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Fla. State coach develops ministry masterpiece on gridiron

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–The masterpiece of ministry that is Bobby Bowden’s legacy at Florida State covers more than just his football program.

The longest football season in school history is about to end, but the 73-year-old head coach is just getting started. What he typically does after a bowl game is what tends to define him. Bowden is a coaching legend, without question, but more than that he is an evangelist. He wears that label well.

“I don’t mind it, because it is a good name,” he said. “I think more of it as trying to give my witness, but it does involve evangelizing. I really do feel that’s what God wants me to do.”

So does his church. First Baptist of Tallahassee, a body that can trace its history to 1849, equips him for service and provides a refuge. Bowden can spring out of this huddle like a football quarterback ready to throw on every down. Sometimes he can choose from four different pass plays, meaning four separate invitations to speak, on one Sunday. All this evangelist does is pass, pass, and pass.

“In recruiting, I have to visit with players on Sunday for about three weekends in January,” he said. “That kind of prevents me from getting to my church. Signing Day is usually the first Wednesday of February, and after that I’m speaking nearly every Sunday away from here. I speak on Mondays, I speak on Wednesdays, I speak whenever people invite me if I can get away.

“From now until next January I probably won’t have any open dates. The thing that saves me is I fly, and when I fly, I sleep. God has given me, thank goodness, the ability to sleep better moving than in my own bed. If I have a three-hour trip to go somewhere and speak, that means I get three hours sleep going there and three hours coming back. That keeps me energized.”

His pastor, Doug Dortch, calls him “a committed churchman,” and rightly so. Bowden and his wife, Ann, have been members for 27 years. Back in 1965, when Bobby was a Florida State assistant coach, their son, Steve, made a profession of faith at the church.

“Our church certainly blesses what Coach Bowden is doing, even though it takes him away from us a good bit,” Dortch said. “God has given him a tremendous window of opportunity and Coach Bowden uses it faithfully and obediently. Virtually every message he shares contains the plan of salvation, and his heart is truly to see people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.”

Clint Purvis has been on staff with the church since 1986. With the church’s blessing, he has served voluntarily as chaplain for the Seminoles since 1988. “I’d probably hate to lose him as much as anybody I’ve got,” Bowden said. That’s because Purvis has come to mirror Coach Bowden’s highly effective philosophy of ministry.

“From my perspective, the players, coaches, administration, boosters and alumni all know that they can trust me,” Purvis said. “It’s something you can’t earn. I think it’s something God graces you with.”

Purvis said that players of all religions respect Coach Bowden’s tendency to be assertive, friendly and fair with his testimony. They know what is coming yet it does not turn them off.

“Don’t be like me,” Bowden tells his young men. “Go to where I’m going, but don’t be like me. I don’t want to offend your family or your parents, but I have a relationship, and if I don’t tell you about it then I’d be doing wrong.”

That philosophy of telling people about his friend, Jesus Christ, has served Bowden well through 332 coaching victories, 2 national championships and 14 consecutive 10-win seasons. Consecutive four-loss seasons have left some doubting whether Florida State can compete with No. 4 Georgia in the Nokia Sugar Bowl, but it may turn out to be a chance for the humbled Seminoles to put their character on display.

“If you never experience adversity, how in the world are you going to develop character? You can’t. You can’t expose character except through adversity. Now in football coaching, losses are adversity. When you win, everything’s fine, but when you lose, boy, the critics are going to jump out. It’s humbled us, but the main thing you’ve got to remember in a situation like this is it’s still a game. Nobody wants to admit that, but it’s still a game. It definitely is not my priority in life. It’s a priority, but not the priority. The No. 1 priority is God.”

When Bowden switches more into his evangelist mode after the bowl game, he knows he always has a place where he can unwind. The Sunday School class of Leon Sims is that refuge to him.

“I love him like a brother,” Bowden said. “I joined that Sunday School class in 1976, and the men that are in there, it is just a great pleasure to be with them. I can’t be there enough. When I’m in there I hear good preaching from Leon and good input from the other guys, and then I can express myself every now and then. I’m just one of the gang.”

The way that First Baptist of Tallahassee treats a cultural icon like Coach Bowden is instructional for other First Baptist churches who likewise may have famous people in their membership. Dortch is pleased with how the Sunday School men treat the football coach.

“They don’t rehash games or try to pry future plans out of him,” Dortch said. “They talk about their faith and how it relates to everyday life. They talk about how to reach out to people in our community who need help.”

Bowden can’t say enough about being a member of such a large, vibrant body. The church was first organized in 1849 as Baptist Church of Tallahassee and has grown to include 4,000 members.

“I’m proud of our church,” he said. “I’m one of those old-fashioned guys who thinks that churches are the glue to this country. We must continue to support our churches because without it we can’t remain a great nation.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: BOBBY BOWDEN.

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  • Allen Palmeri