Bobby Bowden's sick humor

Defenders say the FSU coach borrowed Todd Beamer's phrase "Let's Roll" with the greatest respect. So then why did he make a joke about it with reporters?

Published August 9, 2002 11:06PM (EDT)

The tale of how Florida State University came to use Todd Beamer's gripping words "Let's Roll" as the slogan for its 2002 football team got even more confusing, and even more controversial, on Friday, when a Tampa Tribune columnist reported that coach Bobby Bowden made a joke about the phrase, and the Beamer story, when he announced the team's new motto.

As recounted here Wednesday, Bowden made the announcement with something less than solemnity. "That guy, on that plane, knowing they were fixin' to die and they were going to try to keep it, save the, save the White House or whatever they were gonna hit and I heard that guy, they said he said, 'Let's roll,' I could really relate to that, and you know that's exactly the motto we're trying to get to our players, is, hey, the season has started, we got bad year last year, let's roll. And then, of course, in honor of those people who died on that plane." But his defenders said Bowden had spoken with the utmost respect for Beamer, even if he had only intermittently been able to remember his name. The Beamer Foundation announced it supported Bowden's plan, and all was well, or seemed to be.

But Friday, in a thoughtful column about the need for circumspection when using "Let's Roll," the Tampa Tribune's Martin Fennelly cast doubt on the resolution of the controversy. Fennelly revealed that after Bowden's introduction and explanation of the slogan the coach quipped, "Any tears?" And then he chuckled. "There was nervous laughter," Fennelly added.

Fennelly told me he had attended the annual media briefing last Sunday in Tallahassee, and that Bowden made the comment just after recounting the story of Beamer and Flight 93. As part of the crowd of reporters to whom it was addressed, Fennelly said he believed Bowden was trying to "let a little air out of the room," to lighten the mood after addressing tragic if inspiring Beamer's story.

Jeff Purinton, Florida State's deputy sports information director for football, said he could not explain Bowden's remark. In response to Fennelly's interpretation of the quip, Purinton said, "Anybody who'd say Coach Bowden would do this is just wrong. He's like a grandfather to me."

Fennelly says he recorded the remark and reviewed the recording before writing his column.

"I'd like to hear that tape," said Purinton. When asked if the "Any tears?" comment could've been taken out of context, or had been intended to refer to something other than the Beamer story, Purinton said he didn't know and couldn't speculate. He also said that since his office had just learned of Fennelly's report, it would have no comment about whether Bowden might explain it or apologize for it.

The chairman of the Todd S. Beamer Foundation, Doug MacMillan, had also not known of the Tampa report until it was read to him by phone this afternoon. He said he was still hoping to visit with coach Bowden and his players soon, and while expressing concern about the meaning of "Any tears?" said he needed time to digest it before commenting on behalf of the foundation.

Bowden announced the annual selection of the slogan on Sunday, without having first contacted the Beamer Foundation. On Monday, a foundation spokesman said it usually frowned upon giving its blessing to the phrase's usage by sports teams, and that it had yet to hear from Florida State. On Tuesday, Bowden called those who questioned his actions "unpatriotic." Wednesday, MacMillan telephoned Bowden and after their conversation, the foundation issued a brief statement saying it was "honored" by FSU's selection of "Let's Roll." That day, MacMillan told me that a joint fundraising effort, much as the one already in place between the foundation and the NASCAR racing team of owner Joe Gibbs and driver Bobby Labonte, might be forthcoming.

The Tribune's Fennelly said he was convinced a visit to Florida State by MacMillan would be positive, and "open Bowden's eyes." Fennelly says he was deeply disturbed by the "Any tears?" remark but added that the context was vital. "Bobby says silly things all the time."

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In my column on Bobby Bowden, I inadvertently misattributed the quotes of Florida State's spokesman. I believed the quotes had come from my conversation with the deputy football sports information director, Jeff Purinton. In fact, they were from a conversation with Purinton's supervisor, assistant athletic director for Media and Public Relations Rob Wilson.

Purinton and Wilson agreed the quotations were accurate. They, and you, have my apologies for the misidentification.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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