Bowden's return comes at the right time

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- For 57 years, there was coaching, but that life seems oddly foreign now.

These days, if it’s not raining, Bobby Bowden golfs. He might play once a week, but nearly every day he saunters out his backdoor and onto the adjoining course to hit balls and walk the grounds. By the time he returns home, he said, he’ll usually have lost two or three pounds.

“Which is good,” Bowden said, “because I like to eat.”

The other thing Bowden likes to do is talk. He might be known as much for his dadgum words as his wins. Bowden has 50 to 60 speaking engagements a year, talking with Christian groups, speaking at corporate seminars, addressing football programs. They all want to know the same thing: What’s the key to his success?

Bowden has answers -- lots of them. He’s built programs and launched careers, sold boosters on big-ticket donations and convinced superstars to come play for him. He handled an abysmally uncomfortable departure from Florida State with his usual class and came away a hero not just in Tallahassee, but across the country, where he’s still revered as the grandfather of college football.

Four years ago, Bowden wondered if retirement might be a death sentence. What he’s learned since is another of those lessons he can pass along to the hordes of eager students. Keep playing to win, and life will always be pretty good.

“To me, if you do nothing after you retire, you begin to die a little bit every day, and I didn’t want that to happen,” Bowden said. “I wanted to stay active, and I wanted to go out on fire.”

Bowden's departure from FSU was a sore subject, but one he hasn’t cared to relive. Long before his final push out the door, he’d promised to retire gracefully, to leave the program in the hands of his successor without casting a long shadow.

On Saturday, however, Bowden will return to the field that bears his name for the first time since 2009. More than 300 former players will be on hand to welcome him home, and he’ll plant the school’s famous spear at midfield. Bowden is eager to relive old times in the place he’d built his legacy.

“There’s no nerves,” Bowden said. “But I’m excited about it, getting to see a lot of people.”

Bowden called his son, Tommy, earlier this week to talk about his return. Tommy’s advice was simple: “Don’t cry.” He knows there’s not much that rattles his dad, but the chance to see so many old friends might do the trick.

But really, this isn’t an emotional return for Bowden. It’s something he’d always planned to do, he was just waiting for the right time.

At West Virginia, he replaced a successful coach (Jim Carlen, who was 25-13-3 from 1966-69), and he remembered the second guessing. He didn’t want Jimbo Fisher to face the same questions. So he poked his head in Fisher’s office the day he left and told his successor goodbye.

“I wanted to give [Fisher] a chance to let people accept him as the new coach,” Bowden said. “I think that day has come.”

Bowden always knew he’d keep his distance once he left the program, but he worried what might come next. As it turned out, retirement has been full of small surprises.

“All of a sudden I’m not coaching anymore, I don’t have to worry about grades, don’t have to worry about the conduct of players, winning the big game,” Bowden said. “I felt a big relief off my shoulders that I now did not have those worries.”

Bowden has stayed away from campus, but he’s hasn’t strayed from college football.

He votes in the Legends Poll, and he’s used that as an excuse to spend his Saturdays glued to the TV. He’ll watch games from 11 a.m. until 2 in the morning, “waiting for those California teams to finish up,” he said.

His son, Terry, is head coach at Akron, where another son, Jeff, is on staff. Bowden visits at least once a year, and he still talks football with his sons.

“We always have since I was a young coach," Terry said. "Now that I’m 57 and I’ve got grandkids, we still talk. But it’s more bouncing stuff off each other.”

Bowden's former assistant, Mark Richt, remains at Georgia, and the two have stayed in close contact. Richt credits Bowden for giving him his chance in coaching and opening his eyes to the power of faith.

“He’s meant so much to me,” Richt said. “Every minute I get with him, I just cherish it. I never can thank him enough for what he did for me.”

Bowden has become the senior voice in college football, too. When a big-picture take on the sport is needed, his phone rings, and he always answers. He’s talked about the advent of the up-tempo offenses (he was running those in the ’60s, he said) and the new targeting rules.

And Bowden continues to follow Florida State. He doesn’t want to jinx the current team, he said, but this group just might be good enough to win a national title. He knows a special team when he sees one.

And that’s the biggest reason Bowden is coming back now. His return heals some old wounds, Tommy said, and it’s important for the program, Fisher added. But really, it’s just about timing.

Bowden always belonged at Doak Campbell Stadium, and for obvious reasons.

“It’s what’s right about the world,” Fisher said. “I’m extremely excited because he was my hero, too.”