What ever happened to loyalty in sports? Loyalty — a special pride and attachment to a team or player or coach — is disappearing in sports. Respect is drifting away. The uniform was once a sacred thing. The work clothes of the athlete were often the same for twenty years. Lou Gehrig only donned the Pinstripes, John Stockton’s shorts were always purple, and Cal Ripken played every single game in Baltimore. This is rare today. It’s also sad. In today’s sporting landscape, the only color that matters is green.
Gone are the days of knowing every player on the team like family. Now, even the superstars switch allegiances every couple of years. The reasons are always the same: “I want a championship…I need a change of scenery.” The reason is always the same: more money. Why do athletes who make millions every year need more?
If loyalty had any meaning today, LeBron James wouldn’t be putting off negotiations. He would already be a Cavalier for life. He’s the hometown kid—that should be enough. He already makes millions. But LeBron isn’t making any promises to stay. He wants to be a billionaire. Why does he need to be a billionaire. LeBron, why don’t you prove your greatness and stay in Cleveland? Take a pay cut. When asked if winning is everything, the answer is always a resounding, “Yes!” When asked if they would take a pay cut the answer is always, “Next question.” What’s the difference between $10 million and $20 million? To the sports industry the difference is everything. The money and greed is sickening.
Loyalty has been buried under the growing pile of money today. The undying passion of fans and players in the past is dying away. The glory days — Bird in the Garden, Magic in the Forum, The Dr. in the Spectrum — are fading. They are fading because loyalty is fading too. The roars of the crowd rushing the court are distant memories. It’s not just professional sports either.
On Tuesday, Bobby Bowden was forced out at Florida State. The legendary coach will retire after the Seminoles’ bowl game. The decision came under pressure from the Florida State athletic director, boosters, and fans. He was offered the opportunity to become an “ambassador” to the program, helping with fundraising. How noble of FSU athletics to offer him this prestigious position in his program! Bowden was essentially fired. His name should be next to Charlie Weis’ this week. Unlike Weis, Bowden did not deserve the axe. After thirty-four years of service, Bowden was effectively kicked out of the house he built.
According to Mark Schlabach’s reports, one of the main criticisms of Bowden was: “He was too loyal to his coaching staff.” Loyalty is not only unimportant today. It is a hindrance. That same loyalty made Florida State into a college football powerhouse. Maybe they forgot that FSU football would be nowhere without their loyal coach.
When Bowden arrived in Tallahassee, Florida State was a nobody in college football, a perennial loser. In the three seasons before Bowden took over, the Seminoles won four games. There wasn’t a program. In his first season, 1976, the team went 5-6. This was a vast improvement considering the program’s history. Since 1976, the Seminoles haven’t had a losing season. He made a loser into a winner overnight.
With the steady improvements each year, Bowden made FSU respectable. Then, he made FSU football a dynasty. In 1987 the ‘Noles finished in the top 5 and nearly captured the national title. This finish began an unprecedented run of 14 consecutive seasons finishing in the top 5. And you thought you were sick of USC. It may never be done again. During that golden era, Florida State was in the midst of the title race in 1987, 1988, 1991, and 1992. The elusive title was finally Bowden’s in 1993. He would win again in 1999 behind Peter Warrick and Chris Weinke. It was his first and only undefeated season. He also guided FSU to 12 ACC titles. Bowden was a 5-time National Coach of the Year (1979, 1980, 1991, 1996, 1999) and was named National Coach of the Decade for the 1990s. In 2006, Bowden was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. His resume is too long to list everything. There aren’t many who can match Bowden’s achievements.
If anyone can it’s Joe Paterno. Bowden’s 388 career wins are second to the Penn State legend. The two coaches’ share a special bond as the elder statesmen of college football. They have traded the career wins record during this decade. Finally, it seems it will belong to Paterno for many years. But the wins are only half the story. Both are classy individuals that can see past wins and losses.
Bowden is revered for his sense of humor and his warm personality. Unlike the legends before him that used scare tactics, Bowden acted as a father of one, big, happy family. That attitude won the hearts of players and their families, and ultimately won him a lot of games. His warmth and kindness were on display throughout his career, an honorable feat in this cutthroat business. Perhaps the best example came before Bowden roamed the sidelines of Doak Walker Stadium. As the head coach at West Virginia, Bowden helped Marshall’s football program recover from tragedy after the entire team and coaching staff was killed. He allowed new coach Jack Lengyel to study film and playbooks to create a new, simple offense for the young Herd. It didn’t stop there. Bowden had commemorative sticker put on the back of West Virginia’s helmets to remember Marshall’s fallen players. Bowden constantly recognized football is just a game. His grounded personality make his accomplishments all the more impressive.
Still, Florida State couldn’t see that there is more to wins and losses. Unlike Paterno, Bowden wasn’t given the chance to rebound. Earlier this decade, Paterno struggled through four losing seasons in five years. His team dropped 7 contests twice and 9 once. Bowden has never lost more than 6. There were certainly cries for Paterno to give it up. But PSU stayed the course and respected what Joe Pa did for the university and the football program. Five years later and all is well in Happy Valley once again. If Bowden just wanted one more year, why wouldn’t FSU agree? One year for the coach that gave thirty-four years and a respected program seems like the least they could do.
Yet, he was not given a proper sendoff. He was not allowed to go on his own terms. The pressures built up too high. Seats were empty this year in Doak Walker Stadium. The athletic department was losing money, and another year would be too much. The same fans that enjoyed the domination of FSU football earlier this decade were nowhere to be found when their coach needed support the most. Fans seem to be losing a sense of loyalty too. The fans once defined loyalty, but now even that is a question mark. Bandwagons seem to get bigger every year in every sport.
The fans got what they asked for in Bowden’s removal. But is change always good? The Jimbo Fisher era begins in Tallahassee in 2010. The FSU may learn the hard way that they were spoiled for 34 years. They will be lucky if Fisher has half the success Bowden did, and they’ll wish they were more grateful when he was still around. Be careful what you wish for Florida State. I may be wrong but Jimbo Fisher is no Bobby Bowden. One more year wouldn’t hurt.
Bowden bleeds garnet and gold. No…he is FSU football. He is the lifeblood of the program. Will the Seminoles be able to replace that blood — that passion and loyalty — or will the program slip back into oblivion like in 1975? The garnet and gold have quite a task ahead of them.
And Bobby Bowden won’t be around to help.