TALLAHASSEE -- In the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was starting his coaching career at Samford under Terry Bowden, then-FSU head coach Bobby Bowden — unaware Fisher would eventually become his successor — told him, “ ‘Whenever I’m done, I’m going to get out of town because it’s not good for the head coach to hang around,’ ” Fisher recalled Monday.
“I think it may have happened to him one time, and it wasn’t good.”
If anything, Bobby Bowden is a man of his word, and nearly 25 years later, that promise — like so many others — has been fulfilled. On Saturday, Bowden will return to Florida State for the first time since the end of his coaching career following the 2009 season.
“Well I’m looking forward to it,” Bowden said on the phone Friday. “When I left I intentionally tried to stay out of the way. You know how it is when you bring in a new coach, everybody starts comparing him with the other guy. I didn’t want to do that so I’ll be making my first appearance there. … I’m looking forward to it.”
Willie Jones Sr. also will be anticipating it as part of a group of around 300 former players who will honor Bowden in a pregame ceremony in which the iconic coach will be planting the spear at midfield.
“The significance of it all in terms of where I’m sitting at, it’s bringing a person, a living person, a human person, back to … I’m kind of choking on my words right now,” Willie Jones Sr. said, pausing momentarily to collect himself.
“The way I see it, the university is taking the necessary steps to do right in a situation that — in a lot of our eyes — wasn’t done right.”
If you were looking for an example of the impact Bowden — whose career will be celebrated Saturday before FSU plays North Carolina State on the field that bears his name — has had on the lives of his players, it would be difficult to find a better one than the Jones family.
Jones, a standout at South Dade High School in Homestead, came to Florida State in 1975 to play one season for Darrell Mudra, before Mudra was replaced by Bowden.
At the time, Jones felt betrayed by school administration and was at odds with his new coach and the virtues he expected the team to live by.
“Be disciplined, be responsible, be accountable and do things right. That’s a problem that I had when he first came, but it didn’t last long,” Jones said. “I realized he’s got something special here and then all the players began to buy into it.”
After going 5-6 in his first season in 1976, Bowden’s Seminoles went 18-5 over Jones’ junior and senior years. And the 6-4, 225-pound defensive end blossomed, getting 17 sacks and being drafted in the second round, 42nd overall, in 1979 by the Oakland Raiders. Bowden called him “the best player in the country at his position,” his senior year. He was inducted into FSU’s Hall of Fame in 1988.
“When I came here in 1976, he was one of the best players on our football team,” Bowden said. “I think he was the first draft choice of the Raiders, and he went out there and I think was their rookie of the year and just had a tremendous athletic career. And we brought him in to coach with us and he coached for us for several years and also had three or four other jobs — Central Florida might have been one of them and then he went to Temple for a while. But I thought he had a good career.”
In 1987, Jones returned to Florida State to finish his undergraduate degree and was talked into coaching — first as a volunteer, then as a graduate assistant — by his old position coach, Jim Gladden. It was Gladden, not Bowden, with whom Jones had developed a close relationship as a player.
“During that time, I was having some personal struggles, and it was a decision to make based on whether this was really going to be good for the program to bring me back,” Jones said.
But Bowden gave him a chance.
“During that time, I really got to see the man that he is, the coach that he is,” Jones said. “Because we’d sit down on many occasions when I had things that I was dealing with and he’d talk to me and he gave me good advice.
“That advice I still hold dear today.”
Said Christian Jones, Willie’s son: “That what’s he respects the most about him. He knew he could ask him for anything or to do something [for him] and he would have done it, because he was like a father to him.”
The elder Jones went on to coach for more than a decade, making stops at Alabama A&M, UCF, Temple and NFL Europe along the way. And Bowden’s door was always open to him.
“He had played pro ball, and we talked him into coming to Florida State and coaching as a grad assistant,” Bowden said, “and he came here and worked with us a couple of years and did a wonderful job.”
And Bowden’s door was always open for Jones’ other son, Willie Jr., too.
After setting a Florida high school record with 32 sacks at Miami Carol City High School in his senior year, Jones Jr., arrived in Tallahassee in 2001.
“That’s what my brother liked about him, too, he was like another father that could step in and be with him when our father was with us,” said Christian, Willie’s half-brother who is now a senior at FSU.
Said Willie Jr.: “He would always give me the opportunity just to talk with him and laugh with him and talk about my father and stuff. It felt good having that opportunity.”
Both of Jones’ sons have now gone to Florida State. Willie Jr., saw the tail end of the Bowden heyday -- playing from 2001-2005 -- while Christian (now a senior) arrived the year after Bowden retired.
“That’s where they always wanted to go,” said Jones Sr. “That’s where they wanted to go from day one.”
“I’ve known coach Bowden ever since I was a young boy when my father was coaching there,” added Willie Jr.
And that made Bowden’s departure hurt even more.
“That was hard that coach Bowden had to step down and leave,” said Willie Jr. “That’s why I went to Florida State.
“I had a chance to speak to Coach Bowden, I think it was like October of his final season,” the elder Jones said. Florida State was 2-4 at the time, everyone from fans to members of FSU’s Board of Trustees were calling for his firing. Jones dropped by Bowden’s office unexpectedly one afternoon and — as always — Bowden dropped what he was doing and invited him in.
“We talked about life and what the program was doing, what he was going through. And he told me then, ‘You know, Willie, it’s pretty rough right now.’ That he felt the push for them to not let him coach past the year. And he told me personally that, ‘I only want to coach one more year, then I’ll just get out the way. I just want to coach one more year.’
“In my eyes that wasn’t asking very much, to give a godly man, a top-notch college football coach, one of the top coaches to ever walk the face of the Earth, to give him another year.”
But Bowden cleaned out his office following a face-saving Gator Bowl win that sent him out 7-6, and he hasn’t been back since.
Bowden’s return comes at a time when Florida State resembles the program he piloted to an unprecedented 14 consecutive top-four finishes.
“Sometimes we wait to say how much we love a person until after they’re dead. But we get to enjoy this now,” the elder Jones said. “We’ll all be there to say, ‘Thanks, Coach. Thanks for what you did for me. Thanks for the impact you had on my life.’
“This is the right time to do it, this is the right time to kind of smooth over what has happened and I know Coach Bowden, he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t hold grudges and he’s going to accept it as it is.”
And the significance of it all won’t be lost on Bowden.
“It will be exciting for me because a lot of them I haven’t seen since I left,” he said. “Most of them have raised families now, have children.
“It will be good to see them again.”