FLORENCE, Ala. - The failure was sudden and dramatic and it accomplished the seemingly impossible: sucking the energy and self-confidence from Terry Bowden.
Bowden’s 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 have won 10 games each of the past seasons 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 lead to 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 some 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.
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