Bobby Bowden was known for his dadgum, folksy style — and winning lots of football games. One of his players revered Bowden even more for his down-to-earth leadership teachings.
Drew Weatherford was mesmerized. Then eight-years-old, he sat enthralled with the guest speaker in front of him at a church in the Citrus Park area of Tampa. The speaker was talking about things like honor, commitment and integrity. And the deep meaning of Christian fellowship.
The speaker — Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden — was also at the peak of his celebrity status. This was 1993. Bowden’s FSU Seminoles were in the middle of a 14-season run of top 5 rankings, including two national championships. “I knew right then and there I wanted to play for him,” says Weatherford, then not even out of elementary school but with the acute self-awareness to know his goal was audacious. “It became a good accountability system for me. The better they became, the more work I knew I had to do. I didn’t want people to be able to say I told you so.”
Weatherford held himself so accountable he went on to become a record-setting high school quarterback at Land O’Lakes High in Pasco County. After that, in the culmination of his dream, he played quarterback for Florida State. Now an executive with Tampa-based Weatherford Capital, which he runs with two of his brothers, Weatherford says that level of dedication is one of many life and leadership lessons he learned from Bowden. In the wake of Bowden’s death Aug. 8 at 92, Weatherford, in a Zoom call and in several blog posts he’s written about Bowden, one in 2020 and one after he died, shared some leadership lessons he learned from the famed coach.
Several themes emerged from the conversation. One was top-tier leadership, beyond a commitment to excellence, requires a dedication to integrity — the kind, Weatherford, says, when you “do what’s right when no one else is looking.” Another was results matter, or, more to the point a leader is only as good as what’s happening on the field, or on the balance sheet. And while it has elements of cliché-ish coach-speak, the biggest takeaway I got from Weatherford is crucial for any leader who aims to build and maintain high-performing teams: a champion-caliber process beats outcomes every time.
Other key lessons include:
• Trust is paramount: Weatherford says Bowden was better than almost anyone else he’s ever seen in his “ability to earn people’s trust in a short period of time.” That was particularly true with on-the-field decisions that had direct impact on Weatherford — like what quarterback was named starter.
Bowden earned that trust through being open and transparent, says Weatherford, but also through one of the coach’s favorite lines, from President Theodore Roosevelt: “No one cares how much you know unless they know how much you care.” Weatherford wasn’t “a stoic who stayed aloof from his team,” Weatherford wrote in a blog post on FSU’s website. “He wasn’t an impassive leader with ice in his veins. He was a human who believed in his players and his coaching staff and made sure we all knew it. His approach demonstrated to all of us we weren’t just athletes and staff responding to a head coach; we were a family, bound by a commitment to one another. He created a culture of values, faith, loyalty, trust and excellence that made us more thoughtful individuals and a more powerful team.”
Weatherford tells another Bowden-led story about how important trust is in leadership. In a LinkedIn post in 2020, Weatherford wrote about the time in the summer of 2004 when Bowden visited his family’s home for a recruiting visit. “He could have simply come to one of my games and watched my behavior around my peers. (In fact, that was what many other coaches did during the recruiting process.) But Coach Bowden came to my home, met my siblings and my parents, and saw firsthand how I interacted with those who I am most authentic,” Weatherford writes. “This insight ultimately allowed him to trust in my ability to contribute in a positive way, both on the field and in the locker room.”
Mindset makes a difference: Weatherford’s FSU career came at the end of Bowden’s, when, even though the Seminoles won plenty of games and bowl games, it wasn’t nearly at the level of dominance in the 1990s. Weatherford says Bowden’s attitude spoke loudly — win or lose. “I appreciated how he won but also how he lost. Win or lose he had the same mentality,” Weatherford says. “He had a unique ability to acknowledge his success without being consumed by it.”
Consistency creates a champion: Players at FSU, says Weatherford, often heard Bowden talk about how you can’t separate one part of your life from the other parts. Derrick Brooks, an All-American linebacker for FSU in the 1990s, was one of several players who recalled that lesson at a service for Bowden, Weatherford says. Brooks told a story about how Bowden chastised him for getting a C+ in one class. “He told Derrick ‘you can’t separate excellence in the classroom from excellence on the field,” says Weatherford. “’If you start to become mediocre on the field, you’ll become mediocre in life. You always have to strive for excellence.’”
Process drives the purpose: FSU, like many top college football teams, ran many complicated offensive plays. But Bowden, says Weatherford, to illustrate it’s still just football, and the objective is to simply move the ball down the field, would occasionally draw plays on a whiteboard with stick figures. Players would bust out laughing as Bowden drew intricate scenes, like a football floating through the clouds or a player darting down the field. Weatherford, who last saw Bowden at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event in Sarasota right before the pandemic, says there was a method to the stick figure markups. “He always said you have to be process-driven, not outcome driven,” Weatherford says, “because you can’t control outcomes.”
“On the football field,” Weatherford adds in his FSU blog post, “that meant setting goals that weren’t about games won and lost, but instead, about your own ability to do the right thing — to execute a strategy, to perform at the highest standard and to meet your own potential. He encouraged us to avoid shiny distractions and keep our eyes trained on the fundamentals that drive day-to-day progress. In other words, he asked us to focus not on doing one exceptional thing in a moment, but on doing the fundamentals consistently and well.”
Taken in total, the Bowden lessons Weatherford learned remind him of something his dad would tell the budding quarterback and his siblings everyday before going to school. “He would say ‘I expect three things today: be humble, be kind and be just,” says Weatherford. “Coach Bowden was the best example of living those principles I’ve ever seen.”