Loss at Pitt still stings former coach Bowden

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, 11:06 p.m.

Bobby Bowden said he visited Pittsburgh about four years ago and was impressed by what he didn't see.

“No smoke, no factories,” he said.

The 83-year-old former football coach prefers to forget other Pittsburgh images, especially what he called “the blackest day in the history of my career.”

It had nothing to do with smog.

Speaking this week from his Tallahassee, Fla., home of 38 years, Bowden, the former Florida State and West Virginia coach, recalled the day and venue:

Oct. 17, 1970.

Pitt Stadium.

Bowden's first West Virginia team built a 35-8 halftime lead against the Panthers, and he was feeling good about himself. Until the game ended: Pitt 36, West Virginia 35.

“I learned a lot of football that day,” Bowden said, his laughter and the passage of 43 years easing the pain. “I never sat on the ball since. People accuse me of running up the score. After you get beat like that, you don't worry about what people think.”

Florida State fans think it's time Bowden reached back and touched his roots.

He won't be at Heinz Field on Monday night when Florida State plays Pitt to open the 2013 season.

But he will return for two FSU home games this year, marking his first trip to Doak Campbell Stadium since he was forced out in 2009 after 34 years as the Seminoles' head coach.

The school will honor Bowden on Oct. 26 and his 1993 national championship team on its 20th anniversary Nov. 16.

“I can't wait for him to get his due,” said his successor, Jimbo Fisher.

“When I got out of coaching, I didn't want to be around anymore,” Bowden said. “I kind of withdrew.”

“He stayed away out of respect for me,” said Fisher, who played quarterback at Salem (W.Va.) College for Bowden's son, Terry.

“He always said, ‘Whenever I retire, I am going to move out of town … because whoever my coach is, I want him to have his own room to do his own thing.' ”

Bowden jokes about not going to games.

“I'm just one of those who would rather stay home and watch on TV than fight the traffic,” he said. “Besides that, I can see each play four times.”

If Bowden had remained visible, it would have been even more difficult for fans to accept Fisher, who won 31 games the past three seasons and the 2012 ACC championship, but still is considered an underachiever by some fans.

Bowden scoffs at Fisher's critics.

“Last year, they won 12 games,” he said. “I don't call that underachieving. Not many teams win 12 games. They could end up in the top five (this season).”

In retirement, Bowden keeps busy, giving speeches, helping raise money for several causes and playing golf. He and Ann, his wife of 64 years, are traveling from Tallahassee to Orlando on Thursday to watch Terry's Akron team play Central Florida.

Bowden mostly watches college football from afar, claiming Florida State is being “underestimated” this season after the Seminoles were picked to finish second to Clemson in the ACC's Atlantic Division.

Bowden concedes he set a high standard for Fisher, finishing in the top five of the Associated Press rankings every year from 1987 to 2000 and winning national championships in 1993 and 1999 (his only undefeated season).

“When you win a national championship, they expect you to do it every year,” Bowden said.

He said his first title was “a relief.”

“Kind of like, now you all can get off my back,” he said. “The next time ('99) was more of an accomplishment. We were No. 1 in the nation from start to finish.”

Two decades earlier, Bowden robbed Pitt of a possible championship, giving the 1980 team of Dan Marino, Hugh Green and Jackie Sherrill its only loss, 36-22, in Tallahassee.

“Best team I ever lined up against in my 57 years of coaching,” he said.

With 377 victories, Bowden's name stands above every coach in the history of major college football, but the circumstances give him little joy.

He ascended to the title when the NCAA stripped Penn State's Joe Paterno — an old friend — of 111 victories.

“It's kind of like somebody said, ‘Don't bring up the rest (of the story),' ” Bowden said. “I really do feel bad for Joe. I would rather have him back with the wins.”

Yet, he admits to having a “hidden agenda,” noting he won 22 games the NCAA doesn't recognize when he was at tiny South Georgia College from 1956-58. He also lost 12 victories in 2006 and 2007 in an academic cheating scandal that touched 10 sports at Florida State.

You can imagine the twinkle in his eye as he quickly did the math and said, “Put me down for 411.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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