The recent spate of columns about Terry Bowden's new job at North Alabama (or more accurately, Jerry's post about them) got me thinking about Bowden for the first time in quite a while.
Terry Bowden is the only Auburn coach I've ever actually known personally. Pat Dye wouldn't know me from a pair of mud-encrusted plaid pants, and while Tommy Tuberville certainly knows who I am (he almost banned the local Rivals guys from the athletic department thanks in part to my '03 columns), we've never spoken in anything other than brief pleasantries at the Atlanta alumni club banquets.
But I spent a bit of time with Terry while writing "The Uncivil War," and a little more time in the years between its publication and his abrupt departure. Not a lot; we weren't on each other's Christmas lists, but he'd take my calls on the very rare occasions when I made them, and I got to know him a little bit. Most of what I got to know you could figure out from a distance: Terry is a smart and talented guy, but he was always a lot more about Terry than he ever was about Auburn.
I suspect the only people Terry ever really listened to were other Bowdens, and this was the downfall of both Terry and Tommy as coaches if you ask me. Together they could bounce ideas off each other and one could call the other out when he was suggesting something stupid. Apart, lacking feedback they respected, each one would go ahead and do the stupid thing. Quite obviously, Terry loves the sound of his own voice, and he's got the politician's habit of telling whomever he's talking to what he thinks they want to hear.
When it comes to why things just didn't work out with Terry and Auburn, two specific moments leap to my mind. Bowden's Auburn honeymoon ended on the night of September 21, 1996. The hometown Tigers lost a close one to the LSU variety on the night the old gym burned down outside the stadium gates, but what sticks out from that night for me was Bowden's post-game radio interview. Obviously agitated, Terry recounted how Auburn's kicker had a meltdown, and the backup quarterback threw a bad interception, and a few other things that time has thankfully erased from my memory.
Mind you, nothing he said was untruthful. The kicker did melt down, and the backup did throw a pick or three, but Bowden didn't take responsibility for the loss on himself, and virtually everybody listening thought, "He's blaming his players." The resulting reaction was the first real dose of poison in the relationship between Bowden and Auburn at large, and things festered, slowly, over the next couple of years. Bowden was still successful enough on the field to survive and occasionally thrive--at least while Dameyune Craig was in an AU uniform.
I also remember the exact moment when I knew Terry's job was in trouble. In August of 1998, there was a scrimmage for the scholarship donors in Jordan-Hare, with a coach autograph session in the Club Level after the "game." I'd recently done some freelance stuff for Inside The Auburn Tigers magazine, and was on the sidelines for the scrimmage (I recall ITAT editor Mark Murphy trying to telegraph to me that it was going to be a long season).
I walked up to the Club Level to see how things went afterwards. A couple of hundred hot, sweaty donors were lined up with their kids for autographs, but no Terry. I chatted with Pete Jenkins for a little while; Jenkins was and is one of the best people ever in that profession, and he did his level best to calm things down, but time kept ticking, and the day kept getting hotter, and still no Terry. The line got angrier and angrier; you could see Bowden's support literally dripping away on the faces of the rank-and-file athletic donors, the people whose goodwill he'd need the most just a few weeks later.
Since I was never looking for any autographs, I decided to hang it up and go find some air conditioning. On my way out of the stadium, I glanced down into the superstructure below the south end zone. There was Terry, yukking it up and eating watermelon with the ground crew. I shook my head, and went on home.