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Coach Bowden

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
May 28th, 2021


photographs by KELLY MOORE CLARK

This month we celebrate fathers, those men who represent strength, love, and commitment to family. ULM football coach Terry Bowden, now a father and a grandfather himself, is also the son of a very famous American sports figure, Bobby Bowden. This larger-than-life dad was one of the most influential people in Bowden’s life – and still is. When asked recently why he had chosen coaching as a profession, Bowden quickly responded. “I simply fell in love with what my dad did,” he said. “I loved my dad so much that I wanted to be what he was.” 

What does it take to become a successful football coach? It takes a lot more than winning, according to ULM head football coach Terry Bowden. He recognizes from experience that coaching is much more than that. It is about being a mentor to young athletes – helping guide them toward meaningful, productive lives after football.  “The older I got, I realized that my most important job is being a servant-coach. My primary purpose isn’t simply to achieve victories,” Bowden explains. “I must serve those players who come to play for me. Can I provide them with a positive approach to life? Can I impact their life in a big, broad way? Most people don’t believe that coaches think about those things, but we really do.”

Growing Up a Bowden

When Bowden speaks about his family, it is obvious that love within the Bowden family is strong and that family has been a major influence on his attitude toward the role of a coach. His father is 91, and his mother is 88, and they recently celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary. The patriarch and matriarch of the Bowden clan, they have set a wonderful example of how to live life as a team. “They got married very young after meeting in church,” Bowden says. “They eloped and got married, but didn’t tell their parents until a year later. Back then, you didn’t sneak around and live together. You got married. They’ve been together ever since.”

Bowden had five siblings (3 brothers and 2 sisters). He was the “middle child,” five years younger than his oldest sister and five years older than his youngest sister. Ginger, Jeff, and Terry are the only three still working. The other three (Robyn, Steve, and Tommy) have retired. Bowden observes with a chuckle that they are all in their “grandparent stage” now. Today there are 20 grandchildren and a dozen great-grandchildren in the clan.

Bowden and his siblings grew up with a football coach dad and a stay-at-home mother. Bowden recalls that their mom found time to work when she could, but much of her time was spent picking up and dropping off her children and getting them to doctor’s appointments. “Mom really couldn’t get help from my father because he was usually coaching someone else’s kids,” Bowden says. “But when dad was home, he was all dad. He sure made it feel special. It was a big family with a very public father figure. We were extremely blessed to have a good mother, who kept it all tied together even though the head of the ship was always my father.”

Although he was born in Douglas, Georgia, a change in coaching jobs for his dad meant that Bowden went to late elementary, junior high, high school, and college in Morgantown, West Virginia. He still loves Morgantown, and marvels at the number of successful coaches who are from the same area. “My brother Tommy (former Tulane and Clemson head coach), Rich Rodriguez (ULM offensive coordinator), Jimbo Fisher (Texas A&M head coach) and Nick Saban (Alabama head coach) – we all grew up within 30 miles of each other near Morgantown,” Bowden says. “Growing up we were all called ‘hillbillies’, ‘hicks’,’ illiterates’ and those kinds of things by other people, but when asked where we were from? The answer was always ‘West — By God — Virginia’!” (Today Bowden says he lives and works in “Monroe — By God — Louisiana” – a community and state he is proud to represent.)

Bowden loves to share stories about his youth. His first job was as a newspaper delivery boy in Morgantown. He walked over a mile each day delivering the morning paper before sunrise, and earned 2 cents per paper delivered. “At that time, I wished we lived in a big town where all of the houses were right beside each other,” Bowden says. When he was in the 6th grade, an accident resulted in a heavily stitched, bandaged hand. He couldn’t carry his newspaper bag, so his dad had to get up and drive him around his route. It was January, with snow and freezing temperatures nearly every morning. “I will never forget standing outside my parents’ bedroom door and asking dad if he could give me a ride,” Bowden says with a laugh. “He still kids me about that, even imitating my voice and inflections. I can only imagine how much he hated hearing that call when I needed him to get up and take me on that route.”

Even though they were quite young, he and his brothers, Steve and Tommy, would travel to away games with their dad on the team bus. He remembers one 15-hour trip they made to play Louisiana College. “We slept in the luggage carriers above the players, and listened to all of the stories they were sharing – some of which we shouldn’t have been hearing at that age.” Bowden still enjoys traveling on the team bus. He says it gives him a chance to relax after long days of game preparation.

A memorable trip happened when their dad became an assistant coach in West Virginia and the family took the family Station Wagon from Tallahassee to Morgantown. Three sat in the front, three sat on the middle bench, and two slept on top of the luggage in the back. Going through the Blue Ridge was amazing because none of the children had ever seen mountains before. “We had never been on a road where it was straight up on one side and straight down on the other,” Bowden remembers. “All of us children were crying because we thought that Station Wagon was going to fall over the edge.”

A Thoughtful Preparation

  From the day Bowden was born, his dad was a college football coach. For 18 years he sat at the breakfast table with a head football coach. That career influence was unmistakable, but so was another – his size. “At an early age, I knew I wanted to be a coach because everyone outgrew me,” he says with a laugh. “I’m 5’6”, so at age 14 the other boys shot up in size and I didn’t. Even so, I became a really good wrestler and a solid football player. Baseball, wrestling, and football were my focus.”

Sports were not Bowden’s only interest. As he has often said, every class or degree he took was for a purpose. He was active in the theatre club during middle and junior high, and then in high school acted in several plays (and loved that!) and took several speech courses. “Because my dad was an excellent public speaker, I knew that was something that coaches had to do,” Bowden says. 

When he entered West Virginia University, Bowden knew that he needed a business degree. He earned a degree in accounting (graduating magna cum laude and earning the highest grade-point average on the football team). He became a graduate assistant at Florida State and was accepted into their law school. He believed that a law degree would let presidents and athletic directors see that he was serious about academics. He continued his studies at Oxford University in England, where he studied the history of common law compared to criminal law with a little international law mixed in. With law degree in hand, Bowden followed his dream and entered the coaching profession. He never regretted any course he took, but he knew that most of them didn’t cover how to win or lose a football game. “You have to learn that on the field,” Bowden says.

The Coaching Dream Comes True

In 1983 when he was 26, Bowden became the nation’s youngest head coach when he accepted the offer from Salem College in West Virginia. In his first season, he took a team that had been 0-9-1 the year before and led them to two conference championships in 3 seasons. Bowden became head coach at Samford in 1987, leading the team to a 9-1 record, a tie with the best record in school history.

In 1992, Bowden was named head coach at Auburn. The following year he led the Tigers to a perfect 11-0 season and became the first coach in Division I-A (now FBS) history to have a perfect inaugural season. While at Auburn, he became the first collegiate coach in 50 years to win his 100th career game before his 40th birthday.

Bowden resigned his position at Auburn in 1998 and took time off to work in broadcasting. During that time, became friends with Tim Brando, a ULM graduate who was also working in broadcasting. They became best friends and ended up doing a daily 3-hour radio program that aired in 7 southern states. It was all great fun for a decade, but Bowden loved coaching more than broadcasting and missed it. 

In December 2008, he accepted the head coach position at the University of North Alabama where he led the team to 3 appearances in NCAA Division II playoffs.

In December 2011, he became head coach at the University of Akron. He left there when the new AD bought out the last 2 years of his contract. 

Bowden loved all of his jobs, but Salem College holds a special place in his heart. The first quarterback he signed while there was Jimbo Fisher, and Rich Rodriguez followed Bowden at Salem as the next head coach. Bowden was young, and was able to learn his craft “. . . while no one was really looking. Jimbo, Rich, and I all laugh about those times.”

“I was still excited about coaching, and still hungry to win, so I decided to do what a lot of former head coaches do between jobs — become an analyst,” Bowden explains. “I chose Clemson because it was an elite program and the head coach, Dabo Sweeney, had played for Alabama when I was coaching Auburn.” When Bowden met with Dabo, Dabo told him he couldn’t hire another analyst unless he was a student. And just like that, Bowden enrolled in a master’s degree program in athletic leadership and joined the group as a volunteer analyst. 

ULM Comes Calling 

When Bowden was in his second year as a graduate student at Clemson, ULM came calling. It was the second time in Bowden’s career that ULM had expressed an interest in him. He had talked to some ULM representatives five years earlier, but the time wasn’t right for Bowden then. Still, through that he learned a lot about their football program. After talking with ULM this time, Bowden knew that ULM was exactly the kind of program that he wanted to rebuild. The beauty of the campus helped seal the deal. “I was raised on college campuses and this is truly one of the most picturesque campuses in the entire country,” Bowden says. “I love the way the bayou cuts through the heart of our campus.”

Not only did ULM impress him; Monroe and North Louisiana did, too! He enjoyed the climate, the geography, the people, and the proximity to good fishing spots. “This will be an easy place for me to fall in love with and might end up being my favorite place at this stage in my life,” Bowden says. “I’d describe Monroe as a small, big town. It has great shopping and incredible restaurants, and just a short walk from my house I can be in the woods or on the water. If I can help turn this football program around and win some games, Monroe is going to be tough to beat.” 

Bowden says that it didn’t take long to realize how passionate ULM fans are about football. He loves having this opportunity to turn the ULM football program around. “I know there will be some growing pains, but there’s such a passion and love for college football here that creates tremendous optimism. There are so many people committed to winning, and that’s what makes this job so attractive.” 

ULM fans this fall will see Bowden’s ULM program, The Warhawk Way, in action for the first time. Through this program, student-athletes will learn invaluable life lessons – to give is better than to receive; to learn about and respect Major General Claire Chennault and his courage and service to our country; and that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things, and Warhawks do things the right way —  even as they learn how to become a winning football team. 

Family Traditions Beyond Football

Bowden’s move to Monroe provided an opportunity to continue a family tradition of summertime family reunions that had been put on hold in 2020. These reunions began in the mid-sixties when Bowden’s dad was an assistant at West Virginia. This became a tradition that lasted for over 50 years and is still going strong – though with some adaptations for the growing clan. First were family trips to Panama City Beach, Florida — the beach that Bowden’s parents enjoyed when they were teenagers. The family called it “L.A.” for “Lower Alabama” and it became their “family destination beach.” They always scheduled their trip for the week of July 4th for seven days. “Everyone put their other plans aside because my mother demanded it,” explains Bowden. “It started with a hotel room, then a condo, then a house, and then 3 houses. We had almost a compound down there on the beach. As coaches, we could all get away at that time. It was that way for over 50 years, from 1966-2020.”

The family has sold most of the houses and property there now. Their parents are older, so their children are picking up the reunion planning. There are 45 people now, counting the grandchildren, so this year only the children and their spouses will join their parents at the beach. “It will be different than previous years,” Bowden says. “I imagine there will be some sentiments and emotions there, but it will be the best way for us to spend time with our parents in their late stages of life.” 

This year the Bowdens will be coming to Monroe for their reunion. Bowden has made all the arrangements to make the week special as he introduces the family to his new home. No details have escaped him – there will even be custom golf balls emblazoned with “2020-21 Terry Bowden /Family Retreat”. There will also be ULM hats, t-shirts, pendants, lapel pins, and Mardi Gras beads for all.

Before the retreat, however, there was one more dream to be fulfilled. On May 5, 2021, Bowden donned a robe, walked across a stage, and received his diploma – for the first time. “I never walked after completing my undergraduate degree. I never walked after graduating from the Florida State Law School. At 65, I wanted to celebrate the occasion because I knew this would be my last degree,” Bowden. “I wanted to put that robe on, walk across the stage and grab that diploma.”   He had completed his coursework entirely online – something that amused him when he realized that 34 years before he had graduated from law school at a time when there was no internet and no computers. More importantly, he had shown his ULM football players just how serious he is about academics, setting an example none will forget.

The Greatest Influence of All

Bowden has coached for 30 years, and has been a head coach for 25 of those. Along the way he has learned that while sports is a huge part of his life, his faith and family are the most important parts to him. 

When asked recently who has influenced him the most, Bowden’s answer was immediate.  “I couldn’t ask for a better personal mentor than my father. He’s a wonderful husband and father who relied on his strong Christian faith to provide the foundation for his life,” Bowden says. “I was fortunate to be raised by a football coach who had a reputation of coaching the right way all his career. He isn’t the greatest coach of all time, but everyone admires him, including me.” 

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