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The real loss isn’t just Bobby Bowden

December 1, 2009

34 years later, Bobby Bowden is set to retire from the college football coaching ranks. He’ll finish behind Penn State’s Joe Paterno as the 2nd winningest coach in history. Florida State had a tough year by their standards and those expected of such a grizzled and battle hardened coach. The world will also get to see just how well the “coach in waiting” concept works when Jimbo Fisher takes over next season. I wonder how closely Texas and Kentucky will watch the experiment?

But, the real loss here isn’t a charismatic and iconic coach like Bowden on the sidelines of a Florida college program. The real loss is a legacy of southern coaches who patrolled the sidelines, intimidated their opponents and referees and more importantly, had real personality.

Consider the likes of Vince Dooley, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Shug Jordan, Pat Dye, Johnny Majors, Johnny Vaught and Robert Neyland. Now arguably, I’m only old enough to really remember five of those, but the impression they left on me – and countless other SEC fans – has been the yardstick by which all other coaches get measured.

They drank, hunted, fished, used tobacco products and had a seemingly endless supply of one-liners and witticisms that made Lewis Grizzard and Jeff Foxworthy envious. They spoke softly and carried a truck-load of big sticks. They taunted their rivals in gentlemanly and yes, sometimes childish ways. They all had gruff voices that went from mumble to “lock it up!” in a heartbeat. Most of them wore real hats – not visors or trucker caps – that signified their feet being planted in a bygone era. They made the term, “old school” respectful.

Their players did many of the same things today’s players do, but somehow managed to stay out of the press. One could argue with cell phone cameras, Twitter, Facebook and the explosion of blogs that information today is just too hard to contain and compartmentalize. One could also believe what the old guys playing checkers on the front porch of the country store used to say, “that coach has the poe-leece and the press in his back pocket.” It probably wasn’t true, but man it was fun to entertain the idea.

And that is part of what gets lost with Bowden’s retirement: the ideas they generated in the form of gentle controversy. It was fun to suspect the coach was so much larger than life that somehow local law enforcement and reporters alike steered clear of drawing the coaches ire. Similarly, a “stink eye” from the sideline might somehow keep the yellow flag in the pocket in a crucial game. Nowadays, players get arrested in their team gear on TV, the conference is conspiring with officials to keep Alabama and Florida undefeated and if a coach speaks out about a call, he’s fined by the league office.

Sure, there are personalities aplenty on the sidelines of the SEC today: Kiffikins, the Nutt, the mad-hatter and the “ole ball coach.” And truthfully, Spurrier very likely belongs on the list above, but a Kiffin shares much more in common with Dan Mullins, Urban Meyer, Bobby Petrino, Nick Saban and yes, Gene Chizik than he does even his predecessor. These are all the personalities of coaching factories with little to no allegiance to a program or even a region. These guys all fear the press, law enforcement, the league, their fans and Athletic Directors more than they do a loss. Heck, the old guys used to lay claim to head coach AND Athletic Director titles. Those days are gone, gone, gone.

I can’t say that I ever pulled for Florida State and I certainly had no real allegiance to Bobby, but I do for nostalgic reasons, see his retirement as the end of an era. The nail in the coffin of southern football coach as icon. The passage of gentleman-giant into logo apparel-PR spun-room full of lawyers produced contracted employee-heavily incented-visor wearing-halftime shirt changing-coach.

Bobby, I wish you all the best. You will be missed.

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From → Auburn Sports

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