Bobby Bowden was the last of a species, a "big-time coach with an actual personality," writes Emily Badger, former Florida State beat reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, who once received the ultimate Bowden tribute: He forgot her name.
The letter was typed on the same Florida State letterhead with which he'd wooed a few thousand recruits, and it was waiting in my old office months after I'd cleared out.
"I sure hate it that you won't be with us this year," Bobby Bowden wrote.
You can almost hear him say it. That's because he writes just like he talks, which is also how you'd imagine him talking if you'd never met him before — all that ol' boy Southern speak that's hard to spell even if you make a living transcribing the things Bobby Bowden says. I'd covered his program for a couple years in what then seemed liked the rough days, when everyone was hoping the problem was his son and not the old man himself. When I left the job, I wrote him a note thanking him for his access and wishing him well, to which he responded in kind.
"You have been so good and I have really enjoyed you," the letter went on. "The only thing, with you there, I couldn't address the writers as men. I always had to remember there was one lady present and that was you."
Looking at the letter now, I like to scan down to his signature and then up to my name, which is the best part. He spelled it wrong. "Emily Bulger." Classic Bobby Bowden.
The fact that he couldn't get even his best players' names right is one of those weird tics that jaded sportswriters always found so charming. But it also gets at the tension at the heart of his last decade in Tallahassee: Confusing Drew Weatherford for Chris Weinke isn't so daggum cute when you're not winning — at least, not to the fans.
To the hacks, though, Bowden's retirement represents less the end of a sad family drama and more the passing of a once-prevalent species in major college football — the big-time coach with an actual personality. He was a genuine American coot, and there aren't many of them left today. Along about his fifth decade in the game, coaches' salaries ballooned, and now, on sidelines across America, you find nothing but wax statue after wax statue: the all-business, no-access coach who won't tell you what's on his mind or where he goes to church, and who doesn't even get why anyone would want to know in the first place.
Urban Meyer would never be caught in an unchoreographed moment. Bobby Bowden let us so close we could track the liver spots his straw-brimmed hat couldn't keep at bay. He even let us watch him (and record him) fumbling for the right memories. And then he'd crack a joke, at his own expense, and it was so damn quotable that whichever backup receiver he'd misidentified wouldn't make it into the paper the next day.
Bowden built a national powerhouse at what was once a women's college, and he knew the next biggest thing he brought to town was himself, and so he let people have their piece of him, ask him personal questions and snap his picture wherever he was. He made them feel that of course he remembered that time they first met at the 1984 Pensacola booster club meeting (an implausibility fans gladly pretended to believe), and he tricked half the fans he talked to into thinking their names actually were "Buddy" and "Girl."
In 2006, heading into what would be his worst season in three decades, the College Football Hall of Fame decided to toast Bowden's career before it was over. They bent the rules and brought him in early, a gamble that gave him the Big Moment he didn't get this week. The day the news broke, during ACC spring meetings in Amelia Island, he walked down the hotel corridor toward a small band of stalking media. He was so happy to see even his Tallahassee hacks that he dove right over the gulf between subject and scribe. He planted one on my cheek. That was Bowden.
"I knew you had to retire, you had to be out of coaching, or you had to be dead," he joked of the honor. We scribbled frantically because we knew a punchline was coming. "I didn't volunteer for death, I'm not planning on retiring, so I didn't know anything like this would occur."
Other times, he talked openly to reporters about the endgame he was trying to avoid. You remember what happened to Bear Bryant, right? The guy retired, then died 28 days later.
Bowden seemed to worry that this would be his fate, too, but that's probably not a great reason, in the state of Florida, to keep coaching a football team. This is apparently what all the important people in Tallahassee finally decided in a mess of their own making: They always said the coach could stay as long as he wanted. They built him a bronze statue and a stained-glass window. But then they named a replacement-in-waiting who clearly wouldn't wait all that long, and they finally gave the spotlight to the guy who must have been keeping track of all the things Bowden was forgetting.
The new guy, of course, isn't half as colorful. The thing about being a hack is that that's really all that matters. You can happily go on writing about crummy seasons just so long as someone says something funny, interesting — anything — about them. Yeah, Bowden probably should have ducked out when he lost his edge on the really big-picture stuff — game scores, key plays, whole seasons — but he was a figurehead by the end, anyway, and a daggum good one. You never cared if he didn't remember a name or a face because he always made a point to give so much of himself. That was something Bobby Bowden never forgot.
Emily Badger is a former Orlando Sentinel reporter and a freelance writer in the Washington D.C. area. Online, she lives here: www.emilybadger.com.
Photo via Sports Illustrated