It was a play that personified Todd Bowles and his time at Temple, where the now New York Jets head coach was a collegiate star safety for the then resurgent Owls.
Bowles was a redshirt junior in 1984, playing in a cast due to an arm injury suffered earlier that season. He was still on the field – no one was able to convince him not to play – essentially tackling and making plays with his one arm. This against a Florida State team that at that time was one of the best in nation and would finish the season with a 7-3-2 mark. Temple was just starting to come back as a program, under now Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, and they had high hopes that season. The Seminoles were going to be a big test and Bowles as well as his teammates knew it. In years past, they'd probably be blown out of this game.
There is one play that sticks out in the mind of his teammates, one play that personified who Bowles was. On this particular play, Bowles had the assignment of Florida State's running back, a player who college teammate David Donald called “a really fast guy, maybe the fastest player on the field.” The play was a pass to the running back and Bowles, blessed with tremendous instincts, closed in on the player.
He deflected the pass with his arm – the one in the cast – to break up the play. Teammates on the sideline cringed as they watched the play, knowing the overwhelming pain that a hard thrown football to a broken arm must have caused.
“If he had both hands he'd probably have an interception,” Donald said.
His former teammate said that the play personified Bowles, willing to use his cast and his broken arm to benefit his team. No matter that Temple lost the game 44-27, that's the play that sticks out in the mind of Donald.
Whether it was high school football in Elizabeth, N.J. or at Temple or during his NFL career, those who know Bowles and were around him refer the player as the “quarterback of the defense.” He had head coach qualities back then.
Now head coach of the Jets, Bowles is bringing that same that led him to use his bulky cast to break up a pass. He brings that mentality and approach to the game to franchise closing in on five decades since their last Super Bowl appearance let alone championship, a team that hasn't made the playoffs over the past four seasons and hasn't had a winning record since 2010.
It is also a team that hasn't had a strong hand atop the organization in quite some time. Players around the team talk about the last few seasons under head coach Rex Ryan being a “culture shock” and that he didn't run a tight ship, not even close.
One current Jets player, brought in under Ryan as a free agent, said that there was “an accountability gap” with the old regime. What that means, he said, was that there was a sense with the old coaching staff that the players could do whatever they wanted and this was a trickle down effect. No with Bowles, he said “there is a clear expectation of who we are, where we are to be.”
“But he communicates it well, He's a former player you know, so he isn't like a principal or something,” the player said.
He doesn't use many words, the exact opposite of his predecessor who used too many words to too little of an effect. Bowles is quiet and a bit reserved. He's comfortable in his own skin but he isn't someone who feels the need to over-communicate. Direct, to the point and a little bit of no-nonsense, he never the less can be charming. In his introductory press conference, he referred to his personality as Cybill, drawing a hearty laugh from the media.
He's a Jersey boy with roots in the area. He was under-recruited in high school from a high school not known for producing top-end college talent. Once his time in college was done, he was once again overlooked.
From Temple, Bowles went on to a very solid NFL career. He was an undrafted rookie free agent signed by the Washington Redskins and immediately began to make an impact in the league and he spent five seasons in Washington where he won a Super Bowl. All told, Bowles played eight seasons in before beginning a coaching career that included stops at Morehouse and Grambling before one season as a positional coach with the Jets in 2000.
The last two seasons were in Arizona where he was reunited with Arians, now the Cardinals head coach. He was named the AP NFL Assistant Coach of the Year for a Cardinals team that was decimated by injuries to the defense but still managed to perform well.
Even as a player, Bowles exhibited signs of being a head coach on the field. Charley Casserly, the general manager of the Redskins during Bowles two stints with the team, remembers him as not just a player but as someone who left an impression when the pads were off as well.
“A very smart player, excellent instincts, studied the game. A quarterback on the field, a high character guy,” Casserly, now an NFL analyst on the NFL Network, told Metro.
“He's a guy that if sees something wrong, he's going to correct. Whatever it is, an assignment, a discipline situation – I think he's a very direct person, he's a man of few words but he can get his point across in a few words. Having talked to him through the years, you talk to him and he can draw a a picture and get the point.”
Before he took his first head coaching position this January with the Jets, Bowles was one of many candidates the Jets kicked the tires on. Casserly was a consultant hired by owner Woody Johnson to help steer the team through the process. They wanted a football guy, they said at the time, and Bowles checked off all the boxes.
He played the game so he could resonate with the locker room. He had a strong pedigree as a coach including a stint with the Miami Dolphins as an interim head coach. There was also the discipline factor, something that the current Jets locker room needed.
Casserly could also vouch for him from personal experience as he knew both the player and the man and now the coach.
Almost immediately, Bowles stood out to Jets brass. During his interview, Bowles impressed with his vision for the team and how to implement, outlined his weekly schedule for the team including the approach for the upcoming game. He had a good grasp of the team's personnel as well as around the league.
The search committee also looked at Bowles time as interim head coach with the Dolphins and talked with people around the organization at that time to see how he responded to taking over a rudderless team late in the season. They left impressed.
Impressions and making them is something not new to Bowles.
Donald, who is now a successful entrepreneur including owning PeopleShare as well as sitting on Temple's Advisory Board for their MBA program, remembers the Temple spring game following Bowles redshirt freshman year. He saw a player “who seemed to be making every play.” There were no thoughts of Bowles someday being an NFL head coach, just as someone who “had pro potential...a player at the next level.”
There was no gloating, no dramatic displays on the field after a big play. Bowles would get up, dust himself off and ready himself for the next play.
“He was not showy, he was a great sport, just a class act all the way,” Donald said.
“I can tell you that he was always a leader by action and he was a guy that you just knew was never going to get in trouble, always tended to be doing the right thing. A guy with a tremendous amount of character early on.”