TALLAHASSEE - He still hums the fight song. He did at Howard College in his hometown of Birmingham. He hummed it at West Virginia. It still bounces around in his head at Florida State, which he made hum while winning more than anybody.
'I've always loved Alabama's 'Yea Alabama' fight song,' Bobby Bowden said. 'That song just goes with football.'
Bobby Bowden goes home today. For the first time as a head coach, he faces Alabama, the team of his childhood dreams, the team he once wanted to run.
He faces the savior, Nick Saban, the $4 Million Dollar Man, whose hundred-yard stare adorns the cover of the Crimson Tide media guide. Saban is the seventh Alabama coach since that day 21 years ago when Bobby Bowden pulled his name from consideration for the Alabama job. Bowden went on to legend. Alabama often went nowhere.
What would have happened if Bobby had gone to 'Bama? Would there be a Bowden Annex at the Bear Bryant shrine? Would FSU be a ghost?
'I got my Alabama scrapbook. You want to see it?'
He reached behind the desk in his office overlooking Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. It was in the cupboard where he always keeps it. The 77-year-old Bowden pulled out a fellow senior citizen.
Book Of Heroes
The scrapbook's cover is raggedy. The newspaper clippings inside have yellowed. They're glued to white sheets of paper. On the paper are ancient drawings of football players, Alabama football players, their heads too big or small, their arms and legs too short or long.
'I drew all of them,' Bowden said.
He opened the book.
'Every time the newspaper came, I'd be on it with the scissors,' Bowden said. 'You made your own paste back then. What'd we have, water and flour? I knew all the Alabama players. I memorized everything about them.'
He pointed to a photo.
'That's Vaughn Mancha, one of my heroes. He was a center, a great player. He ended up athletic director at Florida State, hired me my first time here. Old Vaughn.'
'Harry Gilmer,' Bowden said, pointing at another face. 'Harry was a guy raised in my neighborhood in Birmingham. Harry was a hero.'
He saved these scraps all these years.
'The boy in ya never leaves,' Bowden said.
Bear Bryant returned to coach his alma mater because, as he famously put it, 'Mama called.' Bowden thought someone higher was calling.
'For the longest time, I thought God was leading me back to old Alabama.'
In 1959, after his first season coaching alma mater Howard (now Samford University), Bowden wrote Bryant for a job. They knew each other some.
'I'll never forget what he wrote me back,' Bowden said. 'Howard College was a Baptist school back then. Well, Bear wrote and said, 'I'm not going to hire you because I'd have every Baptist in Alabama mad at me.' That was his nice way of saying no.'
When 'Bama Called
Bowden thought God was leading him back when Alabama phoned in 1986. He was ending his 11th season at FSU, but still thought it a steppingstone.
'The Alabama school president wanted to interview me for the job. I told him only if I was getting an offer. We were at the All-American Bowl in Birmingham. We had a secret meeting. I thought it'd be me, him, maybe a few trustees, get it wrapped up.
'I go in, but there's a room of people. You got players. You got ladies. I realize they're here to interview me. After, this president says, 'I'll get in touch with ya later.' I thought 'Uh-oh,' get my name out of this. That's what I did. Bill Curry got the job.'
What if Bobby had gone home?
Howard Schnellenberger played for Bear Bryant at Kentucky and coached for him at Alabama. Howard made Miami a champion.
'Bobby might have had a chance,' said Schnellenberger, currently at Florida Atlantic. 'But Bear's shadow is a hundred years long. And the thing is, I don't know who but Bobby could have done what he did for Florida State.'
And there was 1990.
Back to Bobby ...
'Four years later, Curry leaves. Hootie Ingram is athletic director at Alabama. Hootie asks me to come to Alabama. I thought about it for about an hour. It was too late. I was 62.'
And Florida State was Florida State.
'Guess God knew better.'
'This Is Mine'
Gene Stallings got the job that time and won a championship in 1992. But Alabama didn't stay in the clouds. The Tide has that single title since Bear died a quarter century ago. Bowden's FSU teams have won two, played in three other title games and been a win away four other times.
They'd have liked that in Tuscaloosa. Things got so bad that Mike Price didn't even coach a game, lasting just long enough to scream 'Roll Tide!' in a strip club.
'I might have lasted longer than him,' Bowden said, eyes twinkling.
'Maybe I wouldn't have been successful, maybe I would have. I always thought Alabama was a job so good you really have to mess it up.'
He thought again.
'That will always be Bear Bryant's over in Tuscaloosa. Ain't nobody ever going to touch that.'
Bowden looked out his office windows.
'That's his over there. This is mine.'
Yea Florida State.
Bobby Bowden began to put away his Alabama scrapbook. He lingered on Vaughn Mancha's photo, old Vaughn.
The boy in ya never leaves.