During his time at Florida State, Bowden led FSU to an Associated Press and Coaches Poll National Title in 1993 and a BCS National Championship in 1999, as well as twelve Atlantic Coast Conference championships since FSU joined the conference in 1991. After a difficult 2009 season and amid questioning fans, Bowden stepped down, just weeks after his 80th birthday. He was allowed to make his final coaching appearance in the 2010 Gator Bowl game on January 1, 2010, with a 33–21 victory over his former program, West Virginia.
On the day of March 6, 2009 NCAA ruling requiring Florida State to "vacate wins for any games in which an ineligible player participated", threatened to remove as many as 14 of Bowden's wins from the 2006 and 2007 seasons in relation to an academic scandal. Florida State appealed the ruling, but the NCAA upheld it on January 5, 2010. Upon final investigation by Florida State University it was determined that Bowden was to vacate 12 wins, bringing his final career record to 377–129–4.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Bowden spent a portion of his childhood ill in bed. Bowden is the son of Bob Bowden and Sunset (née Cleckler) Bowden. When he was 13 years old, Bowden was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. After a six-month hospital stay, Bowden was confined to his bed at home for just over a year with nothing more than his imagination to pass the time. It was listening to World War II reports on the radio that began Bowden's interest in the war, an interest he still has to this day. It was also around this time that his love for football increased, as he would listen to University of Alabama football on Saturday mornings.
Bowden was an outstanding football player at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, and went on to play for the University of Alabama as a quarterback, fulfilling a lifelong dream to play for the Crimson Tide. He then returned to Birmingham and married his high school sweetheart, Ann Estock, on April 1, 1949. Today, the couple have six children and 21 grandchildren. Bobby transferred to Howard College (now Samford University), where he played football, baseball, ran track and became a brother in Pi Kappa Alpha. In his junior year he was elected president of Pi Kappa Alpha. That year his Alpha Pi chapter recorded the highest grade point average in the nation among all Pi Kappa Alpha chapters. His senior year, he was reelected to the presidency as well as captain of the football team where he garnered All-American honors at quarterback. The Howard College faculty nominated him for Who's Who Among Students in American Universities & Colleges in recognition of his academic and athletic leadership. Bowden graduated from Howard in 1953.
Bowden served as an assistant football coach and head track and field coach at Howard College (now known as Samford University, currently in the FCS football division) in Birmingham, Alabama from 1954–55. He left his alma mater to become Athletic Director as well as head football, baseball, and basketball coach at South Georgia College from 1956 to 1958. Bowden then returned to Howard as head coach, where he compiled a 31–6 record between 1959 and 1962. In 1962, Bowden went to Florida State University as an assistant coach under Head Coach Bill Peterson. Three other coaching legends who worked under Coach Peterson during this time were Bill Parcells, Joe Gibbs and Don James. Bowden left Florida State in 1965 to go to West Virginia University as an assistant under Jim Carlen. When Carlen left following the 1969 season to become head coach at Texas Tech, Bowden replaced him. Bowden then compiled a 42–26 record at WVU before returning to FSU as head coach in 1976.
During Bowden's first year as head coach at WVU, the football team of the state's other top-division school, Marshall University, were killed in a plane crash. Bowden asked NCAA permission to wear Marshall jerseys and play Marshall's final game of the 1970 season against Ohio, but was denied. In memory of the victims of the crash, Mountaineers players put green crosses and the initials "MU" on their helmets. Bowden allowed Marshall's new head coach Jack Lengyel and his assistants access to game film and playbooks to acquaint themselves with the veer offense, a variation of the option offense which aids teams with weak offensive lines. Lengyel credits Bowden with helping the young Thundering Herd recover. Bowden reportedly became emotional while viewing the movie We Are Marshall, and has said that he was the original candidate for the Marshall head coaching job vacated by crash victim Rick Tolley.
Bowden became the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles because the climate was warmer than in Morgantown, and because Tallahassee was closer to Birmingham, Alabama, where his mother and mother-in-law both lived. The team had a 4–29 record over the previous three seasons, and Bowden planned to stay only briefly before taking a better job, perhaps as head coach at Alabama.
During his 34 years as Florida State's head coach he had only one losing season–his first, in 1976–and declined head coaching job offers from Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons. From 1987 to 2000 the Seminoles finished every season with at least 10 wins and in the top 5 of the Associated Press College Football Poll, and won the national championship in 1993 and 1999. They were particularly dominant after joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1992, winning or sharing nine consecutive conference titles from 1992 to 2000, and only losing two conference games in that stretch.
Bowden's tenure crested with a second consecutive appearance in the national championship game after the 2000 season, a loss to Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl. They opened the following season with a shocking 41-9 loss to North Carolina, only the third loss they had ever suffered in ACC play. They would go on to finish 8-4, the first time they had lost that many games in 15 years. From then on, Bowden would only notch one more appearance in the top 10 of a final media poll.
Bowden is a committed Christian who credits his success in football to his faith.
Bobby is not the only member of his family to have coached Division I-A football. His son Tommy Bowden was the head coach at Clemson University. Another son, Terry Bowden, was the head coach at Auburn University, where he was the 1993 Coach of the Year. A third son, Jeff Bowden, was the offensive coordinator at Florida State. All three Bowden men who were head coaches have achieved an undefeated season: Terry in 1993 at Auburn; Tommy in 1998 at Tulane; and Bobby in 1999 at Florida State. Bobby's 1993 and 1999 Florida State teams were the only ones to win a National Championship, however. Terry and Jeff currently coach at the University of Akron.
As both Florida State and Clemson are in the same division of the Atlantic Coast Conference for football, the two teams played each other every year from 1999 through 2007 in a game that became known as the "Bowden Bowl". Their 1999 meeting was the first time in Division I-A history that a father and a son met as opposing head coaches in a football game. Bobby held the edge in the series 5–4, with all four losses within the last five games. Tommy Bowden's four wins in the series remain the only times a son has ever beaten his father when facing off as head coach in any of America's four major sports.
One Bowden Bowl was scheduled between Auburn and Florida State for 1999 when Terry Bowden was the coach at Auburn. However, Terry's midseason resignation in 1998 ended the possibility of a Bowden Bowl. Another Bowden Bowl was scheduled between Clemson and Florida State in 2008, but Tommy Bowden's resignation halfway through the year ended the Bowden Bowls. Florida State beat Clemson in what would have been the 2008 Bowden Bowl on Bobby Bowden's 79th birthday, earning him his 380th career win.
Bowden was awarded the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award for 1980. He received the Walter Camp Coach of the Year Award for 1991. In 1992 Coach Bowden received the United States Sports Academy's Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaching Award in recognition of his outstanding achievement as a coach.
On March 21, 2010, the Over the Mountain Touchdown Club of Birmingham, Alabama presented the first annual Bobby Bowden National Collegiate Coach of the Year Award, named in honor of Bowden and the contributions that he made during his career. The award recognizes a coach each year with unmatched success on and off of the field in the same attributes that Bowden showed throughout his career: perseverance, attitude, intergretiry and determination. University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban was the first recipient of the award, and it was presented by Bowden himself. The award is presented each year after national signing day and before the commencement of Spring practice.
In 2004, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes presented the first of what is now a yearly award in Bowden's name. The award was initiated by former Bowden assistant coach Vince Gibson and former Bowden player Vernon Brinson. It honors one college football player for his achievements on the field, in the classroom and in the community. In 2013, the Seminole Tribe of Florida became the official sponsor of the award. The Seminole Tribe of Florida Bobby Bowden Student Athlete of the Year Award is presented each year prior to the College Football Playoff (CFP) national title.
In 2011, in recognition of his philanthropic efforts with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bowden received the Children's Champion Award for Leadership Development from the charitable organization Children's Hunger Fund.
In his 44 seasons as a head coach, Bowden had 40 winning seasons (including 33 consecutive at Florida State), and 36 Division 1-A winning seasons. During the period 1987–2000, Bowden coached Florida State to 14 straight seasons with 10 or more victories, and his team had a final ranking of fourth or better in both of the major polls.
^ The 1983 season includes a forfeit win vs. Tulane.
‡ For the 2006 and 2007 seasons 12 wins, including 6 conference wins, were vacated for use of ineligible players. 5 wins from 2006 (including 2 conference wins) and 7 wins from 2007 (including 4 conference wins) were ultimately vacated by the NCAA.