FLORENCE, Ala. — The failure was sudden and dramatic and it accomplished the seemingly impossible: sucking the energy and self-confidence from Terry Bowden.
His abrupt exit from Auburn’s football team nearly 11 years ago left the unabashedly ambitious, ultraconfident coach full of self-doubt.
“I think I suppressed so much depression and just unhappiness,” said Bowden, preparing for his first season coaching at Division II North Alabama. “You wake up for at least 30-45 minutes every day and say, ‘Could I have done something different? How did that happen?’
“It crushed me. I was probably unable to handle that degree of failure to the degree that it crushed me.”
It kept the onetime coaching wunderkind — who won his first 20 games as a major college coach — sidelined for nearly a decade, relegated to the comparatively safe world of TV studios, broadcasting booths and keyboards.
Now he’s back. Back in the state where he gained fame and eventually infamy, but far removed from both Auburn and the powerful Southeastern Conference. Mostly, he’s just back coaching.
At 53, Bowden has taken over a Division II power tucked away in the northwest corner of the state, a four-hour drive from Auburn. Unlike the down-and-out programs he took over during a rapid ascent through the coaching ranks, the Lions regularly win 10 games and made the national semifinals last year.
“Now, he’s gotten to one that’s on top,” said Bowden’s father, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. “It’s harder to maintain than to build.”
That’s why Bowden calls this “the most professionally challenging job I’ve ever had.”
He has worked as a radio talk show host, ABC studio analyst, Westwood One broadcaster, Internet columnist and motivational speaker during his absence from the sidelines.
Then he turned 50 and started wondering, “Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?”
“I wanted to coach again and then I really wanted to coach again and that created the fire,” Bowden said. “And that got everything going. That’s what made everything happen. It’s just the very normal male thing of reaching 50 and looking in the mirror.”
He interviewed at his alma mater West Virginia, but assistant Bill Stewart wound up getting the job replacing Rich Rodriguez.
Then he was broadcasting the Division II national championship game in Florence and somebody slipped him a note asking if he’d be interested in coaching at North Alabama.
Thus began the second act of a head coaching career that started at age 26 and took him to the SEC by 36.
He led probation-racked Auburn to 11 wins in 1993, one more than the Tigers had managed the previous two seasons combined. They wouldn’t lose until 10 games into the following season.
That idyllic beginning didn’t have a happy ending.
The 1998 season was a disaster, with injuries, academic problems and other off-field issues for Bowden’s players. The Tigers started 1-5 and Bowden resigned, maintaining that he bolted only after influential trustee Bobby Lowder told him he would be fired.
He moved to Orlando and seldom returned to the state for speaking engagements. When Bowden began trying to get back into coaching, he figured Alabama was the last place he’d end up.
Florence, with a population of about 37,000, is closer to the Mississippi and Tennessee borders than to Auburn, though.
“It’s not in the epicenter of controversy, (where) it’s just 365 days of bitter rivalry,” Bowden said.
He said Auburn fans have received him warmly, which is nice because “I never could quite say goodbye.”
Bowden still has the energy for coaching. With his family back in Orlando, where they’re trying to sell their house, he has spent many nights on the couch in his office.
Jeff Bowden, a UNA assistant and former Florida State offensive coordinator, said his older brother frequently sends text messages at 4 a.m. to staffers.
“What scares me about Terry, I never thought the batteries could get more charged than they are,” Jeff Bowden said. “I’ve never seen a coach like him that just went after everything, there was nothing he couldn’t do.
“Now magnify that by five. He’s so hungry. It’s like 10 years off, those batteries are supercharged. He’s just working at a pace that’s tough to be around because it’s tough to hang with.”
He calls Terry “the best football coach in our family, with the exception of maybe Dad.” Brother Tommy is a former head coach at Clemson and Tulane.
Bowden has his 1993 Bear Bryant national coach of the year award prominently on the desk in his outer office, with two UNA purple and gold ties wrapped around it.
He was the first Division I coach in more than five decades to reach 100 wins before his 40th birthday. And Bowden, perhaps the coaching family’s biggest Type A personality, was already calculating how many wins he’d need to average to pass Bryant’s record for major college wins since eclipsed by both his father and Penn State’s Joe Paterno.
Quick turnarounds at Salem College, Samford and Auburn hardly prepared him to cope with major setbacks.
“I set myself up to be devastated when something came in that was too big for me to handle,” Bowden said. “Of all us, I was the personality that would hurt the most. I was the 5-5 guy that was proving something every minute.”
Bowden said he isn’t necessarily looking at North Alabama as a launching pad back into a more high-profile gig or taking success for granted.
“I’m realistic enough to know they have fired coaches here for not winning,” he said. “And if I win a lot, somebody might come along and offer me money that I’ll really have a hard time turning down. But I’m not here to move on. I’ve been to Division I.”
Plus he added: “I’m 53, and a man at 53 sees life and objectives and satisfactions a little different than a guy of 36.”
John Zenor/The Associated Press