Amid all the intensity and pressure of college football, two Baptist pastors in football-rich Florida are grateful for the quiet consistency of a pair of church members who are among the nation’s most celebrated college coaches.
As the drama of college football nears its annual climax, the anticipation and hype of conference championships and holiday bowl games are surging to a fever pitch in many parts of the country.
Amid all the intensity and pressure, two Baptist pastors in football-rich Florida are grateful for the quiet consistency of a pair of church members who are among the nation’s most celebrated college coaches.
On Sunday mornings at First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, senior pastor Doug Dortch knows if Florida State coach Bobby Bowden is in town he will be in church.
Likewise, 500 miles south at University Baptist Church in Coral Gables, senior pastor Bill White is assured that unless University of Miami coach Larry Coker is on the road, he will be in his customary seat for worship.
Both coaches, say their pastors, want to be accepted simply as fellow Christians and church members-a desire that is honored by their respective congregations.
Coker, whose Hurricanes are one victory away from achieving back-to-back, undefeated national championships, is described by his pastor as “laid back, self-deprecating and genuinely humble.”
“He has one of those everybody’s-favorite-uncle kind of personalities,” says White. At church, Coker “just likes to slip in and slip out. He and wife are both very involved, but they want to be just like any other members of the congregation.”
At First Baptist in Tallahassee, “there’s a healthy sense of pride that Coach Bowden is a member,” says Dortch. “At the same time, when he’s here, he’s treated as just one of the members; he’s not perceived as a celebrity, and our people don’t bother him with armchair quarterbacking about Saturday’s game or hound him about the status of recruiting or other football talk. He and his wife are able to participate, and I think that’s a tribute both to them and to the spiritual health of our congregation.”
Even in Bowden’s Sunday school class, which Dortch notes with a chuckle has a large contingent of University of Florida graduates, football doesn’t rank near the top of discussion topics. “From what I understand, they don’t talk football much,” he says. “They talk about the Bible. They talk about their families, grandchildren, current events, health concerns-whatever most 70-year-old men talk about. That’s one of the reasons Coach Bowden loves that class.”
The 73-year-old Bowden has built a legendary record and a sterling reputation during 27 seasons at FSU. The Samford University graduate is the only coach in the history of Division I-A football to compile 13 straight 10-win seasons. His team has won a national championship, and he and Penn State coach Joe Paterno have won more games than any other active head coach in Division I-A.
Although, like many members of his congregation, Dortch is a Bowden and FSU fan, he has never noticed any emotional carryover in the congregation from Saturday to Sunday.
“Even after a tough loss on Saturday, by the time our members get here, they shelve any disappointment,” he says. “I think that’s a sign of a healthy church. I’m pleased that people’s spirituality isn’t defined by the outcome of a football game.”
During the off-season, Bowden rarely attends First Baptist, but that doesn’t mean he’s missing church.
“He speaks in churches as many as 40 Sundays out of the year, so he’s actually in town more during football season than the rest of the year,” says Dortch. “God has given him an incredible opportunity to use his visibility and his celebrity status for the cause of Christ, and he does so with great effectiveness and genuine humility.”
Bowden is widely known for his life-shaping influence on members of his coaching staff as well as his players. Among others, University of Georgia coach Mark Richt, a member of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Athens, credits Bowden for leading him to a personal commitment to Christ while serving on Bowden’s staff.
Bowden has articulated his leadership philosophy and values in The Bowden Way, which Dortch praises as “one of best leadership books I’ve read in a while. It’s kind of a window into his heart. With Bobby Bowden, what you see is what you get. He is genuinely Christian; it’s not something he wears on his sleeve or talks about to advance his own persona.”
During his eight years as pastor, Dortch’s appreciation for the enormous pressures surrounding college coaching has deepened: “I know from personal conversation that Coach Bowden deals with a tremendous amount of responsibility and pressure, but you would never know it by his attitude or by the way he treats people.”
At the University of Miami, where his team won a national championship last season in his first year as head coach, Larry Coker is building a similar reputation.
Like his predecessor, Butch Davis, who White baptized, Coker shies away from the limelight at church.
“Coach Coker is involved in a men’s Bible study that meets weekly, and his wife is very active in a women’s Bible study group,” says White, “but their celebrity status is never an obstacle.”
Neither does the church seek to capitalize on Coker’s national recognition.
“We’re a strong University of Miami church, so there’s obviously a sense of pride in the school, in its achievements and in Coach Coker and in Butch Davis before him,” White says. On the other hand, “we don’t wave a banner and broadcast ourselves as ‘the Church of the National Champion Miami Hurricanes’ or something like that. We just allow the Cokers to follow Jesus with the rest of us.”
Following last year’s championship season, White asked Coker to share his testimony during a worship service.
“He said, ‘I’d love to do that, Bill, but I would really prefer that you use one of the players-they’re the ones who did it,” White recalls. “So we had a member of the team speak-an impressive young man who brought his fiancÃ©e with him-and he did a tremendous job.”
“That was very characteristic of Larry; he always wants the focus to be on the players and on his assistant coaches.”
White’s close association with Coker and Davis has led him to conclude “they’re basically ordinary guys.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he quickly adds. “They’re brilliant at what they do. But they also know that celebrity status is pretty fickle, especially for a college football coach. They don’t live frantically, and neither, for that matter, do their wives-and that’s a real testimony to their faith.”
David Wilkinson is a well-known Baptist journalist currently writing news stories and features for EthicsDaily.com.