Football loses a coaching legend: FSU’s Bobby Bowden was a mentor to many

Former Florida State coach announced late last month he had terminal disease

Bobby Bowden, the folksy Hall of Fame coach who built Florida State into a college football dynasty that powered its way to a dozen conference titles and two national championships, died early Sunday. He was 91.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Bobby Bowden, the iconic Florida State football coach and College Football Hall of Fame member with the laid back personality and good old boy demeanor died on Sunday morning after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. Bowden was 91.

Florida State University has lost a legend in the passing of Bobby Bowden. On behalf of everyone at FSU, Jean and I extend our deepest condolences to Ann and the Bowden family,” Florida State 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. While he leaves an incredible legacy as one of the best football coaches in collegiate history, he also will be remembered for his great faith, his love of family and his mentorship of countless young people. He will be profoundly missed.”

Bowden announced on July 21 that he had a terminal disease. His son, Terry, said a day later that Bobby had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about 10 days earlier.

The tributes poured in on Sunday after word of Bowden’s death was announced.

“Today we lost a legend but you never lose a legacy. Rest In Peace Coach Bowden,” Florida State said in a tweet.

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Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, the former coach of Florida and Ohio State, said that Bowden was a mentor to him during his career.

Clemson’s coach Dabo Swinney called Bowden a “man of faith, a great husband, a great father.”

Bowden spent 34 years coaching at Florida State, where he amassed a 315-98-4 record and won national titles in 1993 and 1999 and 12 Atlantic Coast Conference championships. He is the second-winningest coach in major college football history, trailing only Penn State’s Joe Paterno. Bowden officially won 377 games during his 40-year coaching career. Paterno won 409.

Bowden’s final college game came in Jacksonville in the 2010 Gator Bowl, a 33-21 win over West Virginia. Ironically, Bowden began his Division I coaching career at West Virginia after being hired away from Samford.

Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell said in a statement that he was grateful for their relationship.

“Coach Bowden was one of the greatest coaches ever, but more than that he was an incredible man. He was a special human being who earned an enduring legacy because of his wonderful heart, faith and values he lived. It was the honor of my lifetime to know him and beyond anything I could dream to have a relationship with him,” Norvell said in a statement.

“My thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been impacted by Coach Bowden and particularly with his wife Ann, their children, grandchildren, former players and coaches. The entire Florida State family is hurting right now at the loss of our program’s patriarch.”

Outside Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium, flowers graced Bowden’s statue on Sunday. Lifelong Tallahassee resident Jason Perdue and his daughter went there to pay their respects.

“He was the heart of this town, the entire time I grew up here. Even my kid knows who he is, and everybody in this town was touched by him in some way if they were here for more than a few years,” Perdue said.

Thrasher said Bowden also impacted lives across the country.

“Coach Bowden impacted the college football scene tremendously, but he also impacted lives -- and not just football players. He impacted lives all over this country. Anybody who met Bobby Bowden understood what a genuine, honest, sincere person he was, a person of faith, a person of great leadership, and that reflected in our program for so many years,” Thrasher said.

Jackson State coach Deion Sanders was maybe Bowden’s greatest and most famous Florida State player. The two-time All-America cornerback, who went on to have a Hall of Fame NFL career, tweeted: “God bless the Bowden Family, Friends & Loved ones. My Prayers are with u. I’ve lost 1 of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”

And Chris Weinke, the Heisman Trophy winner who helped quarterback the Seminoles to a second national championship under Bowden in 1999, used the hashtag “greatestofalltime” to discuss his former coach.

“We lost a great one today!” Weinke tweeted. “FAITH, FAMILY & FOOTBALL- nobody did it better than Coach Bowden. I will forever be grateful to have had the opportunity to play for this man.”

Bowden received the inaugural Florida Medal of Freedom from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who declared April 7, 2021, as Bobby Bowden Day. The state’s Medal of Freedom recognizes “any person who has made and especially meritorious contribution to the interest in citizens of the state and culture public and private endeavor.”

“RIP to a truly great man and legendary Floridian, Coach Bobby Bowden,” DeSantis tweeted Sunday.

College football programs across the country reflected on Bowden’s legacy, as did people in Jacksonville, where Gators fans Matthew Parker and Antonio Rice spoke with News4Jax about the respect they have for Bowden.

“He was huge for college football, and even bigger, he was a great man and a great leader in football and life, so it’s always sad to see somebody like him pass away,” said Parker.

Rice said: “He leaves one of the greatest legacies in football. He’s one of the greatest coaches of all time. But at the end of the day, beyond football, he was a great man.”

Bowden had a challenging final year. He battled COVID-19 last October and was also hospitalized for an infection in his leg after having cancerous spots removed from his leg.

He said in a statement after revealing his condition that he was “at peace” with things.

“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 said. “My wife Ann and our family have been life’s greatest blessing. I am at peace.”

News4Jax anchor Bruce Hamilton, News4Jax reporter and anchor Zachery Lashway, Capitol News Service’s Mike Vasilinda, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.