Bowden saw his players as more than a jersey, says longtime FSU chaplain

Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden (left to right) speaks with Mark Richt and Kevin Ezell at the NAMB Send Luncheon in Nashville June 14. Before becoming the head coach at Georgia and then Miami, Richt was an assistant coach at FSU in the 1980s, where he was led to Christ by Bowden. The luncheon would be the last public appearance for Bowden, who died Sunday (Aug. 8).

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (BP) – Clint Purvis walked the sidelines with Bobby Bowden for 21 years and was his friend for 33. In that time, he witnessed a sporting legend grow as Bowden became one of the winningest college football coaches in history, claiming two national championships and an era of success few programs have experienced.

But for Purvis, longtime chaplain for the FSU football team, those accolades only begin to tell the impact left by Bowden, who died Sunday (Aug. 8).

“He was anointed and had God’s favor,” Purvis told Baptist Press today (Aug. 9). “Tallahassee isn’t exactly like the Bible Belt. Coach was able to present the message of Christ in such a way that even those who didn’t want anything to do with God respected him. He was one of the most competitive men I knew and wanted to win, but he wanted every player who came to this place to know Jesus and that He could make a difference in their life.”

In July, Bowden announced that he had been diagnosed with a terminal medical condition that his son, Terry, recently disclosed to reporters was pancreatic cancer.

“I’ve always tried to serve God’s purpose for my life, on and off the field, and I am prepared for what is to come,” the 91-year-old Bowden said in a statement July 21. “My wife Ann and our family have been life’s greatest blessing. I am at peace.”

A month earlier Bowden had made his last public appearance at the North American Mission Board’s Send Luncheon, surprising friend and fellow coach Mark Richt. As a head coach at the University of Georgia and University of Miami, Richt’s testimony had become as regarded as his skill in winning football games. Now as Send Relief’s national spokesperson, Richt was asked by NAMB President Kevin Ezell to recount his testimony and Bowden’s influence when Richt was an assistant coach at Florida State.

“If Coach Bowden were here today, what would you say to him?” Ezell asked. Before Richt could finish his answer, Ezell motioned to Bowden, sitting in a chair positioned behind Richt, for the reunion.

“Prayers for Ann and the Bowden family!” Richt posted to Twitter yesterday. “Much love and respect and thankfulness for Coach’s influence in my life!!”

A native of Birmingham, Ala., Bowden was a star athlete at Woodlawn High School who dreamed of being a quarterback at the University of Alabama. He accomplished that goal, but after one semester in Tuscaloosa moved back to Birmingham to marry his high school girlfriend, Ann Estock, and transfer to Howard University.

Bowden played at Howard, now Samford University, but it would also become his first football coaching job when he took an assistant position there. He moved on to be the head football, baseball and basketball coach at South Georgia College before moving back to Howard as head football coach, compiling a 31-6 record. An assistant coaching position at Florida State followed before Bowden moved to become an assistant coach at West Virginia.

In 1968, WVU’s in-state rival, Marshall University, made a strong push for Bowden to be its next head coach. Bowden thought about it, but declined. He eventually would become West Virginia’s head football coach. In his first year at WVU, the plane transporting Marshall’s football team and coaches home from a game crashed, killing everyone on board.

“I’ve thought about that a lot over the years,” he said. “That could have easily been me coaching that team, and I’d have been wiped out just like all the others. … There were a lot of people I knew on that plane. A lot of good people.”

Bowden became the head coach in Tallahassee in 1976. The Seminoles had won only four games over the previous three seasons. Florida State went 5-6 in Bowden’s first year, and it would be his only losing record at the school. Success came so quickly that in the ‘80s, head-coaching offers came from LSU, Auburn and Alabama. The Crimson Tide actually had two opportunities to hire Bowden, passing on him the first time for Bill Curry. In 1990 it was Bowden’s chance to say ‘no thanks,’ and Alabama hired Gene Stallings.

By that time, Bowden was 60 years old, and he considered Florida State “his school.” Time had become a factor, and instances like the Marshall plane crash had given Bowden a perspective on eternity that became intertwined with his coaching philosophy.

The 1986 death of lineman Pablo Lopez led Bowden to present the Gospel to his team the next morning, a stand that led Richt to faith in Christ. Hours after Bowden’s death, Purvis posted to Facebook a handwritten letter from Bowden to his children that he wrote after a car accident took the life of his grandson and son-in-law the week of the 2000 Miami game. The letter explained that though they mourned at the moment, their faith continued to be in Jesus.

“[T]his is why my LOVE & RESPECT for COACH BOWDEN runs DEEP!!! And why I miss this man so much now!!!” Purvis wrote.

Bowden was a member of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee for 43 years before joining Bradfordville First Baptist, another area church, in May 2019. Alongside his duties as FSU football chaplain, Purvis also serves in ministry through First Baptist.

Bowden’s high profile opened up opportunities to witness, but he was strategic about it, said Purvis, who prayed with Bowden a week before he died.

“He was very good at doing it in such a way that it didn’t offend others,” he said. “If those of other faiths respected him as a man, they’d respect his message. You have to earn the right to be heard and he earned the right to present the message.”

But the truth is that in the world of big-time college football, the right to be heard doesn’t come without winning. In the early ‘90s, stacked FSU teams had heartbreaking back-to-back losses to in-state rival Miami when each year a wide-right field goal in the final seconds dashed the Noles’ championship hopes.

Not even the team chaplain was safe from ridicule, as people told Purvis he hadn’t prayed hard enough for those footballs to curve left. He’s fairly certain they weren’t kidding.

“Any loss was tough on Coach, but at the same time he saw the big picture and knew that anything he did was sovereign under the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” Purvis said. “God’s will was bigger than his wishes.”

In 1993, Florida State finally celebrated its first football national championship. For Bowden, the weight of winning the big one had finally lifted. FSU’s success would continue throughout the decade, which would end with another national title after the 1999 season.

Under Bowden, the FSU team would attend church every Sunday, in keeping with a promise the coach made to parents in living rooms across America while on the recruiting trail. Those of other faiths or who didn’t want their son to attend were not compelled to do so, but the overwhelming majority were thankful, Purvis said.

That became part of Bowden’s legacy as well. Many of his players didn’t come from Christian backgrounds or have a Christian witness. They grew up around drugs and gangs. Those influences and decisions often followed them to Tallahassee. When it came to administering discipline, Bowden relied on his Christian faith.

“He learned to not take a situation at face value,” Purvis said. “There was always another side to the story. Some people make mistakes with their heart, some with their head. When that mistake comes from the heart, it’s probably a character issue. A lot of these players, though, make mistakes with their head. They’re young, naïve and need correction.

“He always said he treated his players the way he would want someone to treat his own children. He didn’t see them as just a number or position. He saw beyond the uniform they wore to the people they are.”


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