In his 44 years as a head football coach, Bobby Bowden compiled 377 wins (second most all-time) and two national championships (1993 and 1999). But Bowden is just as known for his Southern charm and outspoken Christian beliefs. In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Bowden (who retired after the 2009 season) talks about how biblical principles guided him throughout his career:
Chad Bonham: You’ve always worn your faith on your sleeve. How did your belief in God impact your coaching?
Bobby Bowden: You can live by biblical principles and you can teach by those principles and still be a winner. So many coaches think you’ve got to kick them in rear end. You’ve got to cuss them out. You’ve got to hit them across the head. No. You don’t have to do that. You don’t have to touch a kid. You don’t have to scream at a kid. But you can take the principles of the Bible and you can take the principles of Jesus Christ and transfer them right into coaching.
Bonham: What’s a specific biblical teaching that you used during your career at Florida State?
Bowden: One of the foundational teachings in the Bible is sacrifice. You can’t win basketball games or football games unless your kids are willing to sacrifice. That virtue just carries over from the Bible to anything else.
Bonham: How would you teach that principle to your players?
Bowden: When I first started coaching 57 years ago in 1953, the approach back then was a lot different than it is now. Back then, many of the coaches took the approach that said, “Don’t do as I do, but do as I say.” That was the principle. I don’t believe in that. But that was the way I was brought up and it’s the way many of the coaches coached. It was after World War II and our nation was much more disciplined and probably more God-fearing because of the war. Guys that played football, they knew to listen to that coach. They had to do what he said. He didn’t have to explain what to do. If he said, “Run through that wall,” you’d say, “Which brick do you want me to hit?” It was about that stubborn. That doesn’t work today. Today, you tell a kid what you want him to do and then you explain to him why it will make him better. If you don’t tell him why it will make him better then he might not want to go through all of that sacrifice and discipline to be a winner. I don’t know of any sport where you don’t have to sacrifice. You’ve got to suffer. You’ve got to pay the price.
Bonham: What other ways did your faith influence your coaching?
Bowden: The Bible is big in my teaching. It’s a wonder the ACLU didn’t get after me pretty good. I really kept thinking they would. I took my boys to church. I took my football team to church. I only did it two times a year. Before I signed a kid, I’d write the parents and I’d tell that parent we were gong to take your son to church twice. We were going to take him to a predominantly white church one Sunday and we were going to take him to a predominately black church the next Sunday. Our whole team, black and white, I wanted them to see they were welcome no matter what the color of their skin was at either church. If they didn’t want their son to participate because they thought I was infringing upon their rights, I wouldn’t do it. After 34 years here at Florida State, I only had about two parents that asked me not to include their son and I didn’t. And they were Christian people. I think they thought I was trying to get them to go to my church. I didn’t want to take them to my church. I didn’t want them to think I was trying to proselytize them.
We also had prayer before the game and we had prayer after the game. Every Friday night when I talked to the kids before the game, I’d have a devotion. Every morning that our coaching staff would meet, we started off with a devotion. We’d read scripture and end with a prayer. We’d have 17 coaches sitting around the table and we’d take turns leading the devotion. I didn’t expect them to believe what I believed, but I wanted to hear what they believed. I’m sure the ACLU would be very disappointed in me. I told our president, “If they ever say anything about it, I’ll go underground, because I’m not going to stop.”
Bonham: How did your faith help you deal with adversity?
Bowden: People that are brilliant and successful, we think they’ve just always been that way. That’s not the case. Most of them have had some tough adversity in their life. It’s prepared them. I’ve never felt like you could develop character without adversity. A guy’s who has all the money he needs and never faced any hard times, he won’t have any character. But when you’ve had it tough and you’ve had it rough and you thought you were at the end of the rope and you work your way out of it, that’s the way you build character.
Abraham Lincoln lost every appointment he ever ran for until he was elected President. Coach (John) Wooden went through 14 seasons at UCLA before he hit the top. I had six years in a row where I was in the top four in the nation and didn’t win a national championship. I came out second. I came out third. I came out fourth. I came out second again. I came out third. And then it looked like you weren’t going to win won and then we finally won a national championship. We all have to face a lot of adversity when we’re trying to get where we want to go.
I draw strength from my faith. I used to get up at 4 a.m., in the morning. Now that I’m retired, I get up when I want to. Now it’s maybe 4:30 a.m., because I’m so used to getting up that early. I’d go downstairs and put the coffee on for my wife. Then I’d get my Bible and maybe 10 other books about the Bible, read the scriptures and then read a little bit from all of those books. I’d do that for about 45 minutes to an hour. My wife would come down and she and I would read. We start the day like that. Therefore, I wanted my staff to start the day like that. And that’s what we did.
I think my faith and my belief in the scripture that God is in control, all of that helped me. I had plenty of bad days. I had plenty of bad years. There were times when people wanted me to leave and getting after me and hanging me in effigy and stuff like that. It was my faith and belief that got me through those times.
Bonham: Are there any particular Bible heroes that have inspired you over the years?
Bowden: Paul is my favorite. I went Samford University, a Baptist college in Birmingham, Ala. We only had about 2,000 students when I was there. I had to take a Bible class. The teacher asked us to write a biography about anybody in the Bible that we wanted to. I chose Paul. I don’t know why I chose Paul. So I did my term paper on Paul. Most of the New Testament was written by Paul. What a great teacher and preacher and hero he was. Christ would be my number one favorite from the Bible. He’s my Savior. But Paul is unbelievable. Paul gave up so much. He was shipwrecked and then bitten by the snake. He was beaten at times and whipped and even stoned. It’s unbelievable what he went through.
People compare football to war. There’s really no comparison. In war, people are getting killed. Arms are torn off. Legs are torn off. People are killed. Football is a dangerous sport and people can get injured and hurt but it’s nothing like war. It’s the same for us who are saved today. Being a Christian is not like being lashed 39 times like Christ was. Reading about Paul and those characters in the Bible helps us gain strength and understand what it takes to live for Christ.
(Photos: Florida State University Athletic Department; cholder68 – http://www.flickr.com/photos/cholder68/290264389/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1369604)