Bobby Bowden passed away Sunday, a bout with pancreatic cancer ending 91 victorious, impactful, transformative years of life.
A College Football Hall of Famer with 377 credited victories, Bowden was a titan of the sport, one of the key figures in college football's growth from a regional pastime to a national obsession. His death has inspired an outpouring of grief and remembrance, including a lengthy and heartfelt statement from the greatest college football coach of all time, Nick Saban.
“Bobby Bowden was a wonderful friend whose accomplishments as a coach are only surpassed by the character and class he displayed as a father, mentor and friend,” Saban said in a statement Sunday. “His passing is a loss for everyone but should be seen as a chance to celebrate a life remarkably well-lived. Sometimes it’s not what you do, but who you are that is truly important. And no one embodies that more than Bobby Bowden.
“His influence on the countless young men he led in over 60 years of coaching can never be measured. His achievements as a coach are well documented and among the greatest the game has ever known. But when I think about coach, it’s about the man he was and the impact he had on everyone he encountered. I probably understood that impact even earlier than the rest of college football.”
Saban also shared a personal connection with Bowden, which was unknown (at least to me) until today.
When Bowden was the head coach at West Virginia, Saban's father -- affectionately and reverentially known as Big Nick -- died when the younger Nick was just 22 years old. Big Nick owned a roadside gas station and coached his son's Pop Warner teams. "His words, his dreams, and his actions greatly impacted me as a young boy," Saban said of Big Nick. "I was always with him and, even from an early age, he took every opportunity to teach me a lesson. If he went to the bank, I went with him; if he went to line-off the baseball field, I was helping; when he played sandlot baseball as an adult and/or coached a team, I was there. We were inseparable."
When Big Nick passed of a sudden heart attack, Bowden placed a call to the young man who idolized his late father.
“My father passed away while coach Bowden was at West Virginia University,” Saban continued. “Coach didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat, but he knew my dad and got word that maybe my mom was struggling a bit back home in West Virginia. I pick up the phone one day and it’s coach Bowden himself. He tells me knew my dad and said that if I needed to be closer to home, he would make a place for me on his Mountaineer coaching staff. How many coaches would do that? How many people would do that?"
Saban already had a job as a GA at his alma mater Kent State, working under his college coach and a future Hall of Famer in his own right, Don James. As the story goes, Saban took the job as a way to kill time until Miss Terry graduated and he'd be free to chase his true calling -- following Big Nick into the automative business.
Bowden was just 44 at the time, heading into his fourth season as West Virginia's head coach. Bowden's WVU teams were just okay, ultimately going 42-26 with one AP Top 25 finish and one bowl victory in his six seasons. Though he'd go on to win enough games to get the Florida State job, it wasn't clear at that time Saban was rejecting an offer from the winningest coach of all-time.
Which is, of course, what Saban ultimately did. He remained at Kent State through 1976, leaving for the outside linebackers job at Syracuse in '77. He would eventually work at WVU, coaching defensive backs under Frank Cignetti, Sr. (an eventual Hall of Famer in his own right, at the divisional level) in 1978-79. Those Mountaineer teams would go 7-15, and by 1980 Saban was the defensive backs coach at Ohio State under another Hall of Famer, Earle Bruce. His next job, in 1982 at Navy, would link him up with Steve Belichick and his son Bill, a position coach for the New York Giants at that time.
As we know, things would eventually work out A-OK for that grieving 22-year-old GA. But a sight-unseen job offer from the head coach of the flagship program in his home state -- where Saban wished to play as a standout quarterback at Monongah High School but wasn't good enough -- had to give him at least a moment's pause.
It wasn't until the mid-90s that Saban established himself as a bona fide major college football head coach, and he wouldn't win the first of seven (and counting) titles until 2003 -- a full three decades after Bowden's job offer.
One has to imagine Saban's path to the big time would've been clearer as the star defensive backs coach on the legendary Bobby Bowden's powerhouse Seminoles teams... and how different the college football landscape might be today if he'd accepted that offer.
“For me, that story is the personification of the true character of Bobby Bowden," Saban concluded. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Ann and children Terry, Jeff, Ginger, Steve and Robyn.”