ULM football coach Terry Bowden's latest career arc is his toughest yet | Hunsucker

Adam Hunsucker
Monroe News-Star

Terry Bowden asks “Are you OK time-wise?”

The new Louisiana-Monroe football coach notices the nonverbals. Questions like that typically come from media, not the coach. Bowden has been both, having returned to the latter with an appreciation for the former developed at ABC Sports.

If you peep at your watch during an interview, Bowden will conscientiously ask.

“I know I’m giving you a book.”

No surprise there. Volumes have been written about college football’s first family, the dynasty Terry’s father Bobby Bowden crafted at Florida State and his own saga on the plains of Auburn.

Terry weaves downhome parables like Bobby, just at the rapid-fire pace of prized pupil Jimbo Fisher, his former quarterback and assistant. After becoming the coach at Texas A&M, Fisher’s word bullets destroyed the closed captioning system at the Southeastern Conference’s Media Days in 2018.

Fisher was heir to the Bowden legacy at Florida State and led the Seminoles to the 2013 BCS national title. Texas A&M lured Fisher to College Station with a guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract, more than ULM’s combined athletic department revenue over the past four years.  

Bowden once reached the same pedestal. His first season at probation-riddled Auburn produced a perfect 11-0 record and earned him National Coach of the Year. He was a rock star at 35, singing James Taylor songs with the band at Denaro’s, a long-lost watering hole in town.

The J&M Bookstore on Toomer’s Corner made more money that year than in the previous two combined. The Johnston family, who own and operate the bookstore, tearfully thanked Bowden at church one Sunday.

“If that happened today, I would have made so much money I probably wouldn’t be worth a nickel now,” Bowden said. “If you look at how my career went, it took some interesting turns but it all kind of makes sense when you put it in perspective.”

MORE: Four things on new ULM football coach Terry Bowden's to-do list

'More excited about going somewhere than here'

In terms of prestige and splendor, Bowden’s new job is a long way from the SEC. ULM has more in common with previous DIY projects at Salem (W Va.), Samford (Ala.) and Akron. At 26, Bowden took over a 0-9-1 team at Salem. Two years later, the Tigers were conference champions. He transitioned Samford from Division III into an FCS contender and led Akron to its first bowl win and Mid-American Conference Division title.

ULM hired Bowden to pull another perennial loser from under the basement. The Warhawks finished 0-11 in 2020, the worst season in their 89-year history. The job itself might be the worst in FBS, even worse than Akron.

“It does take some humility knowing you were once the National Coach of the Year at Auburn, but I lost that a long time ago,” Bowden said. “It’s more about coaching football for me and I am dead honest when I say that since I went to Auburn, I have never been more excited about going somewhere than here.”

But why though? Someone who studied abroad at Oxford must be smarter than that. The call of the family business is part of it. Though the self-described chip Bowden carries shouldn’t be ignored.

Account-settling comes natural to Bowden, who graduated magna cum laude from West Virginia in accounting. It’s why he joined the WVU football team as a walk-on running back. It’s why he left a lucrative broadcasting gig and returned to coaching at Division II North Alabama in 2009. It’s why he can’t wait to show Akron athletic director Larry Williams that he made a mistake firing him following the 2018 season.

For the record: Akron was 1-11 before Bowden’s arrival and is 1-17 since firing him.

“I got a new boss and he wanted to go a different way,” Bowden said. “I look at what Doc is going through and it’s kind of like that.”

Doc is Bowden’s former West Virginia teammate Doc Holliday, whose contract was not renewed at Marshall. Holiday’s record was 85-54 in 11 seasons, which included three consecutive years of 10 wins or more and the 2014 Conference-USA championship.

Bowden himself was forced out at Auburn in 1998, the hits from a 20-1-1 start to his tenure buried in the discount bin. Older brother Tommy, author of an undefeated season at Tulane, befell the same fate at Clemson.

ULM is the latest head-coaching stop for Terry Bowden, who led programs at Auburn, Akron, North Alabama, Samford and Salem. The 1993 National Coach of the Year led Auburn to a perfect 11-0 record in his first season and was the first coach to win a bowl game at Akron.

Clemson promoted assistant Dabo Swinney to interim coach seven games into the 2008 season. Swinney secured the full-time job in December and transformed the Tigers into a national power. A decade later, Terry accepted a graduate assistant position at Clemson to learn from Swinney.

“I didn’t like the way it ended at Akron,” Bowden said. “That left a sour taste in my mouth, so I went to Clemson to kind of reinvent myself and learn so I could find the right program. It wasn’t just to hang on in coaching.”

Hangers-on need not apply for Bowden’s staff either. He’s not looking to hire friends. The same applies to family; Tommy and younger brother Jeff both worked for him in the past. Young, eager and cheap is the plan for now, though Bowden has already learned to keep a running list of potential replacements. Attrition was the major contributor to the demise of his predecessors.

“It’s hard to call your old buddies and tell them they don’t fit into what we’re trying to do,” Bowden said. “I made a commitment to this school when I interviewed that I’m going to look around for a dynamic young staff. We want the guys that are going to be here one year and be gone.”

Bowden has leaned on Fisher as a de facto guide through his Louisiana Purchase. The fertile recruiting soils of Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston are a long way from the Florida haunts both mined for talent before moving west of the Mississippi River. Not to mention instate hotbeds along 1-20 and coffers tucked away in “the Boot.”

5 things to know about new ULM football coach Terry Bowden

There’s also a new culture for Bowden to learn in northeastern Louisiana. And a culture for northeastern Louisiana to learn from Bowden. More than anything, this will determine whether his latest arc and ULM’s umpteenth reinvention will converge for a successful reboot.

“The two cultures we need to identify are the culture of winning, which is my job, and the culture of this community and what they want this program to be,” Bowden said.

“Those two things have to be established and hopefully we can meet in the middle somewhere. I haven’t been here long, but I see the similarities to other places I’ve been, and I think I have a feel for what this school is about.”

Bowden glances at his watch this time. He excuses himself with the same care and turns the corridor toward his corner office overlooking Malone Stadium.

The work starts now.   

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