Even though I graduated from the University of Florida and the late, great Bobby Bowden coached our in-state rivals, the Florida State Seminoles, I definitely felt a sense of loss when I heard he had passed away at the age of 91.
I transferred to UF from the Division III State University of New York at Albany before the start of the fall semester in 1979. That year, the Gators finished the season with a record of 0-10-1, including the final 27-16 loss at home to FSU, which was undefeated and ranked fifth in the country at the time. It was Bowden’s fourth season as the coach of the ‘Noles, after six mostly succesful years as the head coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers.
My roommates and I were among the 58,000 in attendance at that 1979 game, and we were encouraged to only be trailing 10-0 at halftime. Then, we were downright giddy when the Gators tied the game at 10-10 before the end of the 3rd quarter. But, Bowden completely outcoached rookie Gators’ coach Charley Pell the rest of the way to complete our winless season, still the worst in Florida’s history. We were happy that Bowden’s unbeaten team was dominated by #5 Oklahoma 24-7 at the 1980 Orange Bowl.
The Gators were better the following year, finishing the season with an 8-4 record, including a 35-20 win over the Maryland Terrapins in the Tangerine Bowl, and as the 19th-ranked team in the country, in Pell’s second season.
But, the last of those four losses came at the hands — and brilliant football mind — of Bowden and his ‘Noles, a game my roommate “Squiggy” and I drove to Tallahassee to see.
And, even though we sat in what seemed like a sea of garnet & gold, Squig and I were enjoying the game well into the third quarter, as Pell’s Gators somehow led #3 FSU 13-3. But, the defense of the coach later known as the “Riverboat Gambler” for his amazing trick plays, dominated us after halftime, when we seemingly had negative yards rushing (we averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry for the game). And, 53 of our 160 total yards passing came on one first-quarter TD pass from QB Wayne Peace to WR Tyrone Young, as the Gators ended up losing 17-13.
Squig and I knew that win sent the 10-1 ‘Noles back to the Orange Bowl for a rematch with #4 Oklahoma and also-legendary coach Barry Switzer. The Sooners were favored by less than a touchdown and rallied to win the game 18-17 in the fourth quarter on an 11-yard TD pass from QB J.C. Watts to WR Steve Rhodes and a two-point conversion pass to TE Forrest Valora with only 1:33 remaining. Even so, Bowden’s team gave it the ol’ college try, but the comeback (and PK Bill Capece’s 62-yard FG attempt) fell short.
But, even though I celebrated that FSU loss and virtually anything bad that happened to the ‘Noles after that, I still have a profound respect for this amazing coach. RIP, Mr. Bowden.