RICHMOND, Ky. (KT) — Bobby Bowden is still spreading the gospel. During his coaching career that spanned more than six decades at Samford, West Virginia and Florida State, he never wavered in his faith.
“I don’t know of any football player that played for me who didn’t know about Jesus,” he said during a speaking engagement at Eastside Community Church in Richmond Sunday. “Talk about getting their attention, every Friday night before a football game, they were going to listen to you. I would read Scripture to them. I get letters from (from former) players and not one of them mention football. Not one of them. They say, coach, ‘Thank You.’”
Since his retirement from coaching nine years ago, Bowden’s audience is different, but his platform remains the same. Bowden, 88, makes about one speaking engagement a week and his main priority is being a witness to “the world, talking to people no matter if it’s a football player or a lawyer” and “it’s the same story no matter what.”
“The concept (of spreading the gospel) is the same, but the thing that people wouldn’t understand, it’s not politically correct to do what I do,” he said. “To go into a state institution like Florida State University and talk about your religion and it’s frowned upon. They (probably) would have liked to fire me if they wanted to, but they never did. I was always determined that if they made me stopped doing it, I was going to go down in the basement and do it, but I’m going to do it. I felt like God wanted me to (witness). I do understand it’s not politically correct, which I don’t care anything about, by the way.”
When he was healed of rheumatic fever as a young child, Bowden vowed to serve God “anyway I can” and his coaching career exemplifies his faith. During his career, Bowden compiled a 377-129-4 mark and won two national championships at Florida State. Bowden was “thrilled” after the Seminoles captured the national title in 1993 but didn’t get all caught up in the excitement of winning it all.
“Once you get to the top, like my daddy always said, there ain’t nothing up there,” he said. “There is only one thing is this world that is everlasting and that’s Jesus Christ. That’s the only thing that will work. When you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, you will live forever and that’s why I’m here.”
Bowden knew coaching was in his future long before he became a player or a coach.
“I really feel like God wanted me to coach, I feel like I was called to coach,” he said. “The first five years of my life, I lived behind the football field at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham Alabama. All I head was football, football, and football. … That’s all I knew.”
Once he figured out his career path following his playing career, God charted the course he followed for the duration of his coaching tenure.
“I had six jobs, I didn’t apply for one of them,” he said. “You say that’s a coincidence, but six times?”
Bowden’s faith is so strong that he made sure all of the players were aware of the gospel. His assistant coaches and peers also knew where Bowden stood regarding his faith, which he considers “the most important thing in the world.”
“Football is what God gave me to witness,” he said. “I thank him for that. … I would tell other coaches, don’t make football your life. God is No. 1. Your family is No. 2, education is next and other people are next.”
Kentucky assistant coach Dean Hood became a fan of Bowden after hearing him speak during a coaches convention early in his career and asked former Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews if Bowden was “for real” and the response from Andrews assured Hood of Bowden’s faith.
“Every Friday night (before a game) was an altar call,” he said.
Despite his stature as one of the most successful college coaches in the history of football, Bowden said his relationship with Jesus is more important than any of his accomplishments as a player and a coach but credits grace for sustaining his faith and belief in God.
“A lot of times when I speak, one of the first things I will say is that I’m a Christian, but I’m no better than anybody else and I’ve done wrong, but I’ve been forgiven,” he said. “So many people are going to think they’re going to heaven because they’ve been good, that ain’t going to get them there. You’ve got to believe in Jesus. If you could go to heaven by earning it, we wouldn’t have known that we would need a Jesus or you can go without him. No, you can’t. You’ve got to go with Christ and that’s the story that a lot (of people) don’t know and what God wants told.”
Bowden said he joined the church when he was “about 11” was “baptized” and “thought, ‘I’m going to heaven now.” However, he began a deeper experience when he was 23 when he “made that big decision.”
“That’s when I realized I was saved by grace,” he said. “I joined the church again and re-dedicated my life.”
And Bowden has been a witness ever since and still going strong.
“I don’t know of anything else I could enjoy more,” he said with a smile. “I don’t know of anything more important.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.