At the onset of the 1980s, Bobby Bowden was one of the hottest young coaches in the country. At every head coaching stop — Birmingham's Howard College (now Samford), West Virginia and Florida State — he had transformed moribund programs into winners. The rest of college football had taken notice.
According to Bowden, he took the Florida State job in 1976 with the intention of moving on to a better program after a few seasons. There wasn't a lot of reason to expect the Seminoles would become a college football powerhouse under his watch. There were exactly four wins over the three season prior to Bowden's arrival in Tallahasse. But, in his second season, the team went 10-2, beat Florida for the first time in a decade and won a bowl game. And suddenly Bowden's was the hottest name in coaching.
One of the first teams to come calling was LSU in 1979. Head coach Charles McClendon (better known as "Cholly Mac") was on the way out after 18 seasons in Baton Rouge. The Tiger brain trust were tired of watching Alabama's success under Paul W. Bryant and decided McClendon would never break through to the championships they felt the deserved. Athletic director Paul Dietzel, who led the Tigers to a national championship in 1959, thought Bowden was that man. Bowden later admitted he was tempted and had decided that he'd accept the offer if LSU beat his Seminoles on Oct. 27 of that year. They won and he stayed in Tallahasse.
A year later, in December 1980, Auburn approached Bowden about replacing the dismissed Doug Barfield. Bowden said he couldn't consider the offer with the Seminoles preparing to face Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and recommended Pat Dye who was then the head coach at Wyoming. The fact Bowden had just signed a five-year contract extension and would owe Florida State $750,000 probably had something to do with it too.
Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, an era of Alabama football was coming to a close although few realized it at the time. Bryant had been in charge of the program for more than two decades when he lead the Crimson Tide to national championships in 1978 and 1979 and the good times seemed likely to carry on through 1980. But on Nov. 1 Alabama lost to Mississippi State 6-3 and the decline had begun.
The Tide finished the 1981 with a mediocre 9-2-1 record and in 1982 Alabama fell to an ugly 8-4. On Dec. 15, Bryant announced his retirement. He would coach the team he lead for a quarter century one more time, a victory over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. Less than a month later, Bryant died on Jan. 26, 1983.
Former Alabama player Ray Perkins was tapped as the next coach of the Crimson Tide and his time at the Capstone would prove to be contentious. He racked up a 32-15-1 record over four years which included the first losing season for the Tide since 1957 — the season before Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa.
On Dec. 31, 1986, Perkins resigned from Alabama to take the head coach position with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Just by chance, Bobby Bowden was in town.
Growing up in Birmingham, Bowden listened to Alabama football games on the radio and was a devoted fan. His dream growing up was to play and coach the Crimson Tide. He actually accomplished the first. After graduating from high school in January 1949, Bowden enrolled at Alabama and practiced with the freshman football team that spring. But, after one semester in Tuscaloosa, Bowden married his high-school sweetheart, Julia Ann Estock, and returned to Birmingham.
He attended Howard College, played on the football team and then was head coach there from 1959 to 1962.
By the mid-1980s, Bowden was entrenched at Florida State. Bowl games and double-digit win seasons were the expectation in Tallahassee. The 1986 season had been a bit of a disappointment with FSU managing a 7-3-1 record but the Seminoles were invited to play in the All-American Bowl against Indiana... in Birmingham.
After downing the Hoosier 27-13 on New Year's Day, Bowden was asked how long he would consider if offered the Alabama job. "Like that," he said, snapping his fingers.
And Bowden's name was definitely linked to the job, along with Howard Schnellenberger, Gene Stallings, Danny Ford and Jackie Sherrill. University of Alabama President Joab Thomas formed a search committee which he chaired and the search began in earnest. Bowden was contacted by several people associated with the program asking if he would take the job. He said he would talk to Thomas if a job was in the offing but he had no interest in interviewing for the position.
Gaylon McCollough, a former player under Bryant, acted as a liaison between the candidates for the Alabama job and the committee. McCollough, following Perkins suggestion, recommended Georgia Tech's Bill Curry for the job and also reached out to Bowden. McCollough later claimed the invitation was for an interview only. Bowden clearly thought otherwise.
When Bowden entered the third-floor conference room of Birmingham's Medical Towers building (which housed the UA System Chancellor's office) he was surprised to see more than a dozen people there. It was an interview. And, for more than an hour, the group questioned Bowden about his process and goals. Then, when the questions ended, Thomas told Bowden, "Thank you for coming, Bobby." There was no job offer.
"I left," Bowden later wrote. "And the the only thing I could think was, They didn't offer me the dadgum job!"
Bowden said Thomas called him a few hours after he returned to Tallahassee that night to tell him that Alabama had decided to hire Bill Curry." That came as a surprise to quite a few folks in Tuscaloosa where the perception on the Alabama side was that Bowden's hiring was a done deal.
"I went to bed just thrilled," said UA sports information director Wayne Atcheson. "The next morning the first news I heard was that Bobby Bowden had withdrawn his name and Bill Curry would be our coach."
McCollough later suggested that concerns that Bowden would not be able to coach black athletes was a factor for the decision. Bowden pointed out that he had already coached black players at West Virginia. McCollough also criticized Bowden for lacking a "plan" to help players become good students and productive citizens.
Bowden said he was heartbroken but the decision had been made. For a time, anyway.
Curry's time in Tuscaloosa was not without controversy. From the start many key supporters of the program felt Curry was a bad choice and their input had been ignored by Thomas. The fans never embraced him and his inability to beat Auburn certainly didn't warm their hearts further.
In 1989 Curry lead the Tide to a 10-1 regular-season record and an SEC Championship (in a three-way tie with Auburn and Tennessee). But the coach was locked in a contract dispute with the school and, after a loss to Miami in the 1990 Sugar Bowl, Curry announced he was resigning the Alabama job to take the head coaching position at Kentucky.
By this time, Joab Thomas had been replaced at UA president by E. Roger Sayers. Like his predecessor, Sayers had UA Athletic Director Cecil "Hootie" Ingram form a selection committee to choose the next coach but, unlike his predecessor, Sayers didn't chair it. Ingram did. Before taking over in Tuscaloosa, Ingram has spent nine years as the AD at Florida State.
A few days later, Bowden was travelling to Japan to coach in the Japan Bowl, a college football all-star game. As he waited for his flight, he was paged over the loudspeaker at Los Angeles International Airport to take a phone call from UA trustee Garry Neil Drummond. He offered him the Alabama job and, a day later Ingram called to reiterate the offer.
Bowden discussed the offer with his wife and decided he would stay at Florida State.
"I was sixty years old," Bowden later wrote. "By that time, I felt like FSU was my school. The University of Alabama was Bear Bryant's school. No matter what I could have done as Alabama's coach, it still would have been Coach Bryant's program. I could never have topped his accomplishment there."
On Thursday, Jan. 11, 1990 Gene Stallings was named the head coach of the Alabama football team.
Bowden, Bobby. Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith and Football. New York, NY: Howard Books. 2010
McCollough, Gaylon. The Long Shadow of Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. Gulf Shores, AL: Compass Press. 2008.
Staffo, Donald F. Bama After Bear: Turmoil and Tranquility in Tuscaloosa. Northport, AL: Sevgo Press.1992