Late one spring 1966 day while driving the treacherous West Virginia mountains, Bobby Bowden fought a losing battle with sleep.
Passenger Carl Crennel, a mountain of a 17-year-old football recruit from Lynchburg, Va., was wide awake. Neither man nor boy had a clue of how close they courted a calamity.
Bowden, then in his first year as the West Virginia University offensive coordinator, had checked out a state car to pick up Crennel in Lynchburg and drive him back to Morgantown for a campus visit. Crennel, a prized recruit, was the kind of player who made coaches drool, a lineman fit to build a team around.
But the trip was at least five hours one way "and I'm getting so tired I can hardly open my eyes," Bowden said. "So I ask him, 'Can you drive?' And he says, 'I'm takin' drivin', I'm takin' drivin'. "
Figuring that an alert drivers' ed trainee was better off behind the wheel than a sleepy coach, "I ask Carl, 'Can you drive and let me rest, let me sleep a little bit?'
"Of course, he just couldn't wait. He was thrilled to death," Bowden said. "He never had a car. He started drivin' and I went to sleep.
"He ran right into the back of a big truck. The car ran right up under the truck and our windshield broke and kind of caved in."
Crennel, who usually speaks in a polite, soft masculine voice, recalls the crash.
"It scared the livin' (crap) out of me," he said.
"I'd never driven in those West Virginia mountains, and the roads were rough back then," Crennel said. "I'd been trying to pass that truck and finally saw a good chance. I just misjudged it and went under. It sure woke Bobby up."
Bowden has repeatedly been able to fall in a bucket of manure and come out smelling like a bouquet of roses. This mountain crash would be one of those times.
Before finishing the story, Bowden pauses for emphasis, points his right index finger toward his office ceiling and speaks slowly.
"So now we got a wreck goin'. It's in a state car. And he doesn't have a license.
"Fortunately, the truck he hit, they were state people, too, and they were drinkin'. They didn't want me to report it and I didn't want them to report it. So we just shook hands and left.
"I told Crennel I'd tell on him if he didn't go to West Virginia."
Crennel did go to West Virginia.
"Coach Bowden was such a sincere, honest person, a straight-up talker. He made me feel very welcome," Crennel said.
Freshmen couldn't play then, but he started as a sophomore, played well from 1967 to 1969 and was twice named a second-team All-American.
Crennel, 51, a Lynchburg painting contractor, played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970 before starring for five Canadian Football League teams in 11 years.
Bowden's rocky ride with Crennel mirrors the coach's 10 West Virginia years: Both started out fine, with some trouble along the way, but a smooth, happy ending.
Bowden was hired in 1966 as offensive coordinator for $12,000 by Jim Carlen, the Mountaineers' head coach from 1966 through 1969. The Mountaineers finished 10-1 in 1969 and Carlen left for Texas Tech, but not before recommending Bowden for the head job.
Bowden was the Mountaineers' head coach for six years (1970-75), compiling a 42-26 record that earned him a lot of friends and a fair amount of foes across football-rabid West Virginia.
Carlen, 67, who now lives on Hilton Head Island, S.C., had coached defense for Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech.
"When I go to West Virginia, I gotta find someone who knows the throwing game," Carlen said.
He said he didn't know Bowden particularly well, but knew he had to hire him.
Bowden was serving as an FSU assistant. To sweeten the allure of moving North from Tallahassee for Ann Bowden, Carlen said, "Bobby told her that West Virginia was the Switzerland of the United States."
Through the Carlen and Bowden years, West Virginia had a tough time attracting big, top-flight linemen. But the school was blessed with great skill-position players, like running back Garrett Ford Sr., the late fullback and tight end Jim Braxton, and wide receiver Danny Buggs, called "Lightning Bug" by Bowden.
In 1966, Crennel became the first black player Bowden ever recruited. Hundreds would follow.
"The best thing about West Virginia was getting out of the South and meeting people from the North, recruiting in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia and New Jersey and meeting people from different cultures," Bowden said.
The aforementioned Ford, also black and a gifted Mountaineer runner from 1965 through 1967, now serves as WVU's athletic director for student services. Bowden, who arrived in Morgantown two years after Ford, would have a major influence on his life. Ford was initially reluctant for that to happen, because Bowden was a white Southerner.
The widespread social unrest of the 1960s didn't stop at the chalk lines bordering football fields.
"Out of 14,000 students at West Virginia, only a handful were black" and mostly on athletic teams, Ford, 55, said.
"Back then, almost all of the great black players went to Grambling or the Big Ten," Ford said.
He was extremely apprehensive about Bowden, being that Bowden was from, of all places, Alabama.
Bowden said Ford told him, "I don't know if I can play for a guy from Alabama," because his mind was set about what a white man from Alabama was supposed to represent.
That was true, Ford said. "The only thing I'd seen of Alabama on the news was the (civil rights) marchers" and scowling white police with firm grips on fire hoses and loose grips on viscous dogs.
"I really knew nothing about people from the South," Ford said.
From day one, Bowden treated him nicely, Ford said, "But all I could hear was that accent, you know, 'How's your mama?' "
Ford said he failed to hear Bowden's sincerity through that Southern accent.
"He took us all to church, but I stayed in the distance."
Things began to change the day Bowden asked Ford over for dinner. "I was shocked," Ford said. "I really couldn't believe it.
"It was just me, Coach Bowden and his family, all the kids, Ann. We had dinner. I bounced the littlest kids on my knees. I don't remember what we had for dinner, but I remember Ann was a great cook."
Ford said he started to realize that Bowden cared about him not just as a football player, but as a man. From then on, their relationship thawed and warmed.
Ford played for the Denver Broncos in 1969, was cut in 1970 and took a banking job in Boston. Bowden phoned Ford to hire him as an assistant coach, running the scout team.
"I jumped at it I ran out of the bank," Ford said. "No exaggeration, I really did run right out of the bank. I enjoyed the coaching job. The whole staff was pretty close. A couple times I slipped up and called him Bobby.
"Over the years I've talked to him to get advice. I wish I would have appreciated him as much then as I do now."
First Playcall a Touchdown
Ford echoes the sentiments of other when he says that Bowden insisted on getting the ball into the hands of his best athletes. "And he would do unconventional things," Ford said. "On third-and-7 from our own 5-yard line, he'd run a reverse."
The first play Bowden called from scrimmage in West Virginia's opening 1966 game at Duke went according to script. Bowden knew the defense would be keying on Ford, a fabulous runner.
So, Bowden faked Garrett on a dive into the line and slipped John Mallory in at tight end.
"Coach Bowden said, 'They'll never know you're in there,"' said Mallory, 54, a telecommunications executive who played defensive back and occasionally on offense.
The touchdown pass went for 70 yards.
But West Virginia was weak and lost that Duke game, 34-15, en route to a 3-5-2 season.
"His first year there, it was lean times,"
Mallory said. "We were under-manned and under-sized. It was tough on Coach Bowden, but he made it fun. He told us to stick in there and in a few years, we'll ram 'em up and we'll beat 'em. And we did."
The Mountaineers improved each year under Carlen, culminating with their 10-1 record in 1969. The only blemish was a 20-0 loss to Penn State. The day after that shutout drubbing, the team got a major tongue lashing from Bowden.
"It was Sunday afternoon, we were watching the film and Coach Bowden was livid," said John Hale, 51, from Tallahassee, who owns a home delivery food company and played defensive end for the Mountaineers from 1968 through 1970.
"He really raked us over the coals," Hale said. "He said, 'This film shows the worst display of football I've ever seen. It stinks. It's pitiful. It's disgusting. And I can't stand to watch it anymore.'
"So he gets up and storms off -- and walks right into a closet."
Bowden shut the closet door, which was locked from the inside. The players, initially mortified by the chewing out, held their noses trying not to laugh at Bowden's predicament, but raucous laughter won out. Then they heard a loud "knock, knock, knock," Hale said. Someone opened the door and a sheepish Bowden reappeared. He was laughing, too.
"It was the maddest he ever got at us," Hale said. "And the quickest he ever got over it."
Problems Behind the Wheel
Bowden had more trouble driving than walking. His former West Virginia players say that when parking at the practice field, Bowden often bumped a brick wall before getting his car into park.
He usually drove a state car, said Garland Hudson, 53, a financial services representative from Orange Park who played in the Mountaineers' defensive secondary from 1967 to 1969.
"It was a running joke each day for the players to guess how many hubcaps Coach Bowden had on his car," Hudson said.
Carlen said Bowden dinged up so many cars on recruiting trips that he got a call one day from the state motor pool.
"The guy asked me, 'Coach, when Bowden goes out of town to recruit, could you send a driver with him?' " Carlen said.
The problem, Carlen said, was Bowden got up early and gave his absolute best all day, "so once it got dark, he started to fall asleep. Even when he was driving."
Maybe so, but Bowden's driving was bad enough in broad daylight, said Dr. Dick Ward, 51, an orthopedic surgeon from Myrtle Beach, S.C., who played quarterback for the Mountaineers in 1969 and 1970.
The Mountaineers held two spring games each year, including one in Charleston. Bowden drove the quarter-backs from Morgantown to the state capitol while everyone else rode the bus, Ward said.
"He'd get to talking football, and there'd be two tires on the road and two tires off," Ward said.
Bowden vs. Holtz: Part 1
When Carlen took the Texas Tech job after the 1969 season, he told West Virginia officials that Bowden was the man to replace him. Bowden recalls being paid $25,000 as the Mountaineers' head coach.
The team started out 4-0 on the way to an 8-3 season in 1970.
Bowden's first win as Mountaineer head coach came in Morgantown at the expense of William & Mary Head Coach Lou Holtz, 49-13.
After the game, Holtz, a West Virginia native who had plenty of family at the game, accused Bowden of running up the score. It's a charge that the now South Carolina head coach still stands by.
"For cryin' out loud, they had Braxton still in the game with a minute to go," Holtz said.
Braxton was a first-team All-American in 1970.
Holtz remembers Bowden's response to the running up the score accusation: "He told me, 'It's your job to keep the score down.' "
The acrimony was only a blip on the screen of a close friendship. Holtz spent his 1962 honeymoon in Tallahassee with the Bowdens, and they remain close.
"I'm his biggest fan," Holtz said. "If you're lucky enough to beat him, you know you've beaten the best. And when he wins, he does it without animosity."
Bowden is one of the few coaches who owns a winning career record (4-2) against Holtz.
Later that season, something happened on the field that Bowden will never forget.
Anytime anyone accuses him of running up the score, he points to West Virginia vs. Pitt, Oct. 17, 1970.
With Pittsburgh and Morgantown not much more than an hour apart, the big ri-valry game is called the "Backyard Brawl."
Bowden said the Pittsburgh game is to people in Morgantown what the Florida game is to people in Tallahassee. "Pitt is their game," he said.
By the half, West Virginia had cruised to a 35-8 lead. "We had 'em beat," Bowden said.
In the second half, West Virginia couldn't muster a first down. And it couldn't stop Pitt.
The final: Pitt 36, West Virginia 35.
Four years later, Bowden would be hung in effigy in Morgantown by irate fans. But after the debacle in Pittsburgh, "our fans mobbed my dressing room door after the game. I couldn't come out. They'd probably lynch me. It wouldn't have been in effigy: They'd probably go after the real thing.
"Really, they were beatin' on the door outside. They just went crazy."
Bowden said it was by far the worst day of his entire coaching life. He still uses words like "bleakest" and "darkest" to describe the loss.
The next three years (1971-73), Bowden's teams compiled a 21-13 record.
He had his supporters and detractors, but all told, the Bowden coaching ship was so far sailing in smooth waters.
That would soon change.
Hung in Effigy in 1974
The Mountaineers appeared loaded for the 1974 season. Optimism was fueled by Bowden himself, who on the routine banquet tour touted the Mountaineers' wartested experience and depth.
But 1974 got off to an awful start when the team stumbled against Richmond, losing 29-25 to the lowly Spiders. Injuries hurt, including the loss of two quarterbacks. The losses mounted and Bowden couldn't get the team on course. West Virginia finished the year with a 4-7 record.
If the Pitt game in 1970 was the bleakest day, 1974 was unquestionably the bleakest year. The adversity of a losing season and the loads of criticism it brought was tough on his family.
Bobby Bowden was hung in effigy on several occasions that season.
He was criticized by the media.
The family found a "for sale" sign on its front yard.
Bed sheets and cardboard marked with "Bye Bye Bobby" and similar pronouncements hung from university dormitory windows.
Bowden said he was concerned how the criticism would affect his family.
"You know, as a coach you don't hear all that stuff. You go to your office," Bowden said.
"You don't listen to the radio. You don't read the papers. You don't see what's going on. You're in your office with your coaches.
"Your wife's going to the store, your kids are going to school, so they're the ones who catch it. When they're up in the stands, they catch it, too."
"It was a horrible year, 1974," recalled Robyn Hines, the Bowdens' first child.
Now 49, Robyn was a graduate student at West Virginia in 1974. She is a physical education teacher in Clemson, S.C., and married to Clemson football assistant Jack Hines.
She says the criticism hurt her father more than he lets on.
"I'll always remember seeing a sign on a telephone pole saying, 'Leave Town Bowden.' I was angry," she said. "The university didn't do it, but it changed my feelings about my alma mater forever."
Ann Bowden said she took down the for sale sign in front of their house the instant she saw it.
"Bobby never really saw it," she said. "It just never occurred to me that people saying Bobby wasn't a good coach were right. I just don't remember ever worrying about it."
But a sophomore Mountaineer wide receiver named Tommy Bowden worried plenty.
Tommy didn't play much that year, "and mom blasted dad about it, she really did," Tommy said with a laugh.
Not playing much that year didn't lessen Tommy's loyalty to his father. Tommy didn't take a liking to anyone bad-mouth-ing his dad. In 1974, Tommy and a friend took down derogatory Bowden signs as fast as they sprouted.
Now the head football coach at Clemson, Tommy was best friends in his college days at West Virginia with Dave Van Halanger, a huge offensive tackle who now serves as Bobby Bowden's strength and conditioning coach at FSU.
Bowden laughs when recalling a story about one of the effigy hangings.
"Now here's Tommy's story," Bowden said. "I went up there and started to look at that dummy with my daddy's name (on it) and a policeman comes up and says you can't go in there, it's private property.
"Tommy said, I just wanted to go in there and put more stuffing in, maybe it will make him fat enough.' "
Another time, Bowden said, "Tommy and Van Halanger went to whip a guy.
They went into somebody's room, the guy had a sign on a sheet in the window about a half a block from my office and it said 'Bye Bye Bobby.'
"So they were going to whip the guy and the funny thing was, when they walk into his room, they said, 'Oh, no.' It was a little ol' scrawny guy. Little ol' bitty thing, probably weighed 125 pounds, with big, thick glasses on. They turned around and walked out."
Van Halanger said he and Tommy confronted a student who wrote a school newspaper article that ripped Coach Bowden.
"We went to the fraternity house to get him to retract the story," Van Halanger said. "We walked in and he was like, 'Oh, I'll never write anything like that again.' "
That was probably a sensible move because the muscular Van Halanger weighed 270 pounds.
Bowden said there were plenty of people who wanted him fired that year.
"Boy, there was a bunch of 'em having some committee meetings," he said.
"But the (university) president didn't want to fire me and the athletic director didn't either."
Those two, he said, were the opinions that really counted.
The Bowdens weathered the criticism.
But daughter Robyn said it hurt the whole family, including her dad.
"I think daddy's feeling was, 'Let's go out and show 'em we can win again - and then let's get out of here,' " she said.
That's precisely what the beleaguered coach did - and he did it with style.
Young 1975 Team Overachieved
Most of the talented players Bowden praised going into 1974 season were gone.
In 1975, the Mountaineers were young, but had something to prove.
That included Tommy Bowden, a junior receiver with good hands, a little short on speed but long on courage.
Tommy's brother, Terry, was a freshman Mountaineer that year.
The most talented team he coached was in 1974, Bowden said. After the season, "We lost a lot of stars, some to the NFL," he said. The young team that overachieved: 1975.
The big game that year was the "Backyard Brawl" in Morgantown. Pitt was led by Coach Johnny Majors and a future Heisman Trophy winner, running back Tony Dorsett.
West Virginia was 6-2 going into the brawl game, with hopes of avenging a 31-14 loss to Pitt a year earlier.
A 14-14 tie came down to the final drive.
Newspaper accounts are sketchy, but Mountaineer quarterback Dan Kendra Sr. recalls moving down the field with some curl-route passes, at least one to Tommy.
He also remembers throwing a deep pass to Randy Swinson, who caught the ball and stepped out-of-bounds.
"I saw the cornerback bite on the curl-route. What I was taught, when the cornerback bites, look behind him," said Kendra, whose son, Dan Jr., would later play for Bowden at FSU.
With 14 seconds left, Bill McKenzie kicked a 38-yard field goal for the win.
"I couldn't stand to watch the kick, so I looked at Johnny Majors," Kendra said.
"His head went down, and I knew it was good."
Wild Mountaineer fans stormed the field.
"Outside the stadium, people started bonfires on the sidewalks and the streets.
They were even throwing old chairs and stuff on the fires," Kendra said.
Van Halanger said he never saw anything like it. "They burnt Morgantown down," he said.
Bowden figures that win, as much as anything else, earned him his next job, the one he still has.
Bowden also repaid a favor to Holtz and his North Carolina State team, which had beaten the Mountaineers, 49-13, in the 1972 Peach Bowl. In the same bowl in 1975, West Virginia prevailed, 13-10, fueled by two Kendra touchdown tosses.
After the game, Holtz said he was shell shocked.
But not as much as some of the Mountaineer faithful would be. They were about to lose their coach.