Bowden spoke often of his Christian faith; he didn’t smoke or drink, and “dadgummit” seemed the sharpest word in his vocabulary. He was also a showman who loved the microphone and was given to backslapping people he had just met. He appeared to be the prototype of the country boy, though: “Bobby’s never lived in the country in his life,” his wife, Ann, once wrote in The Tallahassee Democrat. “He was raised on concrete.”
And he could display a will of iron.
“The thing about Bobby is that he comes off as such a nice, sweet Southern boy that people underestimate him,” Vince Gibson, a childhood friend and Bowden’s assistant when he coached at South Georgia College, once said. “He’s a tough guy and can be a hard one when he wants.”
Robert Cleckler Bowden, known to everyone as Bobby, was born on Nov. 8, 1929, in Birmingham, Ala. His father, Bob, was a banker, and his mother, Sunset (Cleckler) Bowden, was a homemaker.
He was an all-state football player at Woodlawn High School, graduating in January 1949, and entered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa hoping to play quarterback. He practiced with the freshman team, but left school after a few months and returned to Birmingham to marry his high-school girlfriend, Julia Ann Estock. He was 19; she was 16.
Bowden played quarterback for Howard College in Birmingham (now Samford University), from which he received a bachelor’s degree. He remained at Howard for the next two seasons as an assistant coach while earning a master’s degree in education from George Peabody College in Nashville, now a part of Vanderbilt University.
Bowden was head coach at South Georgia, a junior college, from 1956 to 1958. He became the head coach at Howard in 1959 and went 31-6 in four years there with an assist from the Alabama coach, Bear Bryant, who tipped him off to Crimson Tide substitute players he was willing to transfer to Howard. After stints as an assistant coach, Bowden became head coach at West Virginia in 1970, and posted a record of 42-26 for six seasons.
Then he embarked on his long run at Florida State.
Bowden was a brilliant recruiter, searching for players in Miami’s poorer neighborhoods and the rural parts of the Florida Panhandle. “I like people,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “I like meeting their daddies and grandmas and visiting with them. It’s not work at all.”