Rob Oller | Bobby Bowden feasted on Buckeyes, but John Cooper still loves him
John Cooper fondly recalls Bobby Bowden kicking his butt.
Er, that’s not quite right. Place a period after Bowden and before kicking. Uh, that’s not it, either. Hmm, let’s just say the soft spot Coop has for the former Florida State coach resides in his heart and not on his rump.
Sure, Bowden’s Seminoles thumped Cooper’s teams — 45-2 against Tulsa in 1980 and 31-14 against Ohio State in the 1998 Sugar Bowl — but the one-sided losses came at the hands of one of the most amiable and respected coaches in college football history. Bowden, who died Sunday at age 91, made even his victims feel better about their teams and themselves.
Bobby Bowden dies: Legendary coach built Florida State into college football powerhouse
“Bobby Bowden? I love that guy,” Cooper said. “One of the legends of the coaching profession and an even better person. Everybody loved him to death. No matter who you were, he had time for you. Every spring a lot of college coaches sent their staff down to see him and learn how he did things, and he shared it all. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Coop’s recollection of the Sugar Bowl loss to Florida State is fuzzy (the man is 84, cut him a break), but his memory is pinpoint on one point: “They clearly were the better team.”
No question about that. Especially on defense, the Noles outmuscled and outplayed the Buckeyes. My lasting memory of that night in New Orleans is FSU defensive end Andre Wadsworth blowing past the Ohio State offensive line like a 18-wheeler through balsa wood.
“Joe Germaine never had a chance,” Cooper said of the Buckeyes quarterback, who was sacked twice. Germaine’s platoon partner, Stanley Jackson, was sacked four times. “That’s what happens when you have great pass rushers. I remember jokingly telling one of our offensive linemen, ‘Make sure you shake (Wadsworth’s) hand after the game. That way you can say you touched him one time.’”
Wadsworth was among the dozens of future NFL players recruited by Bowden, whose down-home personality played well in southern living rooms.
“And as far as I know, they did things the right way,” Cooper said of Florida State’s recruiting methods.
When everything now is Alabama and Clemson, with Ohio State and Oklahoma coming up on the outside, it is easy to forget how consistently great FSU was under Bowden, finishing in the top four of the final Associated Press or Coaches Poll every season from 1987-2000.
It would have been easy for Bowden’s ego to inflate from such success, but he was never one to big-time anyone.
“People would leave stuff for him to sign, and he would sign and put it outside his house in a box for them,” Cooper said. “I don’t think Bobby ever turned down an autograph request.”
Bowden was so down-to-earth he listed his name and number in the Tallahassee phone book.
My interactions with Bowden were always entertaining, as were his stories of coaching against OSU — and winning — as a huge underdog in Ohio Stadium in 1981 and 1982.
After beating the Buckeyes for the second time, Bowden quipped, “I feel sorry for what Earle Bruce is going through, but my real goal is to just keep one coach from getting fired — me.”
Bowden’s self-deprecating humor belied his tough-customer competitiveness. Beneath the window dressing was a strategic master commander.
“I’m just like Woody,” Bowden told me in 1997, referring to Wayne Woodrow Hayes, one of his heroes. “Reading military history is my hobby. I’ve probably read more on Napoleon than anybody, but also Patton and Rommel on the other side. I would be Patton, though. That’s me, that attacking style. (Ulysses) Grant was that way; he just happened to be on the wrong side.”
Cooper almost became a regular rival of Bowden’s in 1984, but turned down an offer to replace Howard Schnellenberger at Miami. The Hurricanes hired Jimmy Johnson instead, and Coop exited Tulsa for Arizona State in 1985, then left the Sun Devils for the Buckeyes in 1988.
A decade later, he stood on the Superdome sideline watching Bowden’s Seminoles smother Ohio State. Today he prefers to remember Bowden as a loving big brother more than a slayer of Buckeyes.
“He made you feel special,” Coop said.
Even when beating you like a drum.
See ya, boy. Try not to pull too many trick plays up there.