Some of them have been in and out of trouble, on front pages and on sports pages, and coach Bowden has stood by them. His Florida State Seminoles are the defending national college football champions. And sometime next year, Bowden will likely surpass the legendary Bear Bryant's all-time Division 1A record for wins.
How has he done it? Bowden tells Charlie Rose it's very simple: The times have changed and so has he.
"When I started off coaching, if your coach told you to do something, you didn't bat an eye. Coach told you to run through that wall; man, you'd do your best to run through that wall," Bowden says. "That has changed. Now then, if you tell a kid to do something, you'd better explain why and how it'll make him better."
Bowden's down-home demeanor is the stuff folk heroes are made of. The New York Times called him "the dean of dad-gum."
Vocabulary is not the only product of his Southern heritage. Although he now makes more than $1 million a year, he remains a man of simple sensibilities. Bowden still lists his home number in the Tallahassee phone book because "I'd just hate to think that one of my friends came through town and couldn't locate me if he needed to," he says.
Bowden's manner is at the root of his success. Great players want to play for him and great coaches want to coach under him. But beyond his endearing personality is a brilliant coaching mind. Rarely is he not planning for the big play - a long touchdown pass or a blocked punt. Exciting plays made Florida State the college football team of the 1990s.
But Bowden contends it's not just the Saturdays on the field that define him - it is his Sundays, too. He is a devout Southern Baptist; his staff meetings won't begin without prayer.
His football clinics for high school players include his commitment to faith. "They can pass all them laws they want to up in Washington, but we're going to have prayer before every ball game," says Bowden.
His critics - and there are not many - are skeptical of all this. Newspaper columnists have said that he prefers to look the other way when his players get in trouble.
His archrival across the state, University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier, once charged that Bowden pushes his players to knock quarterbacks out of the game.
But Bowden counters, saying, "His defensive ends hit us as hard as they can. And our guys are going to hit his guys as hard as the can. He - he knows better than that. Steve knows better than that."
Tommy Bowden, one of Bobby Bowden's four sons, is now the head football coach at Clemson University in South Carolina. He says his father's demeanor turns cold-blooded on the football field. "Last year, they played 11 games and knocked eight quarterbacks out. Something doesn't jive," says Tommy Bowden with a laugh. "On game day, he's Old Testament - eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," he adds. "The love, grace and mercy of the New Testament, that's not covered till Monday after the game."
And he and his brothers should know. The Bowden boys have gridiron in their DNA. Besides Tommy Bowden at Clemson, Terry Bowden is a football analyst for ABC Sports, Jeff Bowden is an assistant under his dad and Steve Bowden helps run his father's annual football camps.
The patriarch is now 71 years old, and much has changed for him over his 43 years as a coach. No longer does he run to the practice field with his players. A golf cart gets him there now. And a tower next to the field gives him a commanding view during practice. "I've always been down on the field. But down on the field you can only see who you're talking to," explains Bowden.
His coaches are his biggest help. He delegates to them much of what it takes to run a football team. And it gives him time for his daily naps.
Bowden grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and dreamed of playing quarterback for legendary coach Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But when his high school sweetheart, Ann Estock, stayed back home in Birmingham, he didn't last long with the Crimson Tide.
The two eventually tied the knot, and the marriage has lasted 51 years.
Bowden's coaching jobs took them from South Georgia, to Howard College in Birmingham to West Virginia. In 1976, he landed the top spot at Florida State and quickly made the previously unknown Seminoles a wining team. Since then, he's played in the national championship game five times and won twice.
But after his first national title in 1993, Sports Illustrated broke a story documenting unsavory behavior by some of his players. Some had accepted gifts from sports agents - a violation of collegiate rules.
Then, during last year's championship season, more of Bowden's players had trouble off the field.
But unless there are felony charges, Bowden rarely drops a player for a first offense.
One reason he is such a great recruiter is that parents love him. "That momma knows I'm going to treat her son like mine," says Bowden. "Bobby Bowden will discipline your child but he's not going to kick him on the street unless he has to."
Instead, when players get in trouble, he suspends their scholarships and meal privileges, revokes game tickets, and orders weeks of extra running up and down the steps at their stadium.
And he does not think much of those who say hshould be tougher.
"Do you know the way I look at the public?" he asks. "They're exactly like they were in the colisseum in the - in the first and second century in Rome when they were saying, 'Kill the Christians. Kill the Christians. Kill the Christians.' People love to see a hanging. They love a hanging, you know. And I don't want people hanging my players. Oh, yes. Punish him for it. Punish him for it, but give him another dad-gum chance."
"Two chances? I don't give them two chances, you know. Coaches who can't change with the times," he says, "they ain't here no more. They don't last."
But Bobby Bowden has always wanted to give kids the benefit of the doubt. He and Ann have two daughters in addition to their boys; their clan now includes 21 grandchildren who get together once a year at their vacation home in Panama City Beach, Fla.
"When I was at home, I was the disciplinarian with the children. I was gone a lot. And I'd come home, and Ann would say, 'Bobby whoop Steve,'" remembers Bowden. "I wanted to go home and hug him, you know. And so, I'd go back in the bathroom and shut the door, and fake a whipping. I'd say, 'Steve, you cry and I'm going to make like I'm whipping you.' You see how I was with Janikowski."
Sebastian Janikowski was his star kicker last season. When he broke Florida State's curfew before the national championship game in New Orleans, Bowden declared that the kicker would run extra at practice, but would not miss a play in the game.
Critics claimed he tailored the punishment so that it would fit very conveniently for the national playoff.
But Bowden sees it differently: "Here we are playing for the national championship. Does it make sense to risk...the money, the millions of dollars that your university will make if you win the national championship when it's a rule we set, not the public (and) not the NCAA?"
That's the paradox of Bobby Bowden - and college football. In one breath there are millions of dollars at stake. And in the next it's just a game. Bowden does not see the two as a contradiction. "I'm not going to sell my soul to win. I might sell my house," jokes Bowden. "But I ain't selling my soul, you know."
"The worst thing they could say, 'Bobby Bowden did this, but lord, he cheated,'" he observes. "I hope they say... 'Well, he was good to kids. He did kids right. And he did it clean. And he still won.' That's what I'd like to be - a legacy. I hate to think of doing it right and losing."