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Reviewing The Bowden Dynasty documentary

On Friday night, the documentary film The Bowden Dynasty: A Story of Faith, Family & Football made its debut, playing to a live audience in St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater. The feature-length biopic was also shown, for one night only, simultaneously in movie theaters across the country. I had the chance to catch the showing, and figured FSU fans who missed it might enjoy a quick analysis, prior to its release on DVD sometime in the future.

Before the documentary even commenced, some concerns presented themselves via the movie’s three-pronged subtitle. How effectively could the film balance its three target areas? Florida State fans will be happy to hear that the documentary actually pulled off this tricky balance quite nicely.

The movie pivots on, and returns often, to a well-crafted image: that of a young couple driving through the dark, empty streets of a small town. The date is January 1, 1987. The faceless pair are Bobby and Ann Bowden, who are deciding whether or not to remain at FSU after the former is rumored to be the favorite for the Alabama job.

It’s appropriate, given the film’s emphasis on family, that the Bowdens, away from the stadiums packed with rabid fans, deliberate intimately over a life-changing decision that winds up bringing in not just a new year, but also fostering the new era that is the focus of the film. Also well incorporated is the ambitious locales through which the vehicle is navigated, described only as “somewhere in Alabama.” It demonstrates, as is present throughout the documentary, how life’s twists and turns can take us to very different places. Only instead of Tuscaloosa, the story heads back in time and to Bowden’s childhood years in Birmingham.

Anyone who’s read a biography of Bowden knows of his battle with rheumatic fever as a child, but watching the FSU great actually revisit the home where he spent a year bedridden and recount his childhood friends’ homes nearby (while also hearing from those friends all these years later), is even more effective. Bowden also emphasizes his proximity to Howard College’s football fields, where he would later play and then coach, and the viewer is even treated to archival footage of the young Bobby in action, as well as some interesting and very humanizing details about his courtship of Ann.

The producers did very well to speak with several associates of Bowden’s from all over the country, as his pre-FSU coaching-career stops are chronicled with respect to not only what the programs provided for Bowden, but also his lasting legacy at each school. Florida State moves to center stage when the Bowden family (which by this point has grown much larger) opts to move from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Tallahassee.

His own nuclear family assembled, Bowden takes to building an FSU football program that was nearly discontinued into a larger family that will go on to leave what has become his lasting legacy. His construction of a dynasty that may never be equaled is paralleled with the growth of Doak Campbell stadium, from the “erector set” to what former Miami coach Howard Schenllenberger refers to now as a “brick Taj Mahal.”

And speaking of Schnellenberger, he’s one of several prominent coaches incorporated into the film, including Nick Saban, Jimmy Johnson, Lou Holtz, and, of course, Jimbo Fisher, along with others. Although, to be honest, I was a little disappointed not to see Steve Spurrier. I do think the film could have benefitted from more opposing players from the past, however, Jim Kelly and Danny Wuerffel were solid inclusions. Speaking of player cameos, Seminoles were obviously quite well represented, from Fred Biletnikoff through Deion Sanders, Charlie Ward, Peter Warrick, Chris Weinke, and many more.

But don’t think for a moment that this is 120 minutes of FSU and Bowden patting themselves on the back. Growing pains are by no means glossed over, be they on the football field against Miami or to the ‘Nole family itself, as the deaths of Florida State lineman Pablo Lopez and Warrick Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, are painfully recounted. The is where faith touches back with the narrative, as a stalwart aspect of Bowden’s FSU, as dependable as 10-win seasons during the dynasty years. Mark Richt discusses how Lopez’s passing led him to his own spiritual awakening through Bowden, and Dunn praises his former head coach’s important role in fostering perspective through religion.

Throughout the film, locker room and sideline footage of coaches interacting with players and each other does well to keep the viewer grounded in the particular moment in time and place. This is especially important since, let’s face it, Florida State fans know how these games end— the fact that a sense of tension and angst is nevertheless created is a tribute to how present it make the viewer in each moment. To wit: the recounting of how the Seminoles’ first title, in 1993, happened — and then didn’t — and then happened, again, will still put garnet and gold supporters on edge.

The attire, the grainier footage of older games, ancient on-screen graphics, they all do well to to make this feel less like a look back than a revisiting of the manner by which Bowden built FSU into what it has become— and this new world of FSU football is aptly depicted in crisp, colorful HD. What the documentary ultimately succeeds in accomplishing is extracting how Bowden could never have been what he became without being a devoted believer, a father (on more levels than one), as well as an innovative and unpredictable football mind.