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The Tide that binds

Editor's note: This story originally ran on Sept. 27, 2007.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Bobby Bowden reached into the credenza behind his desk in his office and pulled out what was left of an old, black, three-ring binder.

The front cover had not survived the trip from his boyhood, leaving behind frayed wisps along the edges. The back cover carried pennant stickers for the southern powers of his day: Georgia Tech. Alabama. Tennessee. Sewanee. The lined notebook paper had yellowed, although not as much as the newspaper clippings taped to it.

"This is my Alabama scrapbook," Bowden said. "1944-1945. That's when I was a kid."

The scrapbook is filled with neatly cut photographs, some from the Birmingham papers, some from Alabama game programs.

The Florida State head coach, in a career that has spanned six decades and already reached the College Football Hall of Fame, has achieved what few men in college football ever have or ever will.

There have been two national championships, led in each season by a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback. There have been 368 victories (and counting), more than any coach in NCAA Division I-A history.

At 77 years old, Bowden is nearing an age when "fourscore" means more than 28 points. But on Saturday, Bowden will fulfill a dream that he nurtured as a young boy. For the first time in his life, Bowden will step on the football field with the Crimson Tide.

He won't fill the roles he envisioned growing up in Birmingham. Bowden saw himself throwing jump passes for Tide coach Frank Thomas, just like Harry Gilmer, Bowden's boyhood hero from the neighborhood.

If Bowden couldn't play for Thomas, he saw himself playing trombone for Col. Carleton Butler, the director of the university's famed Million Dollar Band. He won't be doing that, either.

Nor will Bowden be in the role he envisioned four decades later, when he decided to leave the Seminoles to go home and coach the Crimson Tide. After Alabama mishandled the courtship in December 1986, Bowden remained at Florida State, where the nine-foot-tall bronze statue of him outside the entrance to the athletic building stands as testament to all that he has meant to the university.

But it will be enough for Bowden to be on the sideline opposite Alabama. In his first I-A head coaching job, at West Virginia in the early 1970s, Bowden would quell his pregame nerves in the locker room by humming his favorite boyhood tune: "Yea, Alabama!"

"DAH-dah dah-DAH-dah, DAH-dah-DAH," Bowden said. "I'd be humming the Alabama fight song. Why in the world did I keep doing that? Because I'd done it all my life and I'd heard it all my life."

In his 487th game as a head coach, Bowden for the first time will coach against the team that captured his heart as a child.

"To me," Bowden said, "there was no other school."

Bowden's father, Bob, loved football so much that he would come home from his work at the First National Bank of Birmingham and climb onto the roof of his garage. The roof provided a perch for Mr. Bowden to see over the tall hedge that separated his property from the Woodlawn High practice field. There he would watch the best high school team in Birmingham practice. Often he took 3-year-old Bobby up on the roof with him.

Several Woodlawn players attended Bob Bowden's Sunday school class in the neighborhood Baptist church. The Woodlawn stars often went 60 miles southwest to play for Thomas, whose Midwestern twang ruled the Tide's practice fields for 15 seasons.

"Dad worked with a guy named Holt Rast," Bowden said. "Does that ring a bell? Holt Rast Sr. Holt's son, Holt Rast Jr., played at Woodlawn, went to Alabama and was a great (1941 All-American) end there. So Dad would take me down to Tuscaloosa to see games. Not all the time, now, but say, once a year for a boy 8 or 9 years of age.

"We would drive down. Dad and my uncle, would drive down in a '36 Ford. Could have been a '37 Ford. My uncle was the only one who had a car. We didn't have a car at my house."

When Alabama played archrival Tennessee at Legion Field in Birmingham every other year, Bowden's father managed to secure 40-yard-line seats, halfway up.

"Auburn and Alabama didn't play in those days," Bowden said. "It wasn't like you had two schools. It was just Alabama."

If he didn't go to the games, Bowden listened to them on the family radio in the living room. Sometimes, he would hear the game in the barbershop. The only way he could go to a Saturday movie -- "the picture show," said Bowden, using a phrase that has gone the way of the family radio -- was if he promised his mother he would get a haircut afterward.

"Frank Thomas was taking them to the Rose Bowl, and the Orange Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl," Bowden said. "He was taking them to all the bowls. Those are the years, the late '30s and '40s."

The bonds forged between a boy and his team remain strong for a lifetime. Not only do they enrich us as men; they sustain the young boy in us, the one buried beneath the assaults and detritus of adult life.

"I was so avid that I can even remember crying," Bowden said. "I remember praying, 'God, please help them win.'"

The 1945 Alabama team, led by Gilmer and fellow sophomore Vaughn Mancha, went 10-0 and whipped USC, 34-14, in the Rose Bowl. As Bowden flipped the pages of his scrapbook, he became starstruck all over again.

"Harry Gilmer," Bowden said, pointing at a photo. "Now I was a big Harry Gilmer fan because he went to my high school. He was four years ahead of me. But he was our hero, all the kids around.

"I lived down at the foot of Howard College football field, which was kind of on a hill there. So every Sunday, all the neighborhood guys would go up there and play touch football, and sometimes Harry would come down and everybody would divide up. I would run with those guys."

Gilmer became a college sensation for his jump-passing. He would leap in the air and throw, and did it so effectively that he led the nation as a sophomore in that magical 1945 season with 13 touchdown passes.

"He jump-passed and I did, too," Bowden said. "Back in those days we all copied Harry. I never will forget. We had a sweep at Woodlawn High called 38. So we had a play called 38 jump pass. You'd run out there and jump up and throw the ball. That was a Birmingham thing because of Harry Gilmer. Nobody else in the country jumped."

The scrapbook features multiple pictures of Mancha, an All-American center with rugged good looks whom Thomas loved. The scrapbook includes an assemblage of the school's all-time team as selected by the Birmingham newspapers in 1943, the year before Mancha arrived. Yet his picture is taped over that of some poor soul, voted out by the scrapbook owner.

"Oh, yeah," Bowden admitted, laughing. "I had my own Alabama picks."

Mancha is the reason that Bowden first brought the scrapbook out of his attic. When Bowden came to Florida State as an assistant coach in 1963, Mancha served as the Seminoles' athletic director. Now, all three -- Gilmer, Mancha and Bowden -- are members of the College Football Hall of Fame.

As a precaution, in case Bowden's memory needed jogging, I brought with me an illustrated history of Alabama football, a book that the university commissioned in 2000. It is written by Winston Groom, an Alabama graduate better known for writing the novel "Forrest Gump".

With the book opened to the era of Bowden's childhood, the first picture that Bowden identified was not of Gilmer or Mancha, or of Herk Mosley or Hugh Morrow or Lowell Tew, former Tide players that Bowden named without bothering to look at the captions.

No, the first picture, he pointed to was of a smartly uniformed man with swept-back hair, standing before the Alabama Million Dollar Band.

"Is that Col. Butler right there? Probably is," Bowden said. "He was the band director. Oh, they were good. Bowden paused and mimicked himself and the other Million Dollar Band groupies of his day. 'Fast step! Look at 'em fast step! Nobody else can do that!'"

Bowden had more than a halftime interest in the band. Decades before the movie "American Pie" corrupted the term, Bowden attended band camp at the university for five weeks during the summer of 1945. He beamed with pride as he recalled playing one of three solos at the camp recital.

Of course, the song he practiced most was "Yea, Alabama!"

"Oh, yeah, oh gosh, yeah," Bowden said. "No telling how many times I played that thing, just at the house. I was captivated by that band and that song and of course, the Tide, the Tide."

Bowden enrolled at the university to play football for Thomas' successor, Red Drew. But he got homesick for his hometown girl, Ann, and married players couldn't remain on scholarship. Bowden moved home, got married, and played football at Howard College.

When Bowden took over as coach of his alma mater in 1959, he regularly visited Alabama practices, not only to learn the secrets of coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, but to recruit. Bryant would give him a list of players that wouldn't be able to play for him. Bowden scouted them.

"If you want them up there at your school, you let me know," Bryant told Bowden. "I'll call them in and suggest they go there."

Bowden climbed the career ladder, going from assistant jobs at Florida State and West Virginia to becoming head coach at West Virginia (1970-75) and then back at Florida State. In 1986, his 11th season in Tallahassee, the Seminoles went 6-4-1 and received an invitation to the All-American Bowl in Bowden's hometown.

As soon as Florida State arrived, Alabama head coach Ray Perkins resigned to go to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Alabama people knew who they wanted to bring home to coach.

"Gosh, I got calls from all kind of Alabama people," Bowden said. "… Oh, we want you. We want you here as our head coach. Some of their big hitters called. 'What do you want me to do? You want me to call?'"

When the university asked him to meet, Bowden assumed the job would be his.

"I thought it would be two or three trustees and wrap this thing up. I had already made up my mind I was gon' go."

But Bowden discovered that university president Dr. Joab Thomas wanted him to go through a full-fledged interview. Bowden got up and left and took his name out of consideration. Three years later, after Bill Curry resigned, Alabama called Bowden and offered him the job, no interview attached. He declined.

"I thought I was supposed to go back there, you know it?" Bowden said. "You know how you feel like you're just kind of being led some place? I'm thinking, 'Boy, it's funny how my career is. I'm going to end up back where I always wanted to be.' And I just thought it was meant to be.

"But it wasn't."

No complaints. No worries, beyond inducing some life in the sluggish offense that will take the field Saturday against the Crimson Tide.

For more than a decade Bowden has deflected any talk of his retirement. He feels good physically, he says, and the desire to compete still consumes him. But in the event he ever did retire, there is one thing he would like to do.

"One of my goals in life is to go back to Tuscaloosa and attend a football game," Bowden said. "You know, just for old times. Sit up in the stands. Of course, it looks so different now. One of these days, I hope I can do that."

He gazed up at his office ceiling, lost in the reverie.

"I hope we ain't playing Florida State."

We?

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Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Photos credits: FSU Sports Information; Chuck Walsh/FSU Sports Information; Alabama athletics; Paul W. Bryant Museum/The University of Alabama