“If it weren’t for me, I reckon Steve has at least two more national championships. Of course, you could say the same thing about his teams and us, too. He cost us at least two.”
Bobby Bowden, speaking of Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators
I wrote a post many moons ago about the passing of George Steinbrenner.
In fact, it was one of the very first posts ever published on this website, April 28, 2009. What a long strange trip it’s been.
In the article, I explain how I grew up a Red Sox fan and came to absolutely despise Steinbrenner. (It’s a long story for a native New Yorker and long-time Floridian but I promise it makes sense.)
In the post, I write “Growing up, I hated the Yankees. I hated absolutely everything about them. The pinstripes, the fans, Graig Nettles catching Yastrzemski’s foul pop-up in the 1978 playoff game, the endlessly, obnoxious Reggie chants, Yankee Stadium and of course the Boss, George Steinbrenner. He is the Yankees epitomized. His passion for the game and his desire, if not need, to win were unrivaled. Indirectly, he made me a better fan, for he made me care more about the Red Sox, and beating the Yankees.”
In 1987, I landed myself at the University of Florida. My mom and I had packed almost everything I owned into my red and white Mustang II hatchback. I never grew up a football fan. No one in my family ever watched the sport. That was until I got to Gainesville. There, you have no choice.
In 1987, Steve Spurrier hadn’t yet arrived on campus. There was this guy named Emmitt Smith who would carry the ball thirty times a game and leave Florida the all-time leading rusher in school history. It was old school SEC football that would soon fall by the way side. Spurrier would make the program exponentially more popular on a national scale as he came to own the SEC, winning six titles in twelve years.
There was only one problem.
There was one school that always proved to be the fly in their ointment. This school wasn’t in the Southeastern Conference but was in the same state. The former all girl’s school resided only two hours due northwest, or as we’d say in Gainesville, north ‘til you smell it and west ‘til you step in it.
That school is Florida State University. The man who coached and became synonymous with that school was named Bobby Bowden.
Bowden got to Tallahassee long before Spurrier ever threw his first visor on the sideline and trust me when I tell you, Bowden was a big reason Spurrier threw those visors so daggum much. In fact, Bowden was a wide receivers coach at FSU when Spurrier was still tossing the ball around the yard as a player, before he won the school’s first Heisman back in ’66. After coaching at West Virginia, Bowden took the head coaching gig at Florida State in 1976 when Spurrier was playing for the winless Buccaneers. Bowden was the elder statesman and far too often it showed.
Much in the same way Steinbrenner made me hate the Yankees, Bowden made me and pretty much every other football fan wearing orange and blue hate Florida State like they hated nothing else, which was odd because Bowden was genuinely a likeable guy. He wasn’t a millionaire mogul who owned sports most lucrative franchise. He was just a coach whose players over the years never had a bad word to say about him.
And let me tell you, this man could coach. And recruit. And teach. And influence.
Those early 1990s Florida State teams were as dominant as any I can remember. The talent he ushered into the NFL is nearly unparalleled over that time. I’m bound to miss a few names but let’s just say watching the teams you root for go against the likes of Derrick Brooks, Deion Sanders, Warrick Dunn, Charlie Ward, Peter Boulware, Tamaryck Vanover and Marvin Jones never made for a fun Thanksgiving.
Spurrier owned everyone he ever played against… except Bowden. Spurrier was 5-8-1 against the legendary Bowden. He was 117-19 against everyone else. How’s that for a thorn in your side.
The verbal jabs between these two coaches made the rivalry all the more enjoyable. As Neil Blackmon recently wrote for Saturday Down South “He was an aspirational albeit villainized figure, the guy leading the program that pushed Florida to be better. There was no one in the SEC that could push the Gators and Spurrier the way Bowden and the Seminoles did.”
Set aside the 1996-97 National Championship game where a more talented Florida Gator football team finally exorcised its demons against its fiercest rival (sorry, SEC), there are two matchups against Florida State that stand out in this Gator fan’s memory most. They are both losses.
The first was, obviously, the Choke at the Doak, or as we Gator fans used to uncomfortably joke, “the tie that’s the greatest win in Florida State history.”
I was watching this game with my girlfriend at the time, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend. The boyfriend was a Florida State fan, the rest of us cheered for the Gators. Spurrier had never won in Tallahassee but brought an extremely talented team to finally get that monkey off his back. The year was 1994.
The Gators went into Tallahassee and delivered an opening three quarters can of whoop-ass. They went up 31-3. I remember that 31st point specifically because a) the boyfriend stormed out of the house all pissed off and b) the Gators never scored another point after that.
Behind Danny Kannell, Florida State ran off four, fourth quarter touchdowns to tie the game, back when college games still ended in ties. The momentum shift in that game was like none I’d ever seen, the war chants in Doak Campbell as loud as they’d ever been. Memories of that game still nauseate me to this day. Florida’s run at a natty would have to wait. Bobby Bowden made sure of it.
The question remains whether Florida State should have gone for the two-point conversion and the win on that final touchdown but Bowden had made his point. Florida State was still the better, and better coached, football team.
The other debilitating loss came on November 30, 1996. I remember it specifically for it was the day my mother got remarried to her current husband of 25 years. I know, you’re thinking, who in their right mind gets married on Florida-Florida State weekend but that’s the weekend they chose.
Dressed in our tuxedos, I stood there with my uncle and soon to be step-father, all of us Florida alumni, and watched our undefeated, number one ranked Florida Gators lose in Tallahassee yet again, 24-21, to none other than Bobby Daggum Bowden. Mom was concerned our depression would carry over into her special day. It didn’t, as far as she knew. Fortunately, the bar was never far away.
Florida fans grew up hating Florida State largely because of Bowden. The same can be said for Seminole fans and Steve Spurrier. Their impact on college football cannot be understated, both of them making this rivalry perhaps the greatest of the 1990s. These games were must see TV nationwide but it meant so much more to us living here in the Sunshine State.
There’s a reason there’s a statue bearing Bowden’s likeness outside the field that now bears his name. The man impacted countless thousands of college athletes who have gone on to positively impact countless thousands of others. The Bowden tree runs that long and the world is a better place for it.
Despite all the hatred and bitterness, you’d be hard-pressed to find a true college football fan who doesn’t respect what Bowden gave the game of football. To put things in their proper perspective, Bobby Bowden has 377 career coaching wins, fourth most in NCAA history. That’s 120 more wins than Nick Saban.
I don’t speak for all those within Gator Nation who watched our teams lose time and time again to the late Bobby Bowden but there’s no doubt as Blackmon so eloquently put it, he drove our program to be better. He also made us better fans as a result. What’s the point of living if you don’t give of your heart and soul to others in a purely philanthropic way? Bobby Bowden did that with every breath he could muster.
To that, I say thank you Coach Bowden. Rest in peace, dagummit.