Bobby Bowden dies: Legendary coach built Florida State into college football powerhouse

Jim Henry
Tallahassee Democrat

Bobby Bowden, who built Florida State football into a national powerhouse and directed the program with a folksy, southern charm, died early Sunday morning.

He was 91. 

On July 23, Terry Bowden – son of the Hall of Fame coach – revealed his father was suffering from pancreatic cancer. This came a day after his family released a statement through the Democrat indicating he had been diagnosed with a terminal medical condition.

Bowden was surrounded by his family — wife Ann and their six children — when he passed away peacefully at 5:08 a.m. at his Killearn Estates home, daughter Ginger Bowden told the Democrat Sunday morning. 

"He passed peacefully," Ginger said. "His family was with him during the night." 

Funeral arrangements:Bobby Bowden to lie in honor at Florida Capitol; Public service set for Tucker Civic Center

NEWS OBITUARY:His name shall endure: Bobby Bowden took FSU from 'nowhereland to splendor' | Gerald Ensley

From the sports editor:Early to bed, early to rise. Morning calls with Coach Bowden were special | Jim Henry

Former FSU Head Football Coach Bobby Bowden in attendance for the Seminoles’ Garnet and Gold Spring Game at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday, April 14, 2018.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better personal mentor than my father,” Terry Bowden, the first-year coach at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said in a statement Sunday. 

 “He was a wonderful husband and father, who relied on his strong Christian faith to provide the foundation for his life. I also was fortunate to be raised by a football coach who had a reputation for coaching the right way his entire career. He was admired by everyone who played for him or coached against him.  As a family, we will embrace all of those wonderful memories and celebrate a life well lived.”

Bowden was being treated at his Killearn Estates home by caretakers and family. Upbeat and optimistic, he also felt well enough at times during his final weeks to welcome visitors and take telephone calls. 

"I feel fine but I can't do much," Bowden told the Democrat in early July. 

Bowden — a devout Baptist — made his last public appearance on stage in early June as the guest speaker at the Send Luncheon, hosted by the North American Mission Board (NAMB), in Nashville.

Bowden's health had deteriorated after he tested positive for COVID-19 in October 2020. He was hospitalized in late June for five days for fatigue and additional medical tests. 

Recent talks with Bobby Bowden

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Bobby Bowden won two national championships and built FSU into a national power 

Bowden arrived in Tallahassee in 1976, never to leave and becoming one of college football’s most successful coaches and patriarch of a well-known football family.

Bowden posted a 316-97-4 record with two national titles (1993 and 1999) in 34 years at FSU. He had one losing season – 5-6 during his first year at the school in 1976 – and was forced into retirement following a 7-6 record in 2009.

Bowden ended his career with a 33-21 victory in the Gator Bowl over West Virginia on Jan. 1, 2010. 

More:FAMU football coaches share fond ties to famed FSU legend Bobby Bowden

Bowden boasted an overall coaching record of 377-129-4 to rank second all-time in major college football history behind Joe Paterno (409 wins). He ranks fourth all-time across all divisions in college football. 

Between 1987 and 2000, Bowden guided the Seminoles to 14 consecutive 10-win seasons and top-five finishes in the Associated Press poll. That streak earned the program Dynasty status by the NCAA. 

Two of his FSU players (quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke) won the Heisman Trophy and three (cornerback Deion Sanders, linebacker Derrick Brooks and offensive lineman Walter Jones) went onto NFL greatness and are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Twenty-six Seminoles were named consensus All-Americans under Bowden and his players also earned major awards. 

When he received the inaugural Governor's Medal of Freedom from Gov. Ron DeSantis in April, Bowden was quick to share the success.

“I get the credit, the head coach gets the credit, but it’s the coaches who do all the coaching,” Bowden said. “I had great coaches and I had some great players... They get you there."

Bobby Bowden was married 72 years to his wife, Ann 

Bowden, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, was married 72 years to childhood sweetheart Ann Estock. Bowden was 19, Ann 16 when they married at the home of the Justice of the Peace in Rising Fawn, Georgia. 

They lived in the same Killearn Estates home they moved into when Bowden was hired by FSU from West Virginia 45 years ago. Bowden was such a fixture in the community that his phone number was even listed in the phone book. He also allowed fans to drop off memorabilia in his carport that he'd sign and leave for pickup.

The couple raised six children – four boys and two girls – and their family reunion at their beach home on Panama City Beach in the spring of 2020 featured more than 40 family members.

Sons Tommy, Terry and Jeff each coached at the collegiate level. Tommy was previously the head coach at Tulane and Clemson; Terry was the head coach at Salem, Samford, Auburn, North Alabama, Akron and last December was hired by Louisiana-Monroe. He left the team Friday to be with his ailing father in Tallahassee. Jeff was an assistant at FSU under his father for 13 seasons. 

Steve Bowden has worked most of his career in academia. Daughter Ginger Bowden Madden is the state attorney for the First Judicial Circuit of Florida. Robyn – the oldest child – was a school teacher for many years but retired early to help her parents. 

Bobby Bowden credited his success to strong Christian faith

Bowden credited his football success to his strong faith, often sharing his Christian testimony from the church pulpit over the years. 

Chris Weinke with Bobby Bowden and Jeff Purinton last month at Bowden's home.

Bowden was a creature of habit – early to bed, early to rise.

He often arose at 4 a.m., reading the Bible, skimming through a book and the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper with his coffee. Bowden also loved to golf – his home is off the seventh hole at Killearn Country Club – and watch World War II documentaries. He also had a noted sweet tooth and was diagnosed later in life with Type 2 diabetes. 

Bobby Bowden's late health issues included cancer, COVID 

The past few years Bowden was slowed by lingering, painful back and hip issues that kept him off the golf course and from walking his neighborhood. At one time he was one of the country's most sought-after motivational speakers, sharing football stories and his faith. 

Bowden’s health issues were magnified in mid-September 2020, when he was hospitalized at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare for nearly 10 days with a leg infection following the removal of skin cancer spots.

Bowden was informed he tested positive for COVID-19 – the infectious disease caused by the coronavirus – on Oct. 3, two days after his release from the hospital’s rehab facility.

Bowden was readmitted to the hospital for fatigue on Oct. 6. He underwent treatment for COVID-19 for 10 days before being released on Thursday, Oct. 15.

Regaining his strength proved to be a difficult challenge for Bowden during his final months, which included the announcement that he was fighting pancreatic cancer. 

As family gathered by his side, an outpouring of well-wishes flooded social media and the airwaves, including from FSU football coach Mike Norvell. Norvell, 39, is entering his second season and trying build his own legacy with the Seminoles' once-mighty program. 

“We're grateful for the example of Coach Bobby Bowden,” Norvell said Sunday morning following practice. “And we're going to honor him in everything that we do, each and every day. Because he helped build this place into something that is incredibly special -- with all of his heart and all of his life. And we're grateful for him."

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