Monday, November 13, 2006

Saint Bobby and the Babe

In the pantheon of sports greatness few stand taller than Babe Ruth. The Babe transformed his sport, revolutionized the sports celebrity, and became one of the premier icons of post-depression America. Although his records may have been surpassed, his epic shadow still stands over baseball to this day.
Like Ruth, Florida State University Head Football Coach Bobby Bowden has become an icon in college football. Along with Penn State’s Joe Paterno, Bowden stands head and shoulders above his coaching contemporaries and has become possibly one of the most recognizable faces of college athletics in America.
Although one was an athlete and the other a coach, the careers of Babe Ruth and Bobby Bowden contain almost eerie similarities. As the career of Bobby Bowden strolls towards the sunset, a comparison of these icons is not only overdue, it is essential.

Origins towards Success

Both Bowden and Ruth entered their respective fields with two other organizations prior to reaching the teams that brought them to greatness. For Ruth, his rise to success began as a minor leaguer in Baltimore in 1914, continued as an up-and-coming major league veteran with the Boston Red Sox from 1914 to 1919, and reached its apex and superstar status with New York Yankees from 1920 to 1934.
After four years as a young head coach at Samford University (Howard College), Bowden progressed to West Virginia University, where he established himself as a capable head football coach winning 42 and losing only 26 from 1970 to 1975. In 1976 Bowden left West Virginia and came to Tallahassee where eventually success became the routine.

Years of Dominance

Eerily both Babe Ruth and Bobby Bowden can claim 14 years of nearly unmatched dominance in their fields. For over a decade, each was the greatest among their contemporaries and established levels of achievement seldom achieved.

After being sold to the New York Yankees in 1920, Ruth began an offensive assault unmatched in baseball history. From 1920 to 1933, Ruth led the Yankees to the World Series 10 times and paced the American League in home runs 12 times, averaging 45.5 home runs per year. His style of play and home run hitting ability changed the way baseball was played, brought fans to the ballpark as no player had before, and made the New York Yankees the premier benchmark of success in major league baseball.
From 1987 to 2000, Bobby Bowden was the Babe Ruth of the college football sidelines. Although Bowden did establish a culture of successful football during his first 11 years at Florida State (1976 to 1986), he won only 90 games. Starting in 1987 however, Bowden led the Seminoles to 153 victories, lost only 19, won two national championships, nine conference championships, and reached a major end-of-the-season bowl game every year.

The Houses that They Built

In 1923, the New York Yankees opened Yankee Stadium, a 70,000+ capacity venue featuring decorative facades, an “unheard of” amount of fan friendly restrooms, and executive offices for team officials. Because of the success of Babe Ruth and the Yankees since the Babe’s arrival the new stadium was aptly nicknamed “The House that Ruth Built.” Of course, Ruth wouldn’t disappoint, hitting a home run in the stadium's grand opening.
Although a new stadium was not in the plans for Florida State University, Bobby Bowden’s continued success in Tallahassee and a growing student body (possibly derived from a successful athletic program) forced the administration to revamp Doak Campbell Stadium and transform it into the largest football stadium in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Like Ruth’s new home, FSU also incorporated a large part of its administrative offices into the new stadium, adding offices for not only the athletic department, but admissions, registrar, and financial aid. As a tribute to Bowden, a bronze statue was created in his likeness in 2004.

The Later Years

In 1934, Babe Ruth “only” hit 22 home runs. According to ESPN’s baseball analyst Rob Neyer, “Ruth had turned thirty-nine in 1934, and though he could still hit — in ‘34, Ruth was maybe the third-best hitter in the American League, behind only Gehrig and Foxx — he couldn’t do much else.” Ruth’s 22 homers placed him 8th in the league as the Yankees finished second and began to rely more heavily on Triple Crown winner Lou Gehrig. The impression that Ruth could only hit home runs became truth as his batting average was his worst since his rookie year 20 years earlier. After the 1934 season and a falling out with management, Ruth would leave the Yankees and play his final season with the Boston Braves, hitting only six more career home runs. He left the game with 714 home runs, a record that would stand for nearly 30 years.

After reaching the National Championship game three years in a row and winning every game in the 1999-2000 season, the Bobby Bowden-led Florida State Seminoles began to fall off their perch as the nation's premier dominant football program. Although Bowden became the all-time winningest coach in college football, the Seminoles have only won 10 games once since 2000. Like Ruth before him, Bowden’s detractors have grown in number and have claimed his ability to coach has diminished, forcing the Seminoles to rely more on the talent on the field and not on the strategic mind of Coach Bowden.

It is highly unlikely that Bobby Bowden will be forced to finish his coaching career with another organization as Babe Ruth did with the Boston Braves. At nearly 80 years old, when Bowden leaves Florida State, his career will be over. Although there is history in elderly coaches turning programs around in the face of detractors (see Joe Paterno – 2005), even if Bobby Bowden fails to do so Florida State Seminole fans should take solace in knowing they witnessed a legend – a man so good at his profession Babe Ruth should henceforth be referred to as “The Bobby Bowden of Baseball.”