Bobby Bowden landed at the Morgantown Municipal Airport Friday, jumped in a car and headed toward downtown, where college football's all-time winningest coach was scheduled to perform the duties of the grand marshall in the West Virginia University homecoming parade.
But as business and residential areas passed by the car window, the 84-year-old couldn't help but wonder if the plane had landed in the wrong place.
"I don't even hardly recognize the place," said Bowden, who called Morgantown home for 10 years from 1966 through 1975, the first four as the Mountaineers' offensive coordinator and the next six as the WVU head coach. "I remember how I used to go down the back road and go to my house. Now, there's about four different directions you can go in. When I go through the areas that I used to pass every day, it looks so different from what it was. There's a new building here, a new access there, a new something else over there. I can't believe it."
Even the stadium, where Bowden watched WVU knock off Kansas 33-14 Saturday, was sitting in a spot where the coach used to spend his days playing golf on the school's golf course.
Though the people and the places look different, Bowden's memories of his time in Morgantown are still very vivid.
Bowden saw about everything during his 44 seasons as a head coach. He won a pair of national championships and more than 300 games at Florida State and captured 12 ACC championships. He coached Heisman Trophy winners and some of the best players to play in the NFL.
But of the more than 500 games he coached in his career, Bowden said the two that stick out most both happened while at WVU.
The first was the low point of his coaching career on Oct. 17, 1970, his first season as the Mountaineers' head coach after he replaced Jim Carlen.
Ahead 35-8 in front of a crowd of almost 45,000 fans at Pitt Stadium, Bowden took his foot off the gas, a decision that proved costly. Pitt stormed back with 28 unanswered points in the second half, winning 36-35 and handing Bowden a loss from which he admits he's never fully recovered.
"It was the darkest day of my coaching career," said Bowden of that Backyard Brawl. "I never sat on the ball after that. They got on me for running up the score. I don't care. I'm not sitting on the ball.
"That was bad. I learned a lot from that."
The other memory that stands out was a much more positive one.
"If (that 1970 Pitt loss) was the worst, when McKenzie kicked that daggum field goal when I left, that might have been the best one," said Bowden.
That legendary Mountaineer moment occurred in 1975, Bowden's final home game at Old Mountaineer Field, when WVU defeated No. 20 Pitt and star running back Tony Dorsett on walk-on kicker Bill McKenzie's 38-yard field goal as time expired.
"I saw McKenzie today," said Bowden Saturday. "He came up and introduced himself. I hadn't seen him since that kick. I told him, and it's true. I coached 57 years and had a lot of important kicks. That's the most important kick my team ever had."
Bowden's time in Morgantown was filled with similar highs and lows. He went 42-26 in six seasons, beating Lou Holtz and N.C. State in the Peach Bowl in his final game on the WVU sideline. But he also endured a 4-7 campaign in 1974 that's still the worst in his career.
"They tried to fire me and probably should have," said Bowden. "But the president and the AD stood behind me and wouldn't let them."
Bowden was hung in effigy following that season and received a lot of bad reaction from WVU fans, but 40 years later he holds no grudges toward WVU.
"I've learned to live with that," said Bowden, who left WVU for FSU after a 9-3 finish in 1975. "That's the nature of the darn game. I tell (sons) Tommy, Terry and Jeffery that are in coaching, 'That's the way the game is. If you don't like it, get out of it. Because it's going to be that way.'"
But Bowden admitted the reaction he received from Mountaineer fans on Saturday - the first WVU game he's attended, aside from three Gator Bowls where he went head-to-head with his former team, and one of only a handful of trips to Morgantown since he left - felt as if he was treated like royalty.
"It means a whole lot to me," he said. "I'm 84 now, and I'm getting into the latter part of my life. We spent 10 years here, and this is home for my children (sons Tommy and Terry both played at WVU, daughter Robyn was a WVU graduate and son Jeff and daughter Ginger also grew up in Morgantown before moving south with the family). My home's Alabama, but not my children. They think it's West Virginia.
"I haven't been back many times, but I come back every chance I get."
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