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.”