town are marked by big orange paw prints painted on the asphalt. But the physical surroundings are not the only part of being at Clemson that seems to suit Tommy; it is also his position as head coach, a job he probably grew into long before he earned the title. Unlike his father, who became a head coach at age 29, or Terry, who did so at 26, Tommy spent 19 years as an assistant, making nine address changes while waiting for his chance in the spotlight.
The delay never was more difficult than in 1993, when Tommy was an assistant coach at Auburn under Pat Dye. NCAA rules violations forced Dye to retire, but instead of turning to Tommy, the offensive coordinator, to replace him, administrators chose Terry. At the time, Terry was the head coach of Samford and had taken the Birmingham school from Division III to consecutive Division I-AA playoff appearances.
Tommy was shocked by Auburn's decision. Worse, he had to go to his kid brother and ask to remain on the staff.
"When he got the head coaching job at Auburn, it really hurt," Tommy says. "I was saying, 'I didn't work for 15 years just to work for my younger brother.' Mind you, he was very easy to work for, but that's professionally. Personally it wasn't easy at all. It was a humbling experience.
"It's strange, though, the way it all comes around. That was the lowest point of my life professionally and the highest point for him. Then, six years later, I go 11-0 and he's unemployed. You just have to learn to weather any storm."
Father vs. Son
Terry Bowden was supposed to be the one in this spotlight, supposed to be the one on the other side of the field for the NCAA's first father-son matchup.
Terry had become a hero at Auburn for leading the Tigers to a perfect record in his first season, a feat unequaled in Division I-A history. As he built a 46-12-1 record during his first five seasons, he was rewarded with a hefty contract that included a provision for the school to pay the rest of the mortgage on his enormous house on the edge of town. He was also given the chance to coach against his dad, a special twist of scheduling achieved by the athletic directors at both Florida State and Auburn.
But when Terry's Tigers began 1-5 in 1998, everything suddenly fell apart. Terry abruptly resigned in midseason, although an agreement with the school allowed him to keep the house and a significant settlement check. This summer, Auburn canceled the game with Florida State, even though the school had to pay Florida State $500,000 to get out of the date.
Terry, 43, doesn't like talking about his departure from Auburn, although he still likes to recount the happy times he had there. He is sitting in the office he has set up on the first floor of the house, the only room that doesn't seem to be strewn with toys or books that belong to one of his six children, ages 1 to 16. A nameplate reading "Terry Bowden, Auburn Football Coach" still rests on the desk, and plenty of Tigers paraphernalia lines the walls. The pictures and awards are easier to look at now than they were a year ago, and when Terry talks of his job as ABC's college football studio analyst, he seems genuinely happy.
Flying to New York once a week to be on television appeals to his sense of adventure; he likes the limousine that picks him up from the airport and the nice restaurants in which he gets to eat. Still, it feels slightly awkward to find him here in this small town that lives and dies for Auburn football, still in the house the university bought for him. But Terry, who saw dummies dressed as his father hung from the trees around West Virginia after a bad season in 1974, takes it in stride.
"We're involved in everything--my wife is the head tee-ball coach here, and we're really involved in the community," Terry said. "The bottom line is that my kids love the town of Auburn and I love it. If I stay in television, there's a good chance I'll never leave it.
"The job can get taken away from me, but I'm not going to let anyone take away where I want to live or make me feel like I have to leave my home."
Terry will not be at Saturday's game, although he will discuss the matchup from ABC's studio. He admits he is rooting for his father to win--"there's more at stake for him"--but he wants the score to be close. Since Tommy got the job at Clemson, an ACC rival of Florida State's, Terry has become the chief confidant for Bobby and Tommy, who no longer discuss strategy with each other.
All three still call each other every week, though, and when the family takes its annual vacation in Panama City, Fla., Tommy still expects to be drawing X's and O's in the sand. In the meantime, Tommy is enjoying the commotion that is building as this Saturday approaches, employing the kind of gamesmanship that would make his father proud.
"This is really enjoyable for me, because he's the one who's the preseason favorite to win the national championship--I'm just supposed to close the gap," Tommy says, noting that Clemson lost to Florida State, 48-0, last season. "During the course of the game, I probably won't see him too much, unless he's killing us and I have to start waving the white flag on the sidelines for him to call off the dogs. But shaking hands with him afterward will be pretty special, I'm sure of that."
When Tommy Bowden was in sixth grade, his teacher asked him to write about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Like his father more than 20 years earlier, Tommy bent over his desk and started writing. After the paper was graded, Ann put it neatly away in a box she still has at the house. The words were simple. Tommy wrote that he wanted to be a football coach. He wanted to win the big game. On Saturday, he will get his chance.