Saying Farewell to a Friend I don’t think we ever listened to the car radio, not even once in thirty-two years. Every April and May since 1978 Bobby Bowden and I spent week after week driving the highways and back roads of Florida and Georgia, mostly late at night taking the Annual Seminole Boosters/Bobby Bowden Golf & Dinner Tour to our Seminole Clubs. My wife Connie keeps reminding me to go over to the Moore Center and say goodbye to Coach. I know I should do that. I’m just not sure how to say it. Neither Coach Bowden nor I have ever been comfortable with those things. By the time you read this it will be early spring again and Bobby and Ann Bowden may have already moved away, as they have always planned to do after he retired. Right now it’s December and I know I really should go see him before Christmas. But once you say goodbye that means the story is over. I don’t want to do that. We never asked for directions in our travels, determining it to be unmanly, and we never played the radio. We never used a GPS device and it’s only in the last year or so that I bought a Sun Pass to get through the toll booths without stopping. Across more than three decades very little changed inside our vehicle or within our routines. That’s the way we liked it. I’m sure that one secret to spending thirty-two years in the front seat together without a cross word is compatibility. We both dislike change. No, we hate change. We continued to drive the same roads for years even after better roads were built. We stopped at the same convenience stores long after they became, well, less convenient and we told stories about the oddball clerks who used to work there. Our chatter subsisted on small things. When he switched from Red Man to Levi Garrett it provided a topic of conversation for years. We always told stories, and they were the same stories over and over. We joked that now we had grown old and so all the stories sounded new to us every time we told them to each other. In all that time I suppose I should have gotten an autograph but I never did. I felt I should keep something to mark our decades together so a few years ago I saved a cigar he had chewed. It’s around here somewhere, preserved in a humidor. I toyed with the idea of having him sign it but he would think that was silly. But I know he would have done it; he was always gracious to a fault. I’d love to put my arms around and him and kiss him on the cheek and say goodbye but that would be unmanly, like asking for directions, and so that will never happen. We’ll probably shake hands and nod and smile and he’ll say, “I’ll see ya buddy.” And I’ll say, “Yes, we’ll get together and play golf over in Destin some time.” And that will be the end. One Saturday night very late I drove him to a private airport in Miami so he could catch a small plane home. The weather was bad so I suggested he ride back with me. I was used to long stretches of night driving and he could sleep. But no, he said had to get up early and fly to Birmingham to speak in church. I knew he spoke at churches every Sunday no matter how exhausted he was at the end of a week of traveling. “So many of them ask me to and I feel I ought to do it.” He laughed and said, “There was this one church I really wanted to see so I asked them if I could come speak…and they turned me down! They told me the program was already full that Sunday.” We never talked about religion but sometimes we did talk about church. We like the old hymns and not so much the contemporary ones. He’s very musical, has a splendid light baritone voice and plays the piano and trombone. My favorite memory of our travels is one dark night speeding down I-4 toward Orlando, the two of us singing along with a CD of the Statler Brothers Greatest Gospel Hits. Upon the announcement of Coach Bowden’s retirement, novelist Padgett Powell said that while it might be an overstatement to call him the last of a generation of ‘southern gentlemen coaches’, Bobby Bowden was “almost certainly the last of the Cracker Christian coaches.” There’s the hint of a sneer in that comment, but Bowden probably wouldn’t object to being described as a ‘Cracker Christian’. He’d laugh. This past summer Georgia Coach Mark Richt told a story about being a graduate assistant at Florida State under Bowden. He made the decision to come to Christ and asked Coach Bowden to assist him, to make the introduction as it were. Mark said they knelt side by side in prayer, right there in Bobby’s office. Finally Coach looked up and said, “Lord, I’m here with…” He glanced at Mark, who whispered, “Mark Richt”. “Yes Lord, this is my good friend Mark Richt.” Every great story should have a worthy ending. I think this story deserves a different ending than the one that’s unfolding now, so I’m going to choose my own. This one is better and it suits the man. In this ending we join him at the summit of his iconic career. Let’s revisit one bright and glorious day before the long, slow setting of the sun. The National Championship celebration took place on January 22nd after the 2000 Sugar Bowl. More than 2,500 Seminoles packed into the Civic Center, fighting for precious tickets, straining to see their FSU heroes accept their accolades from the Atlantic Coast Conference and from the Sugar Bowl and the big black trophy from the friendly people at Sears. More than 35,000 celebrants had tumbled into Doak Campbell that afternoon to shout their joy to the world via the magic of the internet and the Sunshine Network. At the end of the banquet, after Coach Bowden's address, after the highlight films and the trophy presentations and the wonderfully praise-laden speech by ESPN announcer Mike Gottfried and after the players' remarks… After all that, the crowd began to drift outwards, happy, lingering lovingly on every memory of this remarkable championship season. Two sturdy Capitol Police officers in their stiff- brimmed trooper hats had seen duty guarding all the expensive hardware on display during the banquet. A crowd of probably two hundred lingering fans was pressing to the front, some to see the trophies, some to pursue the vain hope that they might somehow get Bobby Bowden's signature. I whispered to Coach, “These troopers can whisk you out the back right now. You can go straight to your car and head home.” Bowden thought about it. He looked at the crowd. There seemed to be lots of older people, lots of young kids, and clusters of young parents with their babies. They all looked in turn at all the trophies, and then at him as if he was the greatest trophy of all. “Maybe I ought to stick around for a little bit and sign a few autographs,” he sighed. I shook my head. “Coach,” I said, “If you wade into this crowd you'll never get away. You'll be here all night.” He turned to me. “Yeah, I know you’re probably right but...” He glanced back over his shoulder at the lines of adoring fans. “But they've been so good, and for such a long time.” I shrugged and walked out onto the floor to visit with a few friends who’d stayed behind. The Capitol Police stood by as Bobby Bowden signed autograph after autograph, smiling at every face, laughing at every joke, making each fan feel as if they were an old school chum from Birmingham. The Civic Center maintenance workers began to turn out the big overhead lights in the ceiling of the hall. The huge cavern slowly darkened and looked even larger in the shadows. As I walked toward the back door, I could turn and see the crowd, smaller in number now, nestled against the head table still bright in the few lights left. That's where I choose to end the story. My last scene would be that crowd of fans in one end of a huge, darkening room, gathered around a smiling man standing on a low stage, head-high above the people, taking each piece of paper, each football, or hat, or program in turn, writing on it and handing it back with a smile. “They've been so good, and for such a long time”. So were you, pal. So were you.