Strange how lives intersect and history moves in their wake.
These days, my alma mater, Florida State University is a football factory, expected to compete with the historical giants of the sport–Alabama, USC, Ohio State, et al–year in and year out.
It was not always so. It wasn’t even so long ago that such was unimaginable.
The man most responsible for the transformation was Bobby Bowden, a coaching genius who came to FSU in 1976 and, remarkably, when the signature programs (specifically LSU and Alabama) came calling and backed up dump trucks full of cash to his door, decided to stay on here.
That’s another story for another time. The story for this time is a reminder of just how improbable Bowden’s re-imagining of a down-at-heels, southern independent, which had little history of its own and ranked third historically in its own state while being far removed, both culturally and geographically, from the state’s famously rich recruiting grounds in South Florida and the I-4 corridor, really was.
FSU fans of a sufficient vintage know the story well enough. For the rest of you it can be shorthanded this way.
Before Bowden’s arrival at FSU, none of the state’s big three programs had ever posted a ten-win season. Bowden chalked up three of those in his first five years. Out of that came what Bowden himself later dubbed The Big Florida, a behemoth that eventually accounted for eleven national championships between the three schools in a thirty-year period stretching from 1983 to 2013, with a number of those teams having a single loss hung on them by one of the others.
A sea change, in other words.
It is hard now, to remember how it all began Harder still perhaps to believe it, even if you were there to bear witness.
Because it began with guys like Monk Bonasorte.
Bowden was an offensive genius, the most innovative coach in postwar college football (again, a story for another day). But for his innovations to work–to actually consistently win games, especially in those early years, when the talent was short–he needed stout defenses.
He got them.
He got them without a surfeit of elite talent. On the stellar teams from 1977–80, which set Bowden, FSU, and, ultimately, college football on the course where it still runs, there was little anybody else wanted. The defenses that sparked those teams contained only three really top recruits–a nose guard, Ron Simmons, a cornerback, Bobby Butler, and a linebacker, Paul Piurowski. They were all brilliant.
But Bonasorte–a buck-eighty safety who could just about outrun your dead grandmother–was more typical of both the spirit and the reality of those teams.
He made his way down from Pittsburgh, a hard-nosed steelworker’s kid who had spent a year playing sandlot ball after receiving no scholarship offers from FSU or anywhere else. Eventually, he walked on to the football team. After that, he worked his way into the starting lineup during his freshman season, from whence he went on to put himself high on the school’s lists of interception records for career and single seasons, where he still sits among names like Terrell Buckley, Deion Sanders and a few others who never had to worry about whether they would be invited to the training table.
It was in those years that FSU became the little engine that could and no one embodied that ethos quite like the unrecruited walk-on from Pittsburgh, who went on to devote much of his life to the school where he made his chance.
There was a specific moment, in Bonasorte’s senior year (which happened to be my junior year), when everything became possible.
That moment was when FSU–having lost one of the strangest games ever played to Miami the week before, a fluke-of-the-century game that would keep FSU from playing for the national championship that year (a pattern that would repeat itself several more times before the century was out)–traveled to Nebraska.
In those days Big Red was the sort of implacable power that FSU is now (all glory is fleeting…even in college football) and Florida State came from fourteen down in the first half to win 18-14 when that defense full of Monk Bonasorte types (Jarvis Coursey, Keith Jones, Gary Futch, Reggie Herring, I’ve not forgot) held at the goal line in the game’s waning seconds.
Monk Bonasorte passed away from brain cancer last week at the age of 59. I believe he is the first member of that defense to travel to the next plane. God knows if all the times he lowered his head to deliver one of those hits that made all those speedy receivers he couldn’t keep up with in the open field not want to catch the ball anymore sped his passage.
Time is merciless.
One thing I do know: There is no true Florida State fan my age or older who would trade “Nebraska 1980” for the three national championships we’ve won since, or any number we might win in the future.
Because if I close my eyes, I can still see myself back in my tiny, roach-infested apartment next to the FSU campus in the fall of 1980, leaping for the ceiling.
And, if listen close, I can still hear the horns honking–and honking and honking–all over town.