Hearing the news about Bobby Bowden’s retirement as football coach at Florida State University this week started me thinking about the first time I became aware of his name or saw him in person.
Both occurred in the spring of 1978, when he was the guest speaker at the annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ high school banquet in Chattanooga.
I was a graduating senior at Baylor and had become active in FCA at the school that year under staff chaplain Jerry Prickett. I do not remember the details, but several of us from Baylor went.
The community-wide event – held on May 8 of that year - was in the old cafeteria on top of the original, 1960-era Provident Building in downtown Chattanooga, before the major addition was built and a newer cafeteria opened in the 1980s. It was also long before Provident insurance company merged with Unum.
I still vividly remember seeing Coach Bowden standing at the podium and talking in his homespun style. If I recall correctly, he talked mostly about football, although I could be wrong.
He did take some time, I think, to talk about how important FCA was. Actually, an annual FCA award to a college football player would later be given in his honor.
I did not realize until his speech that he had led a once-struggling Florida State to a 10-2 record the year before, his first successful season with the Seminoles.
Within a few short years, he began developing a dynasty at Florida State and soon became a household name to college football fans everywhere.
A connection he had to Chattanooga was McCallie School coach and administrator John Day, who had coached Bowden at Samford University when it was called Howard. The two were re-acquainted at the banquet, and the Chattanooga News-Free Press took a picture of them.
What comments Coach Bowden made at the banquet were not captured in the paper. The article primarily focused on the fact that Doug Smith from East Ridge High School was named FCA Athlete of the Year. He received a $4,000 scholarship from Provident and planned to major in physics at Vanderbilt.
Other athletes nominated for the award included classmate Jim Cooley of Baylor, Gene Coppinger of Rossville, Chip Criswell of Hixson, Derrick Eaton of Central, Robert Fisher of McCallie, Yvonne Hullander of Ooltewah, David Jordan of Red Bank, George Odell of Soddy Daisy, Bill Rhyne of LaFayette, Wandell Richardson of Howard, Donald Sewell of City, Tess Stoker of Chattanooga Valley, David Tolley of Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe, Marty Walker III of Bradley Central and Jim Young Jr. of Dalton.
Two of the nominees – Hullander and Stoker - were females in a day when girls’ sports in high school were just starting to receive attention for the most part.
After Coach Bowden had become much more of a celebrity and had put many more winning seasons behind him, he returned briefly to Chattanooga to speak, possibly at McCallie.
He also had another local connection in that he and his wife, Ann, were married in Rising Fawn, Ga., on April 1, 1949.
The previous fall, he had enrolled at Alabama and was a freshman quarterback under former University of Chattanooga coach Harold “Red” Drew after a stellar high school career at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham.
A man who overcame being bedridden with rheumatic fever at age 13, he went on to play at Samford and coached there as a football assistant before moving on as coach of three sports at South Georgia College in Douglas from 1956-58.
He returned as head coach of Samford and later was head coach of West Virginia from 1970 until leaving after the 1975 season to become head coach at Florida State, where he had formerly been an assistant.