Historical note: We would be remiss if we did not note that collegiate football was played on our existing Florida State campus way back, before the Buckman Act turned the school into a women’s only college, Florida State College for Women. In fact, Florida State College won a state championship in 1904 against teams like Georgia Tech, Stetson and what is now Florida before the Buckman Act.
In order to accommodate returning World War II soldiers, who earned the GI Bill for college education, the Florida Legislature reversed the Buckman Act, which turned Florida State College for Women back into the co-educational Florida State University.
Florida State University will celebrate its 75th year of collegiate football since the Buckman Act changed Florida State College for Women back to coeducational status on May 15, 1947 and re-named it Florida State University.
It has been a meteoric rise in a short span of time by college football standards. FSU became the first program to win a national championship by any program started after World War II.
FSU is still the only program started after WWII to win a national championship and the Seminoles have now won three. Bowden won the first in 1993, just 47 years after the program started, and won his second title in 1999. Jimbo Fisher led the Seminoles to their third title in 2013.
The Seminoles have accomplished a great deal in just 75 years when compared to their rivals, who have been playing football a great deal longer. While FSU has not caught up with the likes of Notre Dame or Alabama yet they have surpassed most of their rivals. In terms of bowl history, consider this: the Seminoles have appeared in 49 bowl games since they were established in 1947. By comparison, programs like Florida and Auburn, which established their programs in 1906 and 1892, respectively, have played in 45, while Clemson (est. 1896) has played in 44 and Miami (est. 1926) 42.
Florida State has 42 national player of the year awards, including three Heisman Trophy recipients. By comparison Florida has 27 national award winners with three Heisman Trophies and Miami has 26 national award winners, including two Heisman Trophies, Clemson has 20 national award winners but no Heisman Awards yet.
In this and future articles, we’ll present a perspective on just how much Florida State accomplished – some might say overcame – to be named among the top 10 “Dynasties” in College Football History.
For perspective, we’ll look at Florida State history through Bobby Bowden’s eyes during three stages of the program’s growth: 1950 when he was an opposing quarterback, the Bill Peterson Era when he was the wide receivers coach and of course his 30-plus year tenure (1976 to 2009) during which the Bowden Dynasty was built.
The early years
The population of Tallahassee in 1947 was just over 20,000 with 4,056 students enrolled, 954 of whom were men. The student body nicknamed their teams the “Seminoles” and selected garnet and gold as the school colors.
In the fall of FSU’s inaugural season, when FSU was playing on Centennial Field (in what is now Cascades Park), Bobby Bowden was a senior at Woodlawn High School, in Birmingham, Ala.
The Seminoles under part-time head coach Ed Williamson finished 0-5 that first year.
“I never heard of Florida State back then,” the 91-year-old Bowden said with a laugh.
Bowden was recruited by the Alabama, enrolling in the fall of 1948 and FSU hired Don Veller as its head coach. Veller would win big against a schedule of teams like Tampa, Sewanee, Stetson, Wofford and Troy State, posting records of 7-1, 9-1, 8-1 and 6-2 from 1948-51.
Bowden would transfer from Bama to Howard College (now Samford) where, in the fall of 1950, he would play against Veller’s Seminoles in the second game ever played in Doak Campbell Stadium history.
Think about that for a second. The guys who played for and against Notre Dame and Alabama in their earliest games are recorded in history while at FSU there are still players and fans who can share accounts of FSU’s earliest history today.
“The first I heard of Florida State was in 1950, when Howard College ran them in track and I was on the track team,” Bowden said.
Bowden would travel to Tallahassee – population 27,152 – and to Doak Campbell Stadium, which had been dedicated to FSU’s president one week before (Oct. 7, 1950) to play on a field that a quarter of a century later would be named in his honor (Nov. 24, 2004).
“Florida State was a big game for us,” Bowden clearly remembers the game played against a school whose enrollment had risen to 5,481, including just over 1,000 men.
The FSU vs. Howard College football game would determine the Dixie Conference Champion. Florida State had won the conference championship in (1949) and rewarded with its first bowl bid (1950 Cigar Bowl) in Tampa.
Even though Bowden had no idea who Florida State was three years earlier, he did now as he prepared to play the defending conference champion.
“We were playing Florida State and that was big for us,” Bowden said. “We lead for a quarter but they beat us 21-6, I think.”
Bowden’s memory is very sharp as the game ended 20-6 in favor of FSU, which would go on to record a perfect 8-0 record under third-year head coach Don Veller. Only one team (Tampa) scored more than once on the Seminoles that season.
Bowden also has fond memories of Doak Campbell Stadium, which was built for $250,000 in 1950 ($2.79 million in 2021 dollars).
“I was very impressed,” Bowden said. “The stadium had (7,500) seats on each side and everything was brand new.”
In 1951, the University of Miami was the first major program to agree to play Florida State. The Seminoles lost (35-13) but it wetted the program’s ambitious appetite. FSU went just 1-8-1 in 1952 against a schedule that included teams like Georgia Tech, the No. 2 team in the nation, NC State, Louisville and Mississippi Southern, now known as Southern Miss.
While the Seminoles were a small college power those first five years, the Seminoles wanted to go big time quick.
For more on the Don Veller era, visit Jim Joanos’s story.
The Nugent Years (1953-58)
The creative Tom Nugent posted an overall record of 24-18-1, highlighted by FSU’s first wins over major programs. The inventor of the “I-formation,” Nugent also innovated what was nicknamed the “Typewriter huddle,” where the quarterback faced the other 10 offensive players.
In 1954, FSU earned its second bowl bid (the prestigious Sun Bowl) and in 1957 earned an 8-4 record, setting the stage for what would become a most-remarkable year in 1958.
The Seminoles enjoyed a 7-3 regular season, which included the program’s first win over Miami (after five tries), first win over an SEC power (Tennessee 10-0), the third bowl bid (Bluegrass Bowl) and the first game against Florida.
The first win over Miami was huge, especially for recruiting in the state of Florida, and the shutout victory over national power Tennessee in Neyland Stadium gained national respect for FSU’s fledgling program.
Jim Joanos, a longtime FSU supporter and historian, noted two good stories about that game. “FSU’s two captains were two Tennessee natives, quarterback Joe Majors and back Fred Pickard. Majors had an outstanding game that day in leading the Seminoles. His brother, Billy, played quarterback for Tennessee but was injured early in the game and did not play anymore. Pickard, from Columbia, Tennessee, led all ball carriers in gaining 133 yards. Tennessee had not recruited Pickard because as a 133-pound high school running back he was considered too small to play major college ball.”
FSU had been playing football only a dozen years and had already received three bowl bids. Florida, which records its football history back to 1906, also earned its third bowl game that year, two of which were in the Gator Bowl (established in 1946).
And 1958 also marked the beginning of the Florida-Florida State series. Of that series, Joanos wrote: “It would be the first FSU vs. UF game in modern times and it had taken acts of government to schedule it. Legislative attempts to force the game and the promise of more to come along with pressure from numerous public officials had eventually forced the University of Florida to agree to play the Seminoles.”
The first six games against UF were played in Gainesville, of course, allegedly because the Gators’ stadium was twice the capacity of Doak (40,116 vs. 19,000) in 1958.
On the opening kickoff of the series, Jack Espenship caught the ball and handed off to Bobby Renn, who raced 78 yards to set up the Seminoles’ first score and a 7-0 lead. The Seminoles lost 21-7 but not without making a statement to the partisan Gator crowd and to the nation in 1958.
The young Florida State program was unable to keep Nugent. He accepted the head job at the University of Maryland, a program that had won three ACC Championships and a National Championship in the early 1950s.
For more on the Tom Nugent era, visit Jim Joanos’s story.
Next week, a look at the Bill Peterson era, including comments from then wide receiver coach Bobby Bowden.