So there was North Alabama, ranked No. 1 in the nation in NCAA Division II, fighting like crazy to hold off second-ranked Delta State in a Gulf South Conference showdown last month.
The Lions led by 10 in the fourth quarter and were seemingly on their way to another victory, that is until the Statesmen rallied and came away with a 30-24 win in overtime.
It doesn’t matter if you are a Division I, II or III team: losing stings no matter how you slice it up, a lesson North Alabama head coach Terry Bowden remembered after the setback.
“I was reminded of just how much people care about winning around here and how tough it is to lose a big football game no matter what level you are coaching at,” said Bowden, the son of college coaching legend Bobby Bowden. “People care about their football around here and the expectation is to win every game.”
Bowden has had more good days than bad at North Alabama. In his first season in Florence, Bowden guided the Lions to an 11-2 record overall, a conference championship and a playoff berth. North Alabama advanced to the quarterfinal round that season.
Life wasn’t as smooth for Bowden in Year Two. Still, his Lions finished 9-4 and tied for fourth in the Gulf South. They managed to earn a playoff again, advancing to the second round.
This season, even with that loss to Delta State, which was followed by a 31-26 loss to West Alabama, the Lions are still in a position that most teams can only dream of being in. Bowden has his team at 7-2 overall and in the mix for a playoff spot. The Lions play their regular-season finale Nov. 12 against Valdosta State. The dream of delivering the program’s first national championship since 1995 is still realistic.
And sure, the stress on a football coach is much more difficult to deal with than being a football analyst for television and radio, which is what Bowden did after a six-year run at Auburn. But coaching is in the blood of Bowden considering his dad is a college football icon, the legendary Florida State coach won 389 games in his career.
His brother, Jeff, is an assistant on the North Alabama staff. Jeff and Terry also worked together at Salem and Samford.
“I’m enjoying myself. I’m close to my family and I love this part of the country,“ Bowden said. “There is such a great desire here to be successful and I want see this team be as successful as possible. Everyone talks about winning a national championship around here, and I know that kind of expectation can be tough to deal with, but I don’t mind the challenge of trying to win one.”
Challenges are nothing to new to Bowden. As a running back at West Virginia, he won two letters and had the highest grade-point average on the team — 3.65 as an accounting major — and he graduated Manga Cum Laude.
His first job as a head coach was at Salem College at the age of 26. At the time, he was the youngest college football coach in the country. Salem was 0-9-1 the year before he arrived and he guided the school to three wins in his first season.
The next year, Salem won the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship for only the second time in 80 years. Salem repeated as league champions in 1985.
He spent the 1986 season with Gary Faust at Akron and took over at Samford in 1987. The Bulldogs had won six games the year before he arrived. Bowden had the magic touch, though, and guided Samford to a 9-1 mark.
Three consecutive mediocre seasons followed, but in 1991 and 1992, Bowden took Samford to the Division I-AA playoffs twice, including a national semifinal appearance in 1991 and went 21-5 during that stretch.
Bowden also spent six seasons at Auburn, starting with the 1993 season when he hauled in nearly every national coach of the year award while guiding the Tigers to an 11-0 record.
Auburn was 9-1-1 in 1994 and he won at least eight games the next three seasons before he resigned in 1998 after six games.
The fact that Bowden has lived in the sometimes insane, pressure-packed world of Southeastern Conference football has helped him deal with the expectations he now deals with at North Alabama.
There is, of course, a major difference in the pressure he feels now compared to what he dealt with while at the helm of the Tigers.
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“The outside pressure is not as great here,” Bowden said. “At Auburn, there was the Internet, talk radio, the fans, everything. It was hard to keep the players from it all and it was tough for those athletes to enjoy college the way other students do. The athletes here [North Alabama] can enjoy being a student, too. Every part of their life and football career is not evaluated as closely as it was at Auburn.”
Interestingly enough, Bowden has never let the pressure burn him up. He’s been able to do that by learning from his father, who dealt with high expectations year after year while at Florida State. Bowden said he talks often with his dad and brothers about football.
“The most important thing I learned from him is that you have to keep football in perspective,” Bowden said. “You can’t ever win enough to please everyone. It’s impossible. If you don’t keep football in perspective and realize that it is not bigger than life, it will drive you crazy. I’ve always tried to remember that during my career.”
As for North Alabama, it has two games remaining on its schedule before the playoffs begin. The Lions were fourth in the regional rankings heading into the first week of November.
“We have to take it one game at a time. You can’t get too far ahead of yourself,” Bowden said. “As long as our guys stay focused and compete every week, we’ll have a chance to accomplish our goals.”
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