TALLAHASSEE, Fla.: In Bobby Bowden’s TV room, Hitler was taking the world by storm.
Grandson J.J. power-washed the carport. Six-year-old great-grandson Trey searched for a mid-afternoon snack. Wife Ann tried to reach Sue Paterno on the telephone.
The sun has shone outside the Bowdens’ home since 1976, but Bobby Bowden, the former Florida State football coach and father of new University of Akron football coach Terry Bowden, sat mesmerized by a program on the Military Channel. The sight of der Furher brought back a memory from a pre-9/11 trip to Germany, when he and Ann stood on a platform where the Nazi dictator had addressed his followers.
“It was all marble,” marveled Bowden.
Stricken with rheumatic fever at age 13, Bobby Bowden spent six months in the hospital and nearly 12 more confined to bed. Listening to World War II radio reports and envisioning the battlefields, he became captivated by the subject and strategy of war.
Now 82 and beginning his third year out of coaching, Bowden is retired in name only. He travels the country for speaking engagements, addressing a group in Lima, Ohio, on Thursday. He attends church regularly, sometimes going to the pulpit to talk about the deep-seeded faith that prompted the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to name its national citizenship award after him.
He and Ann try to keep up with their family — four sons (three are coaches), two daughters, 21 grandchildren and five great-grandchilden. That number includes grandson Bowden, who died at age 15 with his father John Madden in a 2004 car accident. Daughter Robyn is a teacher, Ginger an assistant state attorney who lives in Fort Walton Beach.
But when he gets the chance, Bobby Bowden indulges his passion for war through reading and cable television. So it was no wonder he merely muted the sound and did not turn off the set during an hour-long interview on Feb. 4.
The subject was son Terry, hired on Dec. 22 to revive a flagging Zips football program. Terry brought along his brother Jeff, a former offensive coordinator under Bobby at Florida State, longtime Seminoles assistant Chuck Amato and former FSU All-America cornerback Terrell Buckley.
Bobby said he never dreamed Terry would follow in his footsteps, especially when Terry got his law degree in 1982 while serving as a student assistant at Florida State.
“Terry was always the head of his class,” Bobby said. “He had the highest grade-point average (3.65) on his football team at West Virginia. He was president of this and president of that. When he played football in high school, he was all-state and the leader of the team. In middle school they had a group that was singing and he was the leader. He threw the stick way up in the air; it slipped out of his hand.
“I had no idea he was going to go into coaching. He came to Florida State and worked with me to get his law degree. He was offered a coaching job at Salem and that was the end of that law business. If they hadn’t offered him that job at Salem, I wonder what he would have done.”
Terry became the youngest college football head coach in the country when he went to Salem (W.Va.) at age 26. That’s a year older than Bobby was when he took over South Georgia Junior College. But even the struggles Terry saw his father endure didn’t scare him away from coaching.
“When my dad was at Samford and South Georgia, that was still so small, he was still the lifeguard in the summer and he still taught classes. You didn’t see him as a big deal,” Terry said in an interview last month. “When he went to Morgantown, he became the head coach at a major university, Tommy and I said, ‘I want to do that.’ We had plenty of choices, but me or Tommy or Jeff, we wanted no other choice.
“We traveled on the buses when we were younger; we played on the sidelines. But I don’t think until I got to West Virginia and I was in middle school that it finally hit me, the immensity of the job, also the excitement of it, too. You carried the weight of the state, at least of the fans, on your shoulders.”
That won’t happen for Terry at UA, although he will carry the weight of university expectations after it spent $61.6 million building InfoCision Stadium.
“That’s the advantage Tommy and Terry and Jeffrey had,” Bobby said. “They saw me hung in effigy. They’ve seen people clap me on the back. They’ve seen people booing me. They knew what they were getting into.”
Ann Bowden doesn’t believe Terry has been burdened by the legendary status of Bobby, forced to retire at Florida State in 2009 after winning two national championships. He now stands third on the all-time major college victory list with 377, 12 more vacated by the NCAA a year ago.
“I don’t think he was trying to get out from his shadow. He kind of wanted to mirror; he wanted to do what his dad did,” Ann Bowden said of Terry. “I don’t think he ever wanted to get away. They would have loved to have been together. I often said, ‘Why don’t y’all buy a pro club or something, scrape up enough and coach together?’ ”
The only one who wanted no part of it was Steve, who became a professor at Samford and co-authored one of Bobby’s books, The Bowden Way. Steve has managed his father’s business affairs for the past 20 years.
But when they’re coaching, Terry, Jeff and Tommy, a faith-based speaker and television analyst since he was forced out at Clemson in 2008, don’t consult Bobby on a daily or weekly basis. Bobby said they used to share successful offensive plays, but now when Terry calls, “it’s not about football.”
Bobby has been trying to carve out time for his children since they were young. When he was at West Virginia, Bobby took Steve, Tommy and Terry on weekend recruiting trips.
“It’s kind of like you’re watching everybody but your own boys,” Bobby said. “You’re out recruiting other kids. You don’t even get to see your son play. When Tommy and Terry were playing high school football in Morgantown, I bet I didn’t see over four games.”
Terry said he mainly seeks out his father for a second opinion or when he is making “a major professional decision.” When he went to work for ABC after being let go at Auburn in 1998, Terry acknowledged that he wasn’t the best coach in his own family. Bobby wondered if his son is still motivated by that.
“He’s trying to sneak up on us,” Bobby said, chuckling.
“I’m 55, I’m a grandfather now,” Terry said. “But funny when your dad’s Bobby Bowden, you’re always seen as his son.”
Bobby won national titles at FSU in 1993 and ’99, but Terry and Tommy topped their dad’s achievements in one regard.
“Terry won his first 20 ballgames, which was unheard of,” Bobby said of Terry’s stint at Auburn. “I was 60 before I was undefeated. Tommy and he were both undefeated before I was.”
Terry went 11-0 at Auburn in 1993, ahead of Tommy (11-0 at Tulane in 1998) and Bobby (12-0 at FSU in 1999).
These days, the Bowdens’ favorite moments together seem to come from trading barbs on the putting green during their annual Fourth of July family vacation or at the dinner table.
“Their nickname for me is ‘Fat Man,’ ” Bobby said. “We’ll be playing golf, ‘Hey, Fat Man, it’s your shot.’ ”
Bobby showed off a small statue with the moniker on it. In the past three months, he has lost 17 pounds and is down to 176 — “I’m probably 10 pounds from college weight,” he said — to keep his diabetes under control.
He and Ann worry about Terry’s weight gain, with Ann walking into the room with her favorite portrait of a thin Terry.
“He’s a compulsive eater when he gets stressed out or nervous,” Ann said.
But leave it to the Bowdens to make fun of their weight, even during Bobby’s lean victory year in 1974, when West Virginia went 4-7 and he was hung in effigy outside the library.
“Tommy tells the story of climbing the tree and a policeman comes by and says, ‘You can’t cut that down,’ ” Bobby said. “He said, ‘I wasn’t cutting it down, I was putting more stuffing in his stomach.’ ”
That’s just a slice of what happens when the Bowdens gather.
“Somebody will come up with some remark and everybody starts laughing and they’ll get him back,” Bobby said.
If they’re speaking at the same venue as Bobby, the sons have to edit themselves.
“Terry and Tommy know all of my jokes,” Bobby said. “They’ve got to be careful or they’ll get repeats.”
Hurt by investments in the struggling real estate market, Bowden relies on appearance fees to pay his bills.
“I’ve been to the Caribbean, to Hawaii twice, Israel; I’ve spoken all over the country,” Bobby said. “That’s what you do when you’ve been salaried all your life and all of a sudden you’re not making a penny.”
He plans to attend Terry’s coaching clinic at UA on April 13. He and Ann will get to as many Zips games as they can. Used to flying on private jets at FSU and driving all over the South, Bowden will schedule appearances around UA’s schedule, which includes a Sept. 8 game at Florida International in Miami and a Sept. 22 game at Tennessee.
“Tennessee has been struggling a little bit. He might be favored,” Bobby joked.
Although he thinks the 10 years Terry spent out of coaching was too long, Bobby seems content to watch Terry mainly from afar. He knows his son is a great communicator, meticulous in preparation and a natural leader and believes he’ll succeed if he can lure talent to UA.
“He’s like a new person,” Bobby said of Terry. “North Alabama was a nice little job, but they were limited. The facilities at Akron are so much better, you’ve got to feel good in there.”
The football talk over, Bobby unmuted the television and slipped back into the days of World War II.
“The American cemetery, wasn’t that beautiful?” he said of his trip to Normandy, France and the D-Day beaches. “How those guys got up that mountain, how they got across that beach, I don’t know.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.