Robert Cleckler Bowden (/ˈbaʊdən/; November 8, 1929 – August 8, 2021) was an American college football coach. Bowden coached the Florida State Seminoles of Florida State University (FSU) from 1976 to 2009 and is considered one of the greatest college football coaches of all time for his accomplishments with the Seminoles.
Bowden married Ann Estock, his childhood sweetheart, in 1949 and the couple raised six children and 21 grandchildren. Bowden was a Christian who credited his success in football to his faith. He twice endorsed and supported US President Donald Trump, in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
Bowden was an outstanding football player at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, and accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Alabama as a quarterback. He then returned to Birmingham after only one semester and eloped with his high school sweetheart, Ann Estock, on April 1, 1949. Bowden transferred to Howard College (now known as Samford University), where he played football, baseball, ran track and became a brother in Pi Kappa Alpha. In his junior year, he was elected president of Pi Kappa Alpha. His senior year, he was re-elected to the presidency as well as captain of the football team, where he garnered "Little All-America" honors at quarterback. The Howard College faculty nominated him for Who's Who Among Students in American Universities & Colleges in recognition of his academic and athletic leadership. Bowden graduated from Howard in 1953.
Bowden served as an assistant football coach and head track and field coach at Howard College (now known as Samford University) in Birmingham, Alabama from 1954–55. He left his alma mater to become athletic director as well as head football, baseball, and basketball coach at South Georgia College from 1956 to 1958. After a losing basketball season, Bowden fired himself as head coach. Bowden then returned to Howard as head coach, where he compiled a 31–6 record between 1959 and 1962. In 1962, Bowden went to Florida State University as an assistant coach under Head Coach Bill Peterson. Bowden left Florida State in 1965 to go to West Virginia University (WVU) as an assistant under Jim Carlen. When Carlen left following the 1969 season to become head coach at Texas Tech, Bowden replaced him. Bowden then compiled a 42–26 record at WVU before returning to FSU as head coach in 1976.
Bowden became very successful very quickly at Florida State. By his second year, Bowden faced rumors he would leave for another job; the team went 9–2, compared to the four wins total in the three seasons before Bowden. He said he would be content to finish his career at Florida State, however, and reportedly told another athletic-department employee he would "never coach anywhere north of Tallahassee". During 34 years as head coach he had only one losing season–his first, in 1976–and declined head coaching job offers from Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons. From 1987 to 2000, the Seminoles finished every season with at least 10 wins and in the top 5 of the Associated Press College Football Poll, and won the national championship in 1993 and 1999. The team was particularly dominant after joining the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in 1992, winning or sharing nine consecutive conference titles from 1992 to 2000, and only losing two conference games in that stretch.
Bowden made the move to become the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles in 1976 because the climate was warmer than in Morgantown, and because Tallahassee was closer to Birmingham, Alabama, where his mother and mother-in-law both lived. The team had a 4–29 record over the previous three seasons and he planned to stay only briefly before taking a better job, perhaps as head coach at Alabama.
During his time at Florida State, Bowden led FSU to an Associated Press and Coaches Poll National Title in 1993 and a BCS National Championship in 1999, as well as twelve Atlantic Coast Conference championships once FSU joined the conference in 1991. Bowden's Seminoles finished as an AP top-5 team for 14 consecutive seasons, setting a record which doubled the closest program. However, the program weakened during the mid-2000s, and after a difficult 2009 season Bowden was fired by President T.K. Wetherell, just weeks after his 80th birthday. He made his final coaching appearance in the 2010 Gator Bowl game on January 1, 2010, with a 33–21 victory over his former program, West Virginia.
Bowden was awarded the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award for 1980. He received the Walter Camp Coach of the Year Award for 1991. In 1992 Bowden received the United States Sports Academy's Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaching Award in recognition of his outstanding achievement as a coach.
Bowden was not the only member of his family to have coached Division I-A football. His son Tommy Bowden was the head coach at Clemson University. Another son, Terry Bowden, was the head coach at Auburn University, where he was the 1993 Coach of the Year. A third son, Jeff Bowden, was the offensive coordinator at Florida State. All three Bowden men who were head coaches have achieved an undefeated season: Terry in 1993 at Auburn; Tommy in 1998 at Tulane; and Bobby in 1999 at Florida State. Bobby's 1993 and 1999 Florida State teams were the only ones to win a national championship, however.
One Bowden Bowl was scheduled between Auburn and Florida State for 1999 when Terry Bowden was the coach at Auburn. However, Terry's midseason resignation in 1998 ended the possibility of a Bowden Bowl. Another Bowden Bowl was scheduled between Clemson and Florida State in 2008, but Tommy Bowden's resignation halfway through the year ended the Bowden Bowls.
Bowden's tenure crested with a third consecutive appearance in the national championship game after the 2000 season, a loss to Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl. They opened the following season with an upset 41–9 loss to North Carolina, only the third loss they had ever suffered in ACC play. They finished 8–4, the first time they had lost that many games in 15 years. It also marked the first time since joining the ACC where they did not win at least a share of the ACC title; indeed, their two losses in ACC play were as many as they had suffered in their first nine years in the league. From then on, Bowden notched one more appearance in the top 10 of a final media poll, in 2003–which was also the last time he won 10 games in a season.
In 2003, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes presented the first of what is now a yearly award in Bowden's name. The award was initiated by former Bowden assistant coach Vince Gibson and former Bowden player Vernon Brinson. It honors one college football player for his achievements on the field, in the classroom and in the community. In 2013, the Seminole Tribe of Florida became the official sponsor of the award. The Seminole Tribe of Florida Bobby Bowden Student-Athlete of the Year Award is presented each year prior to the College Football Playoff (CFP) national title.
Bowden spent the last part of his career in a race with Joe Paterno to become the winningest NCAA Division I college football coach of all time. The coaches overtook each other throughout the 2000s, sitting just a game apart before the 2008 college football season. However, on March 6, 2009, an NCAA ruling required Florida State to "vacate wins for any games in which an ineligible player participated", threatening to remove as many as fourteen of Bowden's wins from the 2006 and 2007 seasons in relation to an academic scandal. Florida State appealed the ruling, but the NCAA upheld it on January 5, 2010. Upon final investigation by FSU, it was determined that Bowden was to vacate 12 wins, bringing his final career record to 377–129–4, second to Paterno's final tally of 409 wins.
On March 21, 2010, the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club of Birmingham, Alabama presented the first annual Bobby Bowden National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award, named in honor of Bowden and the contributions that he made during his career. The award recognizes a coach each year with unmatched success on and off of the field in the same attributes that Bowden showed throughout his career: perseverance, attitude, integrity, and determination. University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban was the first recipient of the award, and it was presented by Bowden himself. The award is presented each year after national signing day and before the commencement of Spring practice.
In 2011, in recognition of his philanthropic efforts with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bowden received the Children's Champion Award for Leadership Development from the charitable organization Children's Hunger Fund.
Bobby Bowden was diagnosed with COVID-19 in October 2020. He was diagnosed with a terminal medical condition in July 2021, reportedly pancreatic cancer. Approximately one month after announcing the diagnosis, he died on August 8, 2021, aged 91. He lay in honor in the rotunda of the Florida Capitol Building on August 13, 2021. He then lay repose at the Moore Athletic Center outside of Doak Campbell Stadium later that day. A memorial service was held for Bowden in the Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee on August 14, 2021. Bowden then lay in repose in the Reid Chapel at Samford University on August 15, 2021, prior to burial in Trussville, Alabama.