Hung in Effigy
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
December 15, 2004
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It was the late fall of 1974 and Bobby Bowden was enduring daily criticism from rabid West Virginia fans and supporters. He had spent the previous spring traveling the state talking up his Mountaineer football team in order to sell tickets for the coming season.
He had an All-American wide receiver in Danny Buggs and 17 returning starters from the previous season’s 6-5 team. Many mistakenly believed this was going to be one of West Virginia’s best football teams ever.
But the problems began immediately when the team started the year with a giant belly flopper, losing its opener to Richmond, 29-25. Three weeks into the season the Mountaineers were 1-3 and by the beginning of November West Virginia was 2-6 and without its top two quarterbacks after suffering a humiliating 35-3 defeat to Boston College.
"I lost the first and second-team quarterbacks and had to start a pure freshman who wasn't even close to being ready (Dan Kendra)," said Bowden.
Just two weeks prior to the BC loss West Virginia University President James G. Harlow publicly supported Bowden after his team dropped a disappointing 21-20 decision to Miami.
“Bobby Bowden is a very good coach … the winningest coach in the last 50 years of WVU football,” Harlow said. “He has earned my respect and full support and I think he has earned the regard and devotion of every West Virginian.”
Those weren’t exactly the words being used about Bowden in the stands at Mountaineer Field and in the MountainLair parking garage just up the street from the stadium. There was a simmering discord with Bowden among many WVU faithful that dated all the way back to his first season in 1970.
WVU Athletic Director Red Brown had gotten into a pattern of hiring young, up-and-coming assistant coaches to lead his two major programs. In 1966, Brown named Jim Carlen to coach the football team and that very same year he hired Duke assistant Bucky Waters to coach the basketball team.
In both instances they left for better jobs within five years.
When Carlen left for Texas Tech, Brown once again went for an assistant when he hired Bowden to coach the team just days after West Virginia won the 1969 Peach Bowl. Four years earlier, Carlen didn’t know Bowden that well when he hired him away from Florida State in 1966 to coordinate his offense. Carlen was simply looking for an innovative and offensive-minded coach.
“I needed to find someone who knows the throwing game,” Carlen once recalled.
Bowden, living his entire life in the south, was in for a big culture shock when he came to West Virginia.
“My coaching had been living in Alabama for 30 years, living in Georgia for four years and living in Florida for three years. That was my life,” Bowden said. “Then all of the sudden I go to West Virginia, which is probably a thousand miles from here at least and West Virginia is not south. I think we were 50 miles south of Pittsburgh and we were eight miles south of the Pennsylvania state line.”
Bowden also realized immediately that being a head coach was a lot different than being an assistant. “The biggest challenge when an assistant coach becomes a head coach is all of the sudden he gets blamed for everything,” Bowden said. “All the responsibility falls back on him. If the defensive line fails it’s the head coach. If the offensive line fails it’s the head coach. If the quarterback fails it’s the head coach. Therefore criticism is going to jump up.”
Bowden had added pressure coming from the boastful Carlen, who spent the summer of 1970 talking to Texas reporters about what a terrific team he was leaving at West Virginia.
But things got off to a good start for Bobby. WVU won its first four games including a 16-10 triumph over Indiana. Then the Mountaineers curiously lost a 21-13 decision to Duke on homecoming. Even more curious was Bowden’s decision during the game to punt on Duke’s 34 yard line instead of going for it on fourth down. To make matters worse, West Virginia’s punter put the football several rows up into the stands instead of aiming for the coffin corner.
“That was bad,” recalled Bowden a few weeks ago.
The whispers about Bobby Bowden’s command of the football team turned into downright hysteria the following week when West Virginia blew a 35-8 halftime lead at rival Pitt and lost the game 36-35. Afterward, Bowden was forced to keep his team in the locker room as irate fans began forming outside. “Our fans mobbed my dressing room door after the game. I couldn’t come out,” Bowden remembered. “They’d probably lynch me.”
Bowden was able to overcome the loss to Pitt and finish the season with an 8-3 record but many questions remained. Former Charleston Daily Mail Sports Editor Bill Smith, a staunch Bowden supporter, was approached by a fan after the season and asked about Bowden’s coaching qualifications.
“You covered all of West Virginia’s football games. Tell me the truth. What kind of football coach do you think Bobby Bowden is?” he asked.
Smith conceded that “boo-boos” were made by Bowden in 1970. He wrote: “Boo-boos can be attributed to poor judgment and sometimes just plain bad breaks.”
“He was a gambler at some things and he would go for it,” recalled WVU associate athletic director Garrett Ford, then an assistant for Bowden.
Two years later, more complaining surfaced after Bowden’s 1972 team was embarrassed by North Carolina State 49-13 in the Peach Bowl. Some fans and supporters accused him of running a loose ship with many of his players breaking curfew and running wild in Atlanta.
Bowden was compelled to issue a cryptic statement a few days following the loss: “This might sound crazy,” he began, “but I’m glad West Virginians are mad at the way we performed in the Peach Bowl. For 14,000 people to drive 300 miles or more and be humiliated would infuriate anyone.
“I do wish our fans could accept the cold flat fact that we got our tails whipped by an excellent opponent and not try to go around and find behind-the-scenes reasons why we lost,” he continued. “I can assure you my preparations and the squad restrictions were the same as the other bowl participants.
“I can assure you long hair, mustaches, dress apparel or training rules in Atlanta didn’t lose the game for us,” he added.
More criticism followed in 1973 after his team lost 25-13 to Boston College to bring West Virginia’s record to 4-5.
Wrote Wheeling Intelligencer’s Doug Huff: “The name of the game, a well-known college coach once opined, is blocking and tackling. Struggling West Virginia U. did little of either last Saturday afternoon in a 25-13 setback to Boston College which brought the Mountaineers back down to earth following an upset victory over Miami, Fla., the previous week and refueled ammunition for get-rid-of-the-coach followers.”
Huff went on to list week-to-week inconsistency, poor strategy and recruiting, and a general disenchantment from donors among the most prevailing thoughts concerning Bowden.
Yet another irritant to West Virginia supporters was Florida State’s seemingly annual flirtation with Bowden to return to the place he worked as an assistant under Bill Peterson in the mid 1960s. It was no secret that Bowden detested the cold weather of the north and professed his preference for returning to the south where he was raised.
Rumors circulated that Bowden was on Florida State’s short list in 1971 when Larry Jones got the job and once again in early 1974 when Darrell Mudra was hired. Dr. Leland Byrd, WVU athletic director at the time, was never privy to Florida State’s pursuit of Bowden if they were in fact doing so.
Donnie Young, a West Virginia native and an assistant on Bowden’s staff, says Bowden never mentioned having discussions with Florida State any time during that period. Bowden was able to sidestep the Florida State issue and always said he was content at West Virginia and felt a loyalty to the school.
But that changed in 1974. The climax came when some students hung a sheet outside their dormitory window that read “Bye-bye Bobby.”
“It was right across the street from my office,” Bowden said. “I couldn’t ever forget that. I saw it many times. I had gotten used to it and I thought it was part of the scenery.”
“It was ugly,” admitted Ford. “I was too young to realize how bad it was because I was just happy to have a job. But when you look back it was ugly. When you went to the supermarket people didn’t talk to you. We all got it. The only people we had was us.”
“You drive to work and there would be signs on the poles. You’d go to the stadium and across the top was an area on the back wall and they’d have written on there ‘Bowden Must Go,’” said Young. “We would have to go take those off.”
There was also a “For Sale” sign placed in his yard that his wife Ann discreetly removed. Both Byrd and Harlow made public statements supporting Bowden after the season.
“He had the support from the administration from the president on down,” recalled Byrd, who believes a lot of the discontent emanated from the students. “I don’t know why (the students disliked Bowden)? And of course you always have a few disgruntled alumni but you have that even now.”
Bowden made up his mind then that if another coaching opportunity came up he would seriously consider it.
“What I did in ’74 was I saw how quick people will turn on you. I saw how quickly my friends would turn on you. How quickly people who used to invite me to their parties quit inviting me,” he said. “I remember saying to Ann, 'If you and I ever get a chance to leave here, and not that we are, but we have every right in the world to because people are fickle and this is a fickle profession.’”
The opportunity came the following year when Bowden surprised everyone in the Mountain State by taking a young and inexperienced team and winning eight regular season games. A 17-14 victory over Pitt on the game’s final play remains one of the finest victories in school history and one of Bowden’s proudest achievements as Mountaineer coach.
“A lot of times Florida writers will ask me to tell them what my favorite games of my life have been and I always mention the West Virginia-Pitt game of 1975,” he said. “That was one of the most exciting games.”
The climax of the 1975 season came in the Peach Bowl when Bowden redeemed himself by upsetting North Carolina State 13-10. It was the very same team and coach (Lou Holtz) that had embarrassed him in 1972 and proved to be a fitting end for his West Virginia coaching career.
“He came to me after the Peach Bowl and said that Florida State had contacted him and would like permission for him to go down and talk to them,” Byrd said.
Bowden accepted Florida State’s offer and took over the program in 1976. Two national titles and 277 victories later, Bowden is today considered one of the game’s best-ever coaches.
His six-year record of 42-26 at West Virginia includes two bowl-game appearances. In addition to beating Pitt and North Carolina State in 1975, Bowden also had fine wins over Maryland in 1973 when Danny Buggs returned a punt for a touchdown on the game’s final play, and a pair of victories in 1975 over Pac-8 champion Cal and SMU.
Bowden worked under inadequate conditions at West Virginia although a new stadium was already being planned when he left for Florida State. Bowden’s successor Frank Cignetti lost 27 of 44 games during a four-year period from 1976-79 before Don Nehlen eventually stabilized the program in the 1980s.
Cignetti was criticized some by the fans but that was tempered because he was suffering from cancer that he was eventually able to beat. Nehlen, a man who stayed at West Virginia for 20 years and led the school to undefeated regular seasons in 1988 and 1993, was later subjugated to outright cruelness when some fans flew a banner over the stadium wanting him fired.
Others brought signs to the game asking for Frank Cignetti and Terry Bowden to ‘Call Collect,’ or they constructed elaborate ‘Up-the-Middle-Meters’ to chart Nehlen’s running plays. Even current Coach Rich Rodriguez hasn’t been immune to criticism.
“That’s just fans,” Ford signed. “I don’t think our fans are worse than anywhere else.”
“With Don it may have happened a couple of times but with Bobby it happened just about every day in 1974,” remembered Young.
It’s impossible to think that Bowden wouldn’t have had similar success as Nehlen and now Rodriguez had he stayed at WVU. Would he have become the winningest coach in NCAA history had he remained? Who knows?
But Bowden admitted he did consider the prospect of continuing past the 1975 season and trying to build West Virginia into a national football power.
“There is a very high possibility I might not (have left),” he said. “The reason is I’ve always tried to be a very loyal person.”
In addition to the cold northern climate, Bowden’s other big concern was the state’s practice of issuing one-year contract to its coaches.
“You go out there and try and coach knowing you only have one year and it’s shaky,” he said. “After we won that Peach Bowl they were willing to try and change that thing and I think they did for Don Nehlen.”
Byrd says the practice of having one-year contracts for coaches was eventually changed when the school hired basketball coach Gale Catlett in 1978.
Bowden had one opportunity to coach against his former employer in the 1982 Gator Bowl and his Seminole team defeated the Mountaineers, 31-12. He gets another chance in the 2005 Gator Bowl. Bowden says time has healed most of the wounds.
“I can honestly say that I did enjoy my 10 years at West Virginia,” he said. “Ann and I both did. We loved the beautiful mountains. We loved the state, we loved the people and we loved the university. The only thing was I think I need to apologize to the people of West Virginia for some of the mistakes that I made that I shouldn’t have made and I learned not to make.”
Of course, the one mistake Bobby Bowden didn’t make was staying at one place too long.