Terry Bowden, the scion of coaching legend Bobby Bowden and the former head coach at Auburn University from 1993 until 1998, has returned to the sidelines after an 11-year hiatus. He takes over the reigns at the University of North Alabama in Florence after former coach Mark Hudspeth elected to join Dan Mullen’s new staff at Mississippi State.
Since his still-mysterious departure from The Plains midway through the 1998 season, Bowden has spent most of the past 10 years either in the broadcast booth or traveling the speaker’s circuit. But all those endless hours squandered on tarmacs across the globe took their toll on the father of six. So he decided to give coaching another go.
“I looked in the mirror at age 50 and I said, ‘Gosh, I’ve given this all I’ve got and I’m still not fulfilled,’” Bowden said. “Nothing fulfilled me like working with the guys, coaching guys and being in the locker room. That was what I enjoyed so much and what I began to miss.”
He wasn’t the first to wonder whether coaching was akin to bicycling. Howard Schnellenberger won a national championship at the University of Miami in 1983, left the sidelines in 1995 and resurfaced in 2001 with the Florida Atlantic Owls. Dick Vermeil left the Philadelphia Eagles in 1982 and didn’t return to the sidelines until St. Louis hired him in 1997. He led the Rams to a Super Bowl victory in 2000.
It was Vermeil that helped convince Bowden that a return to coaching prominence was not only plausible, but probable, due in large part to Bowden working as a college football analyst for ABC Sports.
“He told me that I was probably a better coach now than then,” Bowden said. “It’s like a sabbatical, like when the lawyer goes back to Harvard and teaches for 10 years and he comes back and is a great trial lawyer after that.”
In most ways, UNA is light years away from Auburn. The Lions compete in Division II, the second balcony above the floorshow that is major college football. Florence, although comparable in size with Auburn, isn’t a location likely to host the traveling circus that is ESPN College GameDay any time soon. Braly Municipal Stadium, where the Lions host their home games, seats roughly 73,000 fewer fans than Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But UNA, in terms of wins and losses, has outperformed every other college football team in the state of Alabama since 1990. In that time, the Lions have complied a 160-65-1 record and won three Division II national championships. In 2008, UNA was one win away from playing for their fourth national title, but lost in the semifinal round to Northwest Missouri State.
Coaching small schools is nothing new for Bowden, but coaching small schools with winning traditions is uncharted territory. His first gig was in 1983 at tiny Salem College in West Virginia, where the football team posted a 0-9-1 record in the season prior to Bowden’s arrival. After two years under Bowden’s tenure, the Tigers earned a conference championship.
The young coach left his home state in 1987 to coach at Samford University, another struggling outfit making their first foray into Division I-AA competition. In six seasons coaching the Bulldogs, Bowden managed a 45-23-1 record and two playoff appearances. His penchant for turning around struggling teams landed him the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to replace the legendary Pat Dye as the new head coach at Auburn in 1993.
Bowden made the most of his first season with the Tigers, finishing with an 11-0 record and all but sweeping the national coach of the year awards. Auburn would have likely competed for a national title that season had it not been for an NCAA-imposed post-season ban stemming from an earlier probation episode.
Bowden’s next four seasons in Auburn were successful, but well short of the undefeated success he had enjoyed in 1993. The Tigers compiled a 35-12-1 record, won two bowl games and fell just shy of winning an SEC title in 1997. But in 1998, after losing five of his first six games, Bowden was fired (or, if you believe the university’s account, resigned) abruptly. A mere 3,722 days later, UNA came calling.
Of course the question remains as to why Bowden, a past recipient of the Bear Bryant National Coach of the Year trophy, would settle for a Division II school like UNA?
“Why UNA?” Bowden asked himself rhetorically. “Because they were the first one to call!”
“I’ve been out 10 years! I don’t think I can name one coach in Division 1 history that’s ever been out 10 years and been rehired in Division 1. But I spent a bunch of years coaching small college ball. I know about that. I know about partial scholarships, I know small college recruiting in Alabama. It became the perfect opportunity for me to be a head coach again.”
Dick Vermeil’s advice aside, Bowden was concerned that such a long gap between coaching gigs might have allowed the game to pass him by. He decided to stage his own coaching training camp. Fortunately at the time, both his father Bobby and his brother Tommy were gainfully employed at major Division I programs, Florida State and Clemson, respectively.
“I spent a month at Florida State and went to every meeting and every practice,” Bowden said. “It came out that I was supposedly helping them, but I wasn’t. I was just taking notes and studying.
“I went to Clemson for two weeks, and did nothing but sit in every meeting and go to every practice. I wanted to get back into the routine, to see if the terminology had changed, to see anything that might have been different from my routine.”
UNA fans hope that Bowden’s prolific note taking includes a chapter on coping with roster attrition, as the Lions’ 2009 roster will be sans 23 seniors. Gone is starting quarterback A.J. Milwee, as well as the top two rushers and the top five wide receivers. Milwee, a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist, had compiled a 32-5 record as a three-year starter.
“Those seniors had been through four years of playoffs and built this team up, so whether we can get to the national championship in the first year, that’s a great challenge,” Bowden said. “We may not win 13 in the first year, but I believe we can win a national championship here. They want to, they believe they can. I came here because I’ve never won a national championship and I want to be a part of that.”
For Bowden, returning to the sidelines is hardly an effort to avenge his final tumultuous year at Auburn. Nor is it an attempt to somehow establish his brand in college football (already done). No, for all the armchair analysts, Monday morning quarterbacks and persistent columnists pondering the question of why Terry Bowden is today the head coach of a Division II football team in Florence, Ala., the answer is simple. It’s because he wanted to.
“You can call it the 50-year-old crisis or whatever,” Bowden said. “I just starting thinking: ‘What is it I want to do with my life?’ That’s when I started to say I wanted to get back into coaching football. I can make a lot of money doing other things, but I want to go coach football.”