THE TELEVISION SET WAS ON THE OTHER DAY IN the family room at the
Tallahassee home of Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Of course it
was turned to a football game. Bobby wasn't around; hip-deep in his
quest for a national championship, he was off tending to his
Seminoles. But his son Terry, the Auburn coach, was there; hip-deep
in adulation after the Tigers' undefeated season, he was ensconced
before the TV screen like a visiting potentate, watching others play
the game he and his team dominated this fall.
Ironically, Terry has come shockingly close to winning the
national title that has so far eluded his father. Terry went 11-0 in
his first year as coach of a major-college program, a feat
unprecedented in NCAA history. Auburn almost surely won't be named
the national champion, however, because probation for a number of
NCAA rules violations will prevent the Tigers from proving themselves
in a bowl game on New Year's Day.
''Are we the best team in the country?'' Bowden says. ''I dunno.''
Still, in a season in which a lot of teams -- Nebraska, West
Virginia, Florida State, Notre Dame -- might be the best but none
has established it conclusively, Auburn can lay as legitimate a claim
to the No. 1 ranking as any other pretender. And what if Nebraska and
West Virginia, the only other major undefeated teams, lose in bowls?
Auburn alone would be unbeaten, with significant notches in its belt
from having played in perhaps the nation's toughest conference.
Yet Bowden is disarmingly candid about his Tigers and what they
accomplished. He acts as if he would be downright frightened to play
a team like, say, Florida State. But if he had to, he says, his
strategy would be to ''kidnap Charlie Ward or sneak into ((my
father's)) house and steal the game plans.'' Asked what might happen
if Auburn had to play the 1993 season over again, Bowden replies
immediately, ''We wouldn't win as many as we did.'' Indeed, the
Tigers' games with Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama were
eminently losable. Bowden likes to say that Auburn's success was a
case of ''a good team playing great.'' But that's not right. It was a
case of an average team playing miraculously.
And that may be the biggest tribute of all to the fledgling genius
of Terry Wilson Bowden, 37, the younger half of the first father-son
team ever to coach football in Division I-A at the same time.
Actually, at 5 ft. 6 in. and 160 pounds, the chubby-cheeked Bowden
looks more like an overgrown jockey than a football coach. (After
this year's Alabama game, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist
Furman Bisher wrote that Bowden looked ''like a Boy Scout who'd just
Looks deceive. Already, Bowden is a giant among coaches. ''I don't
lack confidence,'' he says. ''I know who's in charge.''
By age 26, Bowden was the youngest head football coach in the
country, leading the NAIA's Salem (W.Va.) College from 1983 to '85.
Then, after a year as an assistant to Gerry Faust at Akron, Bowden
moved to Samford University in Birmingham, which was then in Division
III, and stayed five years. Bowden readily admits that if he did not
have one of the most recognizable surnames in college football, he
would not have gotten any of his jobs. But as it is, Bowden was
clearly born to coach. ''I love big-time football,'' he says of his
current job, ''and this is as big as it gets.''
How did he work such magic in his first year at Auburn?
-- He immediately embraced his beleaguered predecessor, Pat Dye,
who had to quit because of what the NCAA snoops were finding.
Bowden, hired on Dec. 17, 1992, praised Dye to the skies. Yet he
was realistic about the team Dye left him. ''I don't think we have a
great football team,'' Bowden said early this season. ''There is just
no way we have a great assortment of talent.'' Dye in turn backed him
up. ''Terry inherited a hungry football team,'' Dye would say during
the fall, ''but not the most talented.''
-- Bowden set reasonable goals. He concedes that he had hoped only
for the Tigers to be better in 1993 than they were in '92 when they
won five games. But he didn't think they'd be a lot better. ''I was
hoping 6-5,'' he admits. ''I just didn't realize we could be this
-- He greatly simplified the offense. Bowden insists, in fact,
that he made it even simpler than the offense he ran at Samford in
1992, because Auburn lacked both speed and skill. The Tigers went
with six running plays and 12 passing plays. ''See,'' Bowden explains
patiently, ''it's not what you know but what you can get the players
to learn. If you set out to try to teach 'em everything you know as a
coach, you're in trouble.''
-- He immediately began praising Stan White, the beseiged senior
quarterback (page 86). Bowden pumped White up, then buffed him to a
high gloss. ''Maybe we haven't fallen off at quarterback,'' Bowden
said soon after his arrival in Auburn. ''Maybe it's just that we fell
off at a time when Stan was our quarterback. Mostly I think he has
been guilty of trying too hard to win. I don't believe Stan White can
win it all by himself this year, and I do not believe that he will be
the reason if we lose.'' In order to deflect criticism from White,
Bowden pointed out that, from the talented 1989 recruiting class that
included White, only eight of 24 players had stuck it out. And,
Bowden said, there was not one NFL first-round choice on White's
team. All this made White feel a whole lot better about himself --
and allowed him to perform better on the field.
-- Bowden insisted on hiring exactly the staff he wanted. For
example, Dye's defensive coordinator, Wayne Hall, had been a finalist
for the head job but was hampered by his alleged involvement in the
NCAA violations. Athletic director Mike Lude was not keen on
retaining Hall, but Bowden wanted him and was firm about it. Hall is
still the defensive coordinator. Then there was the sticky wicket of
Bowden's older brother Tommy, who had been offensive coordinator
under Dye. Terry promptly named himself offensive coordinator and
demoted Tommy to receivers' coach. Despite that, all is well between
them. Finally, Terry hired his brother-in-law Jack Hines to coach
the defensive backs. (When anyone asks whether Terry might have too
many relatives on the staff, he bristles. ''Absolutely not,'' he
says, ''and if I could hire Jeff, I would.'' Terry's younger brother
Jeff was once the receivers' coach at Alabama and now has the same
job at Southern Mississippi. ''I want people around me to whom
football means a lot,'' says Terry. ''It means a lot to members of my
-- Bowden made the Tigers confident again. ''The players had so
much adversity that they were doubting themselves,'' he says. ''They
no longer had faith in the truism that 'if I do the little things and
I work hard, I'm going to be successful,' because they played so hard
and they wanted to win so bad and they lost. But I'm a pretty
confident person. And I have this undying belief that things will
work out.'' The key to making his players feel the same way was
winning the season opener against Ole Miss, which had handled the
Tigers easily the previous year. But Bowden had a backup plan if the
Tigers lost: ''If we stumble,'' he said privately before the game,
''then I'm going to convince our players that it's part of the
building process.'' That speech is still on hold.
-- Bowden tolerated no excuses. Neither probation nor injuries nor
bad weather nor gloom of night would keep the Tigers from the swift
completion of their appointed rounds. ''We are going to play as good
as we can play,'' the coach said as the season began. That philosophy
held through Auburn's final win, over Alabama, on the eve of which
Bowden said, ''There is no possibility of a letdown, there is no
possibility of a lack of effort.'' This steely determination had been
thoroughly tested, since Auburn trailed its opponent in eight of its
11 games. But, as Bowden notes, ''My dad always says there is nothing
less important than a halftime score.''
-- Bowden lost only two starting players to injury, and one of
them, cornerback Otis Mounds, was gone for only the Alabama game. The
other player, safety Fred Smith, was hurt before the season started
and never played. White, of course, departed with strained ligaments
in his left knee with 6:22 left in the third quarter of the Alabama
game. ''We just worked as hard as we could with what we had,'' says
Bowden. ''I have always believed that injuries are not as frequent
when you are winning.''
-- Bowden developed what most coaches try yet fail to achieve: a
balanced attack. The Tigers rushed for 2,432 yards and passed for
2,188 -- a solid 53%- 47% split. Bowden did it with mirrors and
sleight-of-hand. He had to. The numbers don't lie. This team that
some are arguing is the best in the country ranked 15th in total
defense, 21st in rushing defense, 21st in rushing offense and 25th in
total offense. And even within the 12-team SEC, the Tigers were only
sixth in third-down conversions, seventh in turnover ratio, 10th in
sacks and 11th in fourth-down conversions. They were first in nothing
except wins. Explains Bowden, ''Football is a game played with the
heart and with the head.''
Before he graduated in 1975 from Morgantown (W.Va.) High, where he
was a first-team All State running back, Terry Bowden witnessed the
unnerving spectacle of his father's being hung in effigy by fans of
the West Virginia Mountaineers, whom Bobby coached from 1970 to '75.
Nevertheless, Terry stayed in Morgantown and went on to earn a
bachelor's degree in accounting from West Virginia with a 3.65
average, good for magna cum laude. He was even a running back on the
football team in the '77-78 season, although he never started in a
game. He did postgraduate study at Oxford University in England and
returned to earn a law degree from Florida State in 1982. It was not
a typical educational path for a football coach.
And Bowden has continued to walk where others have not. A fellow
named Paul Bryant was 5-4-1 in his first season at Alabama; starting
out at Florida State, one Bobby Bowden was 5-6. And both the Bear and
Bobby had already been head coaches at other major schools. Terry,
fresh out of the ''minors'' of college ball, is the first
major-college coach ever to go undefeated and untied his first year.
(Barry Switzer came closest when he went 10-0-1 at Oklahoma his first
season, in 1973.)
How much is Bowden appreciated by the Auburn faithful? For the
Alabama game, the usual telephone service was in operation to allow
fans, especially those outside of radio range, to hear the broadcast;
more than 59,000 people called in, blowing out the system.
Bowden is fortunate to have started off perfectly, because Dye was
not only very successful (99-39-4 over 12 years, with four SEC titles
and nine bowl appearances), but also very popular. If they had been
allowed to vote, Auburn fans would have disregarded the NCAA's
criticism of Dye's program and chosen overwhelmingly to keep Dye on.
Bowden was the classic outsider, a man who didn't know a War Eagle
from a parakeet. And that was still clearly on his mind when he
blurted out after the victory over Alabama, ''I always wondered what
it would feel like to be an Auburn man. I guess I'm one now.''
To the players, he may be even more than that. As wide receiver
Terry Bailey put it, ''I have to say that Coach Bowden is an angel
sent from God.''