I’ve dug myself quite a hole by coming up with this recurring offseason feature, wherein I read books by prominent college football coaches (or at least ghostwritten for them) and try to string together some kind of review. The thing is, a lot of these books are terrible, self-serving, and full of motivational pablum.
I had high hopes when I requested a book by Bobby Bowden - “The Bowden Way” from my local public library. (I want to emphasize the fact that I am not purchasing any of these books. It’s not important that you know that, but on the other hand, it really, really is). I figured, well, Bowden’s always been a colorful character, always had a funny quip throughout his career, maybe this’ll be an entertaining read.
So I was disappointed to crack the cover and realize it was framed - as many of these books are - as a self-help book, a management manual for aspiring business or organizational leaders.
And then I got into the book and... I... I think I like Bobby Bowden? This is a stunning realization for someone who grew up in the North in the ‘80s and ‘90s, believing as we did that Florida State football was among the roots of all evil in collegiate sports. Bobby Bowden had to be a bad guy. How could I read a business-guy primer book of his and end up liking him more? Here’s why
1. HE’S CANDID, AND IT’S NOT ENTIRELY SELF-SERVING
Within the first 15 pages of the book, he brings up the Foot Locker Scandal of the early ‘90s. He makes no excuses for the blame he took for it -
I’m the guy in charge. It’s my responsibility as leader to take measure to prevent such episodes.
But he also makes clear he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with people who would consider something like this indicative of a major problem in a program.
NCAA rules are there for good reason, but they aren’t always related to what common sense would tell you is inappropriate. The money is not stolen or counterfeit. A fair price is paid for the shoes. There’s nothing illegal or immoral about it. The rule exists to help deter a much bigger problem of cheating in athletics, so there’s no complaint with the NCAA. I still fail to see how it qualified for status as an outright scandal.
Later, referencing one letter he received from an alumni who was upset Bowden hadn’t kicked a troubled player off the team:
I wrote back - “if your child came to FSU and got in trouble, would you prefer that I assist your child in whatever way I can until you arrive, our would you rather I join the mob against them?
(He does clarify this courtesy does not extend to abuse allegations; I don’t have the time or desire to square that with an investigation of his record on the matter.)
2. HIS MORAL ADVICE IS MOSTLY JUST PRACTICAL ADVICE
If you don’t hire a person with good character, then you’d better hope he’s dumb and lazy. If he’s smart and energetic, he will get you in all kinds of trouble.
As a dumb and lazy person of poor character, I accept this endorsement.
I’ve developed one habit that really helps me guard against violating a confidence: I always try to say only good things about other people. The few times I have popped off and said something critical of a person, it came back to bite me.
In the words of a wise poet, “don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.”
Don’t say anything you don’t want repeated in public, because it probably will be. Don’t do anything you don’t mind everyone knowing about, because they eventually will know.
If you lie to people, you must constantly try to remember which lies you told to whom. Keeping track of all the lies is hard work.
Given the eventual comeuppance of some coaches who’ve preached a strict moralist view, Bowden (who does weave a good bit of his religious beliefs throughout) taking the more pragmatic view of “things will catch up with you” is fairly refreshing.
3. HE TALKS ABOUT... WORK-LIFE BALANCE?
He stresses that he works long hours during the football season, as most coaches do, but he doesn’t celebrate that pathology as many would.
With faxes, e-mail and cellular phones, we can work from just about any locale - from the office, at home, in a different country, on the golf course, in a restaurant, or even while traveling. Such convenience is one of the virtues of modern technology. But too much of a virtue becomes a vice.
We must not allow work to dominate, or intrude into, every waking moment of our lives.
This is really the most appealing thing about this book. Most coaches are proselytizers of the gospel of work - work yourself to death, work your subordinates to death, demand more, all the time. And that mindset carries over to the non-football world; it’s a fundamental sickness in the American psyche that we prize work above anything else; we want to die at our desks.
4. HE SEEMS LIKE A DECENT BOSS
Staff meetings convene at 8:30am. Some coaches may want to have breakfast with their families and then take their children to school. I allow them time for morning family responsibilities before the meeting begins.
It’s sad how unusual this is to hear in any office, let alone in the notably workaholic environment of college football.
I refuse to criticize or embarrass my coaches in front of the players. First, I wouldn’t want to be treated that way by my superior. Second, the coach who has just been belittled in front of his players has now lost a measure of credibility with them.
[nodding, thinking of past bosses]
I never make jokes about a coach’s salary or anything related to promotions. Some issues are just better left alone, no matter how much you think your employees life you or how innocent your comment is intended to be.
I don’t confide in, or share my personal life with, my staff members. It’s not that I view my staff as men of inferior rank. That’s not it at all. I recognize the need to maintain a professional distance.
I don’t try to get chummy with my superiors, even if they’re powerful trustees who think I’m the greatest thing since Santa Claus. This might produce short-term results, but the risk usually isn’t worth the reward.
He frames this as part of a larger point that “don’t pretend your workplace is a family, because it isn’t”, which is heartening to any of us who’ve heard the “we’re all a family here” statement from a manager explaining away why they just laid off 10% of our family.
I’m still not a fan of this genre of book, the management-manual-coaching-book. The observations are generally pretty shallow and surface-level. But compared to the Michael Scott-level nonsense in some examples (I keep coming back to Urban Meyer’s book here), Bobby Bowden’s book is borderline refreshing. He doesn’t preach, he doesn’t burnish his own legacy as a paragon of virtue - he gives reasonably decent advice about being a good leader.
Perhaps that’s how he managed to have a nearly 40-year major college head coaching career that didn’t end in scandal or in burnout. He’s not prizing work above all, he’s not making monomania a virtue.
I knew this feature was going to be rough, but I never expected to come out of it thinking well of Bobby Bowden.