TALLAHASSEE — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Lined up like soldiers on Bobby Bowden's wide mahogany desk are books. The subjects of these books give a pretty dadgum accurate picture of Bowden, the coach of Florida State, college football's best team.
A Bible. Biographies of Bear Bryant and Joe Louis. "Das Reich." Humor by Dave Barry. "Keep 'em handy to read in the toilet," Bowden says. "Dadgum boring to just waste time in there. Ooh, maybe should'na said that. You not embarrassed, are ya, gal?"
Embarrassed? Not a whit? Intrigued? You betcha.
Those books all have a purpose.
They've helped shape the coach with a 211-74-3 career record. Only Penn State's Joe Paterno among active Division I-A college coaches has more wins. Only seven, total, have more. Three times under Bowden (1979, 1987, 1988), the Seminoles went 11-1, and three more times (1977, 1989 and 1990), they were 10-2.
Now, Florida State is 6-0 and ranked No. 1. Everybody wants to talk to Bowden. He has a radio show to tape and a speech to give in Daytona Beach in four hours. Every day someone asks: "You gonna finally win that national title?" And here sits Bowden on a Monday afternoon casually talking literature.
The Bible? It's obvious. Bowden's at church twice a week. He even takes recruits. Bear Bryant was Bowden's coaching idol. When Bowden was a novice coach at little Howard University (now Samford) in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., Bryant would let Bowden come to 'Bama's practices. Players who Bryant decided weren't good enough, Bowden could take back to Birmingham.
Boxing is Bowden's favorite sport, Joe Louis his favorite athlete. Generals are Bowden's favorite people, World War II his favorite period. Dave Barry's humor? That was recommended by a son, and family is everything to Bowden. Three sons and one son-in-law are coaches. That is not an accident.
Bowden is "sixty-dadgum-one years old. Sixty-dadgum-two in a coupla weeks," he says. He has laugh lines deep as creeks that fan out from his eyes like irrigation ditches. He got married at 19 to a 16-year-old cheerleader who is still around to criticize plays. He is the funniest, happiest and probably the best dadgum coach in the game today.
"Dadgum, I'm feeling better than ever and lovin' every minute of this," Bowden said. "I'm livin' in the best dadgum town around. And everbody loves me. Today. Can't ask for more."
When Bowden went to Florida State in 1976, the Seminoles were coming off three terrible seasons that had added up to a 4-29 record. Once, in the early '70s, Larry Jones, the coach then, made his linemen wrestle in boxes topped by chicken wire at practice. That was supposed to instill toughness. It only inspired losing.
Bowden was leaving a successful program at West Virginia, one that had produced two bowl-game appearances in his six years as the head coach. But Bowden had also suffered in Morgantown. In his fifth year, West Virginia was 4-7, and Bowden would come home to find himself hanged in effigy on his own front lawn.
"It's hard when you have to say to your little boy: 'Son, let's go cut Daddy down from the tree,' " Bowden said.
So even though the Florida State program was in shambles, even though his wife, Ann, didn't want him to take the job, Bowden went. "I wanted to be back in the South," Bowden said. "This was closer to home. I thought I'd stay a coupla years, get a big-time offer, and move on. Now here I am, a dadgum granddaddy, and I ain't goin' nowhere."
Bowden always dreamed he'd end up at Alabama or Auburn. Now, he wants to be nowhere but Tallahassee, a sleepy Southern city where Spanish moss hangs from palm trees like lace, a state capital where redneck country boys rub elbows with politicians.
"The thing about Coach Bowden," Chuck Amato, the assistant head coach, said, "is that he can be real down home with a bunch of guys out by their pickups one minute, then walk into a room of businessmen wearing a shirt and tie and start talking like a banker. And both groups love him."
That same easy familiarity has made Bowden a great recruiter. When he first arrived at Florida State, the program was a joke, and Bowden took anyone he could get.
"Sure, we had players then who might have been considered trouble, kids we don't look at now," Bowden said. "But I was building a program, and I did what I had to."
Bowden has been castigated and praised for running a loose program. Deion Sanders cavorted around campus with fancy cars and heavy gold chains, and bragged when he took no classes or exams in his final semester. "But Deion is deeper than people think," Bowden said. "And new rules, good rules, have been instituted where kids won't quit classes like that."
Last season, when Bowden won his 200th game, the moment was marred when a massive brawl broke out between the Seminoles and LSU players. Auburn coach Pat Dye has accused Bowden of teaching dirty tactics and encouraging his players to talk trash.
But Bowden says he has nothing to be ashamed of.