Unless the NCAA decides to have a change of heart, Bobby Bowden is now the winningest coach in FBS history following the announcement last Monday morning that 112 victories have been removed from Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s record.
This isn’t the first time something beyond Bowden’s control has come into play to impact his career. Bowden is a man of great faith, and he is convinced that providence intervened twice to keep him from taking jobs that eventually led to the deaths of two different football coaches.
The first instance came in 1969 when Marshall athletic director Eddie Barrett camped out in Bowden’s Morgantown home and spent the entire day trying to convince him to coach the Thundering Herd. Although Bowden was anxious to become a head football coach, he didn’t believe the timing was right for the Marshall job so he turned down Barrett’s offer. As we know, a year later, in 1970, all 75 people aboard Marshall’s charter flight perished in a tragic plane crash as the team was returning from its game at East Carolina. Had Bowden taken the Marshall job in 1969 he would have been on that plane.
A decade later, in 1979, Bowden again turned down a job offer that could have put him in the same small airplane that LSU coach Bo Rein was riding when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean during Rein's recruiting trip to Shreveport, La. Yet again, Bowden didn’t think the timing was right to take the LSU job - two instances when he believed divinity had played a key role in the direction of his life.
Well, I’ve got another instance of divine intervention that occurred during Bowden’s career that the 82-year-old coach may or may not recall. It happened in his fifth season at West Virginia when it looked like his coaching tenure in Morgantown was about to expire.
Bowden’s first five years at WVU were marked by heightening expectations and fantastic failures. His first team in 1970 made Sport Illustrated’s preseason Top 20 – the first time that magazine had ever mentioned West Virginia in its preseason football poll – but Bowden’s rookie year didn’t go according to plan, his team losing three games and failing to reach a bowl game.
And Bowden’s coaching mistakes directly led to losses against Duke and Pitt, leaving WVU supporters wondering if he was really capable of running the program. Criticism only magnified in ensuing years when his teams either faded down the stretch or were blown out in big games against Pitt and Penn State - that along with an embarrassing blowout defeat against NC State in the 1972 Peach Bowl after which many fans could be seen with “Fire Bowden” signs in the back of their car windows on the return trip from Atlanta.
By 1974, time was running out on Bowden. Despite having 17 starters returning, West Virginia lost the season opener against Richmond and also fell to Tulane, Pitt, Miami, Penn State, Boston College and Temple.
As the team headed to Blacksburg, Va., to face Virginia Tech to conclude the ’74 season, it was looking more likely that Bowden was going to be fired, despite public endorsements from Bowden’s athletic director Dr. Leland Byrd and University president James G. Harlow.
Various alumni groups from the southern part of the state were threatening to withhold support unless a coaching change was made, and two prominent newsmen, Roanoke sports editor Bill Brill and WCHS-TV sports anchor Wade Utay, were reporting that Bowden was going to get the ax.
That was where Bowden stood before the game. During it, the vitriol only amplified when it looked like his team was going to blow yet another game it should have won.
Through three quarters of play, all West Virginia had to show on the scoreboard was 14 points on two long plays by defensive back Marcus Mauney [interception return] and running back Artie Owens [touchdown run].
With 6:29 left in the game, Tech’s Roscoe Coles gave the Hokies a 21-14 lead on a 2-yard touchdown run, but WVU freshman quarterback Dan Kendra responded with a 63-yard drive that got the Mountaineers back into the end zone with just 1:28 showing on the clock. Then, Kendra’s two-point pass to Marshall Mills gave the Mountaineers a 22-21 lead.
On Tech’s ensuing possession, the Hokies quickly drove the length of the field, most of the yardage coming on penalties called against the Mountaineers [a total of 45 yards were marched off, including 15 yards assessed on Bowden after he bitterly complained about the first two calls].
When the penalty yardage was walked off, the Hokies had the football at the West Virginia 11-yard line with only 15 seconds remaining.
Out trotted kicker Hokie Wayne Latimer to put the final nail in Bowden’s coffin. And Latimer was no slouch, either. He still ranks 20th all-time in scoring [seventh among kickers] at Virginia Tech and he once booted a 61-yard field goal to win a game for the Hokies in 1975.
Latimer’s first try at sealing Bowden’s WVU coaching fate was blocked by Mountaineer defensive back Charlie Miller. However, once again the refs intervened by whistling a dead ball foul on Tech. The football was moved back five yards to the 17, giving Latimer a much better angle to kick the winning field goal.
Making it was a cinch, just like Arnold Palmer sealing the deal in the 1966 U.S. Open, right?
Well, once more in Bowden’s life, providence intervened. Latimer’s chip-shot field goal attempt veered off to the left and the Mountaineers were able to run out the remaining seconds on the clock to preserve Bowden’s fourth victory of the year. Had Bowden lost that game it is likely Byrd and Harlow could not have stopped the avalanche heading toward them and been forced to fire their football coach.
Of course as history now tells us, Bowden’s job was saved and he would go on to have an outstanding 1975 campaign, beating Pitt and then NC State in the Peach Bowl, which led to him getting the Florida State job and later becoming the all-time winningest coach in FBS history.
If not for a couple instances of divine intervention, and a kicker named Wayne Latimer, the Bobby Bowden we all know today likely would have never been.
As for the curious, the team Latimer defeated with his 61-yard field goal in 1975? That’s right, Florida State, and it was Latimer’s kick that likely helped clear the path for Bowden to land the job that made him such a household name.
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