Thoughts on Soul Winning with Bobby Bowden

First Person: Thoughts on (soul) winning with Bobby Bowden

By Dr. Paul Chitwood

“Is winning everything?” I asked.

“No. But winning is important. If you don’t win, they fire you,” replied Coach Bobby Bowden.

Bowden coached football for more than 50 years. Over the course of 34 seasons as head coach of the Florida State Seminoles, his teams won twelve conference championships and two national championships. Bowden knows about winning.

Bobby Bowden signs a football for IMB President Paul Chitwood (IMB photo).

Like all coaches, he also knows about losing. And about getting fired. As athletic director at South Georgia College in the 1950s, Bowden was also the head coach in three sports: football, men’s basketball, and baseball. After a losing basketball season, Bowden the athletic director fired himself as the basketball coach!

What became clear during a recent Saturday afternoon I spent with Bowden and his pastor was that, as he approaches his 91st birthday, winning football games isn’t what he likes to talk about. He’d rather talk about winning souls. Mark Richt and Bert Reynolds are two of the better-known people who responded to the Lord after Bowden shared the Gospel with them, but it’s the former players who call him these days to thank him for the spiritual impact he had on their lives who seem to bring Bowden the most joy.

“I always thought the university would tell me to stop sharing my faith with the players and taking them to church, but no one ever did,” he said with a smile.

I suppose someone at FSU was smart enough to know that the young men Bowden coached, more than half of whom he said had no father in their lives, needed to know about more than passing routes and blocking schemes. They needed to know about things that really matter in life. And for the ones who kept losing their friends back home to drugs and gangs, they needed to know about the only thing that matters in death: a personal relationship with Jesus. Bowden was always sowing the seeds and time and time again, they took root.

The question I had really been looking forward to asking Bowden was how he had managed to finish well. Whether as coaches, pastors, missionaries, husbands, or fathers, far too many of us men seem bent on finding a way to not finish well. Bowden has faced all of the temptations that fame and success can throw at a man but, by God’s grace, he’s been married to his wife, Ann, for 71 years, escaped moral failure, and is wildly admired, even by his critics.

The key to Bowden’s success? “I knew I had to stay focused on the Lord,” says Coach.

Jesus’ admonition to “seek first the Kingdom of God” was not lost on Bowden. Nor was the training he received in the Baptist church where he grew up.

Still a Baptist to this day, Bowden spoke with great reverence about the missionaries I serve. Marveling at their commitment and sacrifice, he talked about them doing the most important work in the world. What amazed me was how much he’s like them: committed first to the Lord; determined to share the gospel whether or not people in authority approve and willing to suffer the consequences; and working hard to keep the platform the Lord gives them.

For Bowden, winning wasn’t everything, but it was important for maintaining the platform God gave him to do the most important thing: winning people to Jesus.

The lesson? As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.” If it’s coaching football, coach to win. If it’s teaching school, teach so your students will learn. If you’re a doctor or nurse, care for your patients to make them well. But don’t forget that the reason the Lord has you on the sidelines, in the classroom, the hospital, or wherever you are, is to win something more important than a title game or teacher of the year.

You’re there to win souls.

Bowden met with Chitwood to discuss what winning means on and off the football field (cover photo provided by IMB).

Dr. Paul Chitwood is president of the International Mission Board.