The first time I heard former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden talk publicly about his faith, he was only a few years removed from his first national championship and I was an impressionable 20-something bachelor in love with football.
I instantly became a fan.
I don’t remember everything he said that Sunday at my church in the mid-1990s, but I do recall two things: 1) he made clear that his faith was far more important than winning ballgames, and, 2) he passionately defended the reliability of Scripture. How many football coaches would do that?
A new documentary about Bowden, The Bowden Dynasty, will play in theaters for one night only Sunday (Jan. 8). It spotlights the Hall of Fame coach’s football career but leaves no doubt that he was a different type of coach, and for all the right reasons.
The film was made in part by one of the producers behind ESPN’s The Book of Manning and I Hate Christian Laettner.
It is one of the best sports documentaries I’ve ever seen – and I watch a lot of them. Picture a two-hour 30 for 30 with a bit of faith and a lot of “dad-gums” sprinkled throughout, and you’ve got The Bowden Dynasty. It’s so good that my wife – who doesn’t even care that much about college football – got hooked.
Several Christian organizations, including Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and LifeWay Films, are partnering to promote it.
It opens by showing the retired coach sitting at home, enjoying the “funny pages,” and then follows him as he visits former homes and reflects on his past.
He tells how he caught rheumatic fever as a boy and thought he might die, but prayed that if God healed him, “I will serve You in any way You want.”
God blessed him with plenty of wins and championships, but Bowden found ways to keep it all in perspective. Each year, he took his players to one predominantly black church and one predominantly white church. Still, “he didn’t try to force his religion” on them, one former player in the film says. The annual tradition was voluntary, and only twice did parents ask him not to take their sons.
Bowden may not have forced his faith on his players, but he didn’t shy away from it, either. After Florida State offensive lineman Pablo Lopez was shot and killed in 1986, Bowden gathered the team in the meeting room and pointed to the empty chair where Lopez would have been sat. He asked them: Where would you spend eternity if you died today?
“I preached to them – doggone right I did,” he says in the film.
Assistant coach Mark Richt was in that team meeting and was impacted by Bowden’s words. He asked for a follow-up meeting with Bowden, who led him to the Lord. Richt went on to become head coach at Georgia and then Miami (Fla.).
Bowden also steered clear from cursing, preferring quirky southern phrases such as “doggone it” and “dad-gum it.” He even had a jar where coaches who did swear had to place a dollar.
The Bowden Dynasty, though, is primarily about football. Bowden’s Florida State teams finished in the Top 5 from 1987 to 2000 – an achievement that likely won’t ever be duplicated. (Alabama’s current streak, if you’re curious, is two.) He also won national championships in 1993 and 1999.
It confronts some of the more prominent criticisms of Bowden, such as the notion that he ran up the score on teams. (He once lost a game 36-35 that his team had led 35-8 – “I never sat on the ball anymore.”) He also was considered, by some, to be soft on players who had off-the-field transgressions. (He viewed the players as his kids. He asks in the film: Wouldn’t you want your own children to get a second chance?)
The documentary includes interviews with more than 30 people, including Nick Saban, Lou Holtz, Lee Corso, Burt Reynolds, Vince Dooley, Jimmy Johnson, Jimbo Fisher and Deion Sanders.
Find a theater where it is showing here.
Entertainment rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.
“The Bowden Dynasty” is unrated.
Language: 1 “90 minutes of hell.”