FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — He’ll watch Saturday from the home he bought upon arriving in Tallahassee in 1976, the one he raised six children in, the one he’ll have a 90th birthday party in next week and that remains close enough to hear echoes when Doak-Campbell Stadium celebrates.
“I stay here for the games if I can help it,” Bobby Bowden says. “I don’t like driving up there in all that crowd and park. I like to be here, not over 10 feet from my refrigerator. I’ll sit in this chair I’m talking to you now. It’s comfortable. It’s a … what kind of chair is this, Ann?”
“A recliner,” his wife says.
Bowden chuckles over the phone. “I’m reclining.”
“You’re declining,” she says.
“That’s it,” he says. “I’m a decliner.”
Yes, just as you think, it’s a much quieter life in retirement for the Florida State coaching legend. Bowden just returned from a trip to the post office. That was his big trip of the day. He does some speeches. An occasional fund-raiser.
Asked if he misses it, he says, “Games like this one, I do.”
There aren’t any larger-than-Saturday characters like Bowden in the Miami-Florida State rivalry anymore. It’s not much of a rivalry, either. Not really. A rivalry that once thrived on national consequence and this game has become more about a season’s survival of late.
“I see what everyone does,” Bowden says. “The way it looks to me right now, Florida is a degree above in the state. Florida State and Miami are about trying to get there. We’re trying to get back. I feel both schools will. But right now, they’re not.”
He stepped into a worse, wheel-spinning situation than Miami coach Manny Diaz and Florida State’s Willie Taggart. Florida State had little history when he arrived in 1976. It won four games the previous three years. He went 5-6 his first year, 8-3 the second year and then he was off and running at 11-1 the third year.
“You have to have a plan,” he said. “How to recruit? What’s important to you? Then, go out and execute the plan the best you can. Don’t change it. Don’t break it. Don’t run from it, just because someone complains about it.
“That’s what we tried to do. Then we had the advantage of being in the state of Florida. That’s where the players are.”
Bowden was never the get-off-my-lawn type. But when asked how what is doesn’t resemble what once was he gets right to the point.
“It was the highlight of every year,” he says. “It was exciting. It seems like every year we were both ranked No. 1, 2, 3 — something like that, which made it a national game. And the winner, a lot of times, won the national championships.”
He chuckles. “It was usually them.”
That’s Bowden at his best. He won plenty as his two national titles attest. But at his best he showed how to lose with grace. A joke. A turn of phrase. Once, after one of the wide-right field-goal losses to Miami, he said, “On my tombstone, it’ll read, ‘But he played Miami.’”
“You know what I was driving at?” Bowden said. “We were playing Miami. Florida quit playing Miami. Notre Dame quit playing them. And us? We played them.”
Another chuckle. “I wish I could have quit playing them.”
Only once do his words find an edge. When talks of retiring in 2009, he says, “I wanted one more year. That’s it. I know it was about time. But I knew we had a good team coming back and wanted to go out that way. One more year. That’s all I wanted.”
A decade into retirement, most friends and colleagues at Florida State are gone. He thinks all of his former players in the NFL are retired. He watches games on Saturday. He also watches a lot of the History Channel as a war student and the Discovery Channel as an animal lover.
“The good thing about being retired like I am, you don’t have to get up at a certain time,” he said. “You get up when you want. Me, when coaching, for 45 or 46 years, I’d get up at 4 a.m. So, retired, I get to sleep in. I get up at 5 a.m. And now I’m improving. I’m working on getting up at 6 a.m. That’s the next goal.”
At the end of the talk, I want to say thanks to Bobby. But what for? For all those games? All those years? For how he handled himself at the top? Maybe it was just for all those Saturdays he made a Saturday like this one so much fun.
Maybe it’s to say this is just another Saturday that won’t measure up as he watches this game from home in his recliner. Or decliner. And watches two teams he doesn’t recognize.