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"I said the exact same thing," Florida State's legendary Bobby Bowden said before flying to Lincoln Friday to give the keynote address for more than 800 football coaches at Nebraska's annual Spring Coaches' Clinic.
A longtime friend of NU Athletic Director Tom Osborne, Bowden marvels at how fast Bo Pelini and his staff have turned around Husker football.
"That shows the wisdom of Tom Osborne because he hired him, didn't he?" Bowden said by telephone. "I give Tom a lot of credit for recognizing what kind of head coach Bo would be."
Bowden already had heard great things about Pelini from Jimbo Fisher, who was the offensive coordinator at the same time Pelini was the defensive coordinator at LSU.
Now both are head coaches at tradition-rich schools. Fisher succeeded Bowden and is in his first season as head coach at Florida State. Bowden hopes that Fisher, who was his offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and head coach-in-waiting in the last three of Bowden's 34 seasons as FSU's head coach, can get the Seminoles headed to the same place that Pelini has Nebraska.
"Really, nobody had to tell me anything about Bo," Bowden said. "I knew what kind of job he was doing because I saw Nebraska play. Watching that defense against Texas and Arizona, I said Nebraska's back."
Back to where the Huskers belong. "I see Nebraska fixing to get right back into the fight," Bowden said, alluding to a bid for a national championship. "Boy, I'll tell you. That team in the Holiday Bowl reminded me of the Nebraska teams we used to see and play against."
Bowden Went 6-2 Head-to-Head Against Osborne
In head-to-head matchups against Osborne-coached teams, Bowden went 6-2 and 4-0 in two Orange Bowls and two Fiesta Bowls.
After a third-ranked Florida State beat 11th-ranked Nebraska, 27-14, in the 1993 Orange Bowl (following the 1992 season), Osborne and his defensive staff spent 2 ½ days with Bowden and his staff in the off-season.
Osborne always has been appreciative of that time because it convinced him to recruit and use more speed at linebacker and in the secondary. "When we played Nebraska in the early years, they were big, husky people and couldn't run as good as we could," Bowden said. "Tom's teams were wearing people out with those big boys, but when he transitioned to more speed on defense, boy, did he ever wear people out."
The Seminoles and Huskers were matched again a year later in an Orange Bowl national championship game, and Florida State escaped with an 18-16 win. "You know the rest of the story," Bowden said. "After that, Nebraska put those three national championship teams together in four years and came within a whisker of having a chance to win all four. Plus, if that last-second field goal goes through the uprights against us after the '93 season, Nebraska might have won five in a row."
Shortly after that 18-16 heartbreaker, Bowden asked Nebraska's Ron Brown if he would like to coach Florida State's wide receivers. "I love Bobby. He's fun. He's a Christian, and even though he's a different personality than Tom, they have the same basic values, so I really thought about taking that job," Brown said Friday. "But, in the end, I wanted to stay with Tom and see what we might be able to get done here. Fortunately, some great things happened."
Under Brown's leadership with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bowden has spoken several times in Nebraska - from Omaha to Norfolk to Scottsbluff. "I've never turned down a speaking request from Nebraska," he said. "I ask them to fly me there because I don't have enough time to drive."
Bowden is loaded with driving jokes. Ann, his wife of 60 years, drove the Bowden kids all around when they were little. "Now that I'm out of coaching for the first time in 57 years. she does all the driving for me, too." Bowden said. "All I do is sit there and hold the wheel."
Bobby is the master of the quip. When his wife complained that he loved football more than he loved her, Bobby told her: "But I love you more than I love basketball." Yes, the punch line was borrowed from Duffy Daugherty and used frequently by Bob Devaney.
Even if you've won 388 games in 43 years as a head coach, humor has a way of unifying strong familes in their pressure-cooker world.
A Believer in Both Nebraska Hall-of-Fame Coaches
"I loved Bob Devaney, and I love Tom Osborne," Bowden said. "I'm from Alabama, but I'm a Nebraska type of guy. I love what I call the conservative states like Alabama, Nebraska and Iowa. I can identify with their people, with their university, with their town and with their state. I really believe that the pure-blooded Americans that go all the way back to 1776 are the type of people who were raised on the farms and in the countrysides that have towns like Nebraska has."
To this day, Bowden can't fully figure how Nebraska has stayed so consistently great in football, but he has his own ideas of why the Huskers have enjoyed unparalleled success since Devaney's arrival. "You know," he said, "there are enough players in Florida to take care of Florida, Florida State, Miami, South Florida, Central Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida International and yet Tom could come in here and get somebody like Tommie Frazier - just like he went to Texas and got somebody like Turner Gill."
Once those great athletes blend with Nebraska natives and walk-ons, "those homegrown boys become the solid citizens and the backbone of the team, and you have something really special," Bowden said. "With Devaney and then Osborne and then (Frank) Solich, Nebraska had a great formula, an amazing formula, really.
"You know, you can get too many stars," Bowden said of recruiting. "All you really need is maybe three or four 4-star recruits and fill the rest in with rock-solid people who all want it so bad they can taste it. They all love to run out there in front of the greatest fans in the world - boy, do they love that. Ain't nothin' like that state pride Nebraska has. They've had it since Devaney, and, you know, I don't think they'll ever lose it again."
There was a time, though, when Bowden wondered if Nebraska was almost Paradise Lost. "When I saw Nebraska three, four, five years ago, I just couldn't believe it," Bowden said. "I've been around a long time, and I'd just never seen Nebraska not play physical, hard-nosed, ram-the-ball-down-your-throat football. I saw them play a finesse type of football, and it just didn't work.
"My first thought was this defense does not fit Nebraska," he said. "My second thought was this style of offense does not fit Nebraska. It was just not how they were born or what they believed in. It was obvious to see something was wrong, but I thought it could be fixed because it's Nebraska. Now look at where they are, right back in the fight. Everybody better get ready. Nebraska's back to the old Tom Osborne, Bob Devaney type of football - the kind of football Nebraskans know best and love most."
The defense has been fixed, the offense seeks a familiar identity and the leadership has been stabilized.
"We lost a bit of our sting down here, too, you know," Bowden said. "But we kept our string of 28 straight bowl games alive, so we didn't lose what Nebraska lost, I don't believe. I'm glad Tom came back, and Nebraska fans kept coming. A full stadium since 1962! Lordy, isn't that unbelievable? Look at Florida. If they don't have a good year, they don't all show up. They do better than we do, though. Then there's Miami. Those fans don't ever show up unless they're playing Notre Dame."
Bowden, Osborne Share the Same Basic Values
Now that Bobby Bowden isn't a head coach anymore, he can speak candidly, openly, freely. One of the game's biggest icons isn't afraid at all to heap praise on a program he's always loved and respected, and he's excited that a friend of his has been able to restore the order as athletic director.
"You know, if you wrote down on paper what Tom and I both believe in, you might be looking at an identical piece of paper," Bowden said. "I don't want to put words in Tom's mouth, but I think his priorities are the same as mine - God first and family second."
Those values dictate a certain approach, and Bowden, now 80, enjoys telling young coaches what he's learned over the past 57 years. He has any number of slogans to share, but the three most important are: 1) Don't make football your god; 2) If you want a better job, prove it; and 3) If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
"Some coaches put so much stress on football, they forget their families, and they burn out," Bowden said. "I also think coaches should quit going out and looking for jobs all the time. Work your tail off and show people why you deserve something better. And, about the heat, if you can't stand criticism, you better get out coaching. I learned that after three or four games as head coach at West Virginia. When you lose a game at Samford, who cares? When you lose one at West Virginia, the whole state cares!"
Bowden knows the same is true at Nebraska, and he thinks the Huskers not only have leaders who can stand the heat, but thrive in it.
Acknowledging that he and Osborne have different personalities, Bowden said: "I'm a little more outgoing. I kind of live off the kidding and joking around, you know. But let me tell you this. When Tom came and spoke at my roast last summer in Tallahassee, he got more laughs than anyone."
Bob Stoops and Mack Brown were funny. Bowden was funny. So was Burt Reynolds and just about everyone else that night. "But when Tom Osborne says something funny, I mean, it's funny, and everybody laughs," Bowden said.
Bowden remembers Osborne telling a story about how much Bobby loves charity work. He talked about Bobby visiting a nursing home, helping the old folks and wanting to meet a patient but was unable to find his room. According to Osborne, Bowden asked a staff member where his room was. "Oh you poor dear," the worker said. "You just go to the front desk, and they'll tell you who you are."
With the Pressure Gone, Bowden Will Become a Fan
The good news is, Bowden knows who he is. He's the only coach who ever won 11 consecutive bowl games (1985-95) and the only coach whose teams played in 15 consecutive New Year's Day bowl games. Like Paterno, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame while he was still coaching. Even though he wanted to coach one more season, he was denied that opportunity, so he's "making a living" speaking about three times a week. "I have to," he said. "Ann and I invested our money in Florida real estate, and it's all underwater."
A month ago, Bowden was the featured speaker in Hawaii and then went to Rio de Janeiro "for Mutual of Omaha, no less," he said, plugging Nebraska yet again. Last Saturday night, he was in Atlanta. Last Monday and Tuesday nights, he was in Georgia. He was flown Friday afternoon to Lincoln and flew back to Florida after the banquet.
"Obviously, having Coach Bowden come up is an added bonus," Pelini said. "He's a legend, and one of the greatest to ever walk the sideline. I'm excited to spend time with him. It's great for all the coaches to hear a guy like that. We can all learn from him."
For Bowden, retirement will be fun. "I don't think I'll miss football one bit. I really don't," Bowden said. "I'll miss the associations with the players and the coaches and the boosters I've been hanging around with for 35 years. But miss coaching? No, not really.
"I'll be honest. The minute I resigned, the first thing I noticed was this tremendous release off my shoulders," Bowden said. "You don't realize it until you don't have it anymore. I don't have to recruit. I don't have to worry about a 2 a.m. phone call if a player gets in trouble. I don't have to worry about grades or eligibility. Tremendous burdens were all released at once."
So what will Bobby Bowden do besides speak? "Become a fan and watch teams like Nebraska play every chance I get," he said. "I haven't been able to do that for 57 years because I've been coaching. You can bet I'll be turning that TV on at noon and watching it until I turn it off at midnight. I can't wait."
Neither can we, Bobby. We know your heart remains at Florida State, but you now officially qualify as one of our most famous fans, too, and speaking for devoted Huskers everywhere, we're happy to have you in our corner.
Editor's note: On Oct. 8, 1980, Head Coach Bobby Bowden wrote the following letter on Florida State stationary and sent it to Nebraska after his Seminoles beat the Huskers, 18-14 in Lincoln: "I have been coaching college football the past 28 years and have played before some great crowds in this country. I have never seen people with more class than I saw at Nebraska last week. The Nebraska fans, players, cheerleaders, band, officials, coaches, etc., gave me a living testimony of what college football should be all about. I actually had the feeling that when we upset the Nebraska team that instead of hate and spite, the Nebraska fans thanked us for coming to Lincoln and putting on a good show. This is nearly unheard of in today's society. Nebraska, you are a great example for Americans to copy. I hope we show half the class your people do."
Voices from Husker Nation
Just surfed in and read the article about Coach Bobby Bowden. Thank you for writing such a respectful, comprehensive article about Coach Bowden and his ties to Coach Osborne and the Nebraska program. First-class stuff, just like I've always come to expect out of Nebraska. Bless y'all, and best of luck this season. Rob McCannell, FSU Class of '92
Thanks for such a terrific article on Bobby Bowden. Being from Tallahassee,I bleed garnet and gold. That was until I earned an athletic scholarship to Nebraska. And what team did we play for my very first Memorial Stadium experience in 1986...Florida State! I always felt I had the best of both worlds when my two favorite teams went head-to-head. It makes me smile to know how much Coach Bowden respects Coach Osborne and the traditions of Nebraska football. Both men are legends, and their dedication to faith and family should be inspiring to us all. Earl Carter, Atlanta, Georgia
I have always held Bobby Bowden in high regard, especially when he sent that letter to Nebraska 30 years ago. He talks about Nebraska class. Well, he's exhibited the same kind of class throughout his long and distinguished career. He did open his door to Coach Osborne and staff, and that made a difference in our program. Bobby, we welcome you as an appreciative and loyal fan of Nebraska and the way we do business. Florida State should have given you a farewell tour. Hope you come to a home game of ours sometime this fall, so our fans can stand up and give you the cheer you deserve for all of your accomplishments. Gary Christensen, Albuquerque, New Mexico
I still remember when Florida State beat us in Lincoln, 18-14, and thousands of Husker fans gave Bobby Bowden and his hard-hitting team a well deserved round of applause for their great effort. I remember vividly Jeff Quinn getting hit hard and fumbling the ball on FSU's 3-yard line in the waning seconds. That 1980 team was one of our best ever defensively, but Florida State matched our physicality. We ended up with more first downs than they did that day and had 200 yards more total offense, but turnovers killed us. I remember Todd Brown catching a couple of touchdown passes and Jarvis Redwine rushing for almost 150 yards. Florida State, though, hit Redwine hard late in the fourth quarter, forcing him to miss the next two games with broken ribs and giving Craig Johnson a chance to show what he could do. We didn't miss a beat. Bowden's right about Nebraska looking like the Nebraska his teams used to play against. We're starting to develop the depth that we used to have, and that's going to play a big part in our ability to make any kind of national championship run. Agree it would be nice to honor Coach Bowden sometime. He seems to understand what drives this program as well as anyone. He's also a Hall-of-Famer in every sense of the word. William Carrell, Denver, Colorado
Bobby Bowden is one of the gentlemen of college football. I am proud to know that Husker Nation stands behind him as one of the greats. Go Big Red. Angela Chrystal, Omaha, Nebraska
I think I speak for almost all Husker fans when I say how much we respect what Bobby Bowden did at Florida State. I still believe that Nebraska had the best team in college football in 1993, but if we were going to lose to anyone, especially on a couple of controversial plays in the Orange Bowl, it made me feel more comfortable that Bowden was the benefactor and claimed his first national championship. Sorry, but I don't know any Husker fan who would say the same thing about Joe Paterno when he won his first national title at Penn State. We all have to live with the memory of that expanded field in State College, Pa., in 1982. That 27-24 loss - our only one all season - will stick in our craw forever, especially for those of us who watched the game on television. There was no instant replay back then. If there had been, Tom Osborne would have challenged the call, and Nebraska would have six national championships instead of just five. Paterno and Bowden may rank 1-2 all-time in terms of total wins in Division I history, but Osborne has one more national title than either one of them. So despite deciding not to kick an extra point to win a national title against Miami, I guess justice has a way of evening itself out. Randy Stephens, a true Big Red Fan in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania
Thanks for the great article about Bobby Bowden. I was reflecting on those difficult years when Coach Osborne would lose to FSU or Miami. How hard it seemed to be ever so close but yet so far. The love for the game hasn't left the state of Nebraska, and I am willing to bet that if Bo loses a few to the likes of Texas or Alabama, this state will still thank him and the players for all their hard work and hope they can do it again next year. Chris Duryea, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Bobby Bowden was a more engaging personality than Tom Osborne for the media. But the two men really do appear to be similar types of coaches, fathers, grandfathers, leaders and patriots. They both see a game that's about much more than just winning, even though they were both exceptional in that department. We all rave about Tom's 60-3 record over five consecutive seasons (1993-94-95-96-97), but many, if not most fans, don't realize that Bowden put together the most incredible streak of consistency in college football history. According to Wikipedia, his teams went 152-19-1 and finished in the AP's final Top Five over 14 consecutive seasons (1991-2005). I enjoyed the article because it acknowledged that Tom learned from Bobby, and as someone who lived in Florida and had a son who went to Florida, I would agree with that. Osborne may have gone 2-6 against Bowden head-to-head, but I think there's a reason why he won one more national championship than Bobby. That 1993 national title loss to Florida State was devastating, but I never felt better after a loss than I did after that game because I knew - and I think every Husker fan in the world knew - that Nebraska was back and in a very big way. The 60-3 record over the next five years was the direct result of that loss and the resolve the team adopted to push through such incredible disappointment. It was also proof that Nebraska knew how to add speed to the power we already had - something that Bo and his staff seem to be working on again right now. Thanks, Bobby, for sharing whatever you did with Nebraska. It's as important now as ever. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California