Former BGA coach reflects on 67-year friendship with Bowden

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 12:44am
Ralph Brown and Bobby Bowden

The shock of legendary coach Bobby Bowden’s forced departure at Florida State is being felt in Brentwood.

One person particularly disappointed to see Bowden’s tenure end is Brentwood’s Ralph Brown, a life-long friend of the Hall of Fame FSU football coach — one who attended the same high school and ran around in many of the same football circles as they continued their careers.

“Bobby and I have been friends for 67 years,’’ Brown said, after learning of Bowden’s departure from the Seminoles. “He’s just old-school — one of the most down to earth persons you’d ever want to meet.’’

Brown, too, has an impressive coaching record, most notably as a head football coach at Battle Ground Academy (1959-61). His 11-0 1960 team won the mythical state championship and BGA won two Clinic Bowls (1960-61).

He went on to be an assistant coach at Vanderbilt in 1962.

Brown then went into the insurance business after getting a call from Herschel Greer. He remains in the business and, at age 79, still works in his Brentwood office.

Bowden obviously stayed in the coaching business. His credentials are well known and extraordinary. But his legacy may have been kick-started with a little help from his pal, Brown.

After Bowden coached a few years at Samford (1959-62), he became offensive coordinator at West Virginia where he eventually became head coach (1970-75).

“An interesting side note to all this is that West Virginia called me in 1964 to interview to be offensive coordinator,’’ said Brown. “I was certain I had the job if I wanted it.

“It was intriguing, but I was settled in my job. Shortly later, Bobby got the job as offensive coordinator, and he went on to become head coach.’’

Lasting friendship

While Brown is slightly younger than Bowden, who turned 80 last month, the two went to high school together at Birmingham’s Woodlawn High and played on the high school team. They played YMCA football against each other in Birmingham.

“When we were freshmen, we were in the band and, and we both played trombone. He played one spot in front of me, and he’s always reminded me that he was lead trombone, ahead of me,’’ Brown, said, laughing.

In 1976, Bowden was definitely lead trombone when he got the Florida State job where he’s been for 34 years.

During his tenure his teams won two consensus national championships (1993 and 1999). He has 388 wins (second all-time in DI), 25 straight bowl appearances, 20 bowl wins and two Heisman Trophy winners, Charlie Ward (1993) and Chris Weinke (2000).

And he is the only coach in NCAA Division I history to win at least 10 games in 14 consecutive seasons (1987-2000). FSU also had 14 straight finishes in the AP Top Five.

Even with the workload and the commitment to FSU, Bowden and Brown have remained loyal friends throughout. In 1996, Brown invited Bowden up to Nashville to be guest speaker at an FCA banquet where he introduced Bowden.

“Ralph and I have been close friends for 67 years,’’ Bowden said. “There’s no telling how well he might have done in college coaching if he chosen to stay in the profession.

“He has always exemplified true Christian principles and an outstanding spirit,’’ he said.

Recruiting was a specialty

The friends have corresponded frequently over the years, as Brown noted, pulling out a stack of Bowden’s letters to him on FSU stationary — notes that serve as a sort of chronology of his coaching career.

Early on, Bowden’s FSU teams played a murderous schedule after once being an all women’s college.

“Bobby didn’t duck anybody, they went on the road a lot and played some national powerhouses,’’ Brown said. “They took some lumps early but they managed to win a few of those games.

“In 1989, they were playing at LSU, and he told me to come down for the game. When he saw me, he motioned me onto the field. He started talking about their 0-2 start and how LSU wasn’t the ideal place to try and win your first game.

“He mentioned they had lost to Clemson, a game he says they should have won. Then they then lost to Southern Miss, saying ‘they just kicked our butts,’ ’’ Brown said.

“Bobby added that Southern Miss team had a pretty good quarterback, whom he thought people might soon be hearing about — a guy named Brett Favre,’’ Brown said.

“FSU won the LSU game and they went on to win out the rest of the year,’’ he said.

“Recruiting was one of his specialties,’’ Brown said, recalling a visit to the home of a top recruit, Derrick Brooks.

“As he was sitting there with Derrick’s mother, Bobby was holding Derrick’s younger sister. She eventually fell asleep in his arms. Bowden told his mother, ‘This is how I’m going to take care of your son.’ Brooks eventually signed and became an All-American,’’ Brown said.

Still, not all his recruiting stories were that rosy.

“He had Randy Moss signed and on campus [but] he was on probation because of some transgressions in high school and then red-shirted,’’ Brown said. “After his freshman year, he failed a drug test, and FSU couldn’t take him back because of the probation, and he wound up at Marshall. He said the team would have been unbelievably good with Randy and the other receivers he had.’’

“Bobby once told me that in recruiting at this level, out of 10 highly prized recruits you sign, about three are going to be prima donnas,’’ he said. “That’s something he had to deal with.’’

Nashville connections

Other than Brown, Bowden has two other Nashville connections.

For one, after attending Alabama his freshman year, then graduating from Howard College (now Samford) in 1953, he earned his graduate degree at Peabody College in Nashville.

Secondly, FSU and Bowden played a game here — only once — losing to Kentucky 35-28 in the 2006 Music City Bowl. Brown, of course, was there cheering on his pal.

Brown reached Bowden by phone last week and the two talked about many things, including Bowden’s final year at FSU, a departure that upsets Brown a bit.

“I feel really sorry for the way this all went down,” Brown said. “Bobby certainly didn’t want to quit.’’

At least, Bowden will go out the way he wanted. He requested his final game be in the state of Florida, and the Gator Bowl obliged for the New Year’s game. The bowl was able to match FSU up against West Virginia, the place he was head coach for six years before FSU.

The Gator Bowl passed over Boston College, Clemson and Miami to get FSU. It sold out the 77,474-seat stadium in two hours last week, the earliest sellout in the bowl’s history.

“Bobby has affected the lives of hundreds of people in such a positive, classy way,’’ Brown said. “He’s one of those people that they used to say ‘he’s made up right.’

“He’s remained the same all through the years, the same down to earth guy,’’ he added. “If you were in a war, you’d want him in the same foxhole with you.’’

It’s an admiration statement for two-thirds of a century of friendship.


2 Comments on this post:

By: frank brown on 12/15/09 at 10:20

Now, that was a story worth reading!

By: dpcham on 12/15/09 at 4:55

Funny how some things stick with you throughout life. In 1960 Ralph Brown was my freshman math teacher at BGA. The first class we had he asked us what year the school was founded. We all looked at each other in vain for no one had a clue, after everybody drew a complete blank he told us that we should know the answer for it was on the sign in front of the campus that we all passed everyday. I've never forgotten that day and question almost 45 years later. The answer, 1889.