Jim Bowman Remembered

Longtime Athletic Department Leader Passes Away

By Lt. Col. (Ret.) Steven A. Simon ’77

October 27, 2022

Jim Bowman, an honorary member of the Association of Graduates who joined the Academy Athletic Department in the Lowry days and served in the department for nearly 50 years, passed away Aug. 20 in Oregon. He was 89 years old.

His impact on the Academy, the Air Force, and the nation was profound. He brought in and helped develop cadets who went on to serve the nation — in and out of a military uniform — in a wide variety of fields.

The Charlevoix, Michigan, native attended the University of Michigan and participated in the AFROTC program (where his instructor was Capt. Carl Gould — more on that later). Bowman also played on the Wolverine football team, lettering as a center.

Upon graduation in 1956, he completed pilot training at Reese Air Force Base, Texas, and then checked out in the B-47.

After being permanently grounded for a medical condition, diverticulitis, he transferred to Schilling Air Force Base in Salina, Kansas, as a special services officer. While there, Air Force basketball coach Bob Spear met him and encouraged him to apply to be a physical education instructor at the Academy. The Academy accepted the application, and 1st Lt. Bowman reported to the Academy at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver in the summer of 1958.

That autumn, he joined Coach Ben Martin’s football staff as the scout team coach. Bowman’s connections in the Big Ten Conference paid immediate dividends, as he was able to get a very thorough scouting report on the University of Iowa team. When the Falcons tied the heavily favored and eighth-ranked Hawkeyes on the road, the football program and the Academy earned national recognition. The 13-13 result propelled the team to an undefeated season — before the Academy had even graduated its first class.

“Bo” later moved to the intercollegiate side full time. For 15 years, he was head coach of the Falcon junior varsity and freshman teams. He compiled an overall record of 61 wins and 32 losses, with his 1963 and 1975 teams enjoying undefeated seasons. During his illustrious career, he served as mentor to several Academy and Air Force superstars, to include Vietnam ace Steve Ritchie ’64, Medal of Honor recipient Lance Sijan ’65, former superintendents Paul Stein ’66 and Mike Gould ’76, and current Superintendent Richard Clark ’86.

Capt. Bowman left the active-duty Air Force in 1963, one year before adding another responsibility to his coaching duties — associate athletic director for cadet counseling. In 1975, Coach Bo stepped away from the football field, devoting all of his attention to administration. He held the cadet counseling position for 43 years.

Among his tasks was working with congressional staff members to obtain nominations for prospective cadet-athletes. He proved exceptionally adept in this role, as his enthusiasm and professionalism won friends in Washington, D.C., and throughout the nation.

One of his closest contacts in Washington was Norma Nottingham. From 1981 until her 1997 retirement, the former congressional staffer was the Academy’s focal point for Congress in the nomination and admissions process, working in the Academy Activities Group in the Pentagon.

Nottingham, who was selected as an honorary member by the Association of Graduates in 1994, recently reminisced that “Bo was so dearly loved and did so much for the youth of America.” She recalled how he would hold a holiday reception on Capitol Hill each December to thank the members and staffers who had assisted USAFA, happily handing out Air Force Academy Christmas ornaments that he had brought from Colorado.

Bowman was a champion for equal opportunity, standing proudly at the forefront of diversity and inclusion, years before such attention became prevalent. He was also a strong supporter of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex-based discrimination. As such, he was the perfect person to take a lead role in establishing the women’s athletic program when female cadets first arrived at the Academy in 1976. The Academy’s intercollegiate offerings instantly went from 15 teams to 27, and Bo had to coordinate with coaches, the Academy Admissions Office, and congressional offices to fill those teams with qualified cadets.

Col. (Ret.) Randy Spetman ’76, athletic director from March 1996 to April 2004, admired Bowman’s diligence and attention to detail.

“Bo would never take a nominee to the Academy board unless he felt they would make a good cadet,” Spetman says. “He would work for weeks to call counselors, coaches and others to ensure he was advocating for a good person. His passion was evident, and I don’t think in my 8+ years the board ever failed to forward his nominee for appointment.”

Spetman also recalls what an absolute stickler Bo was regarding NCAA compliance — a passion that served USAFA well for decades.

Bowman expressed his pride in the Academy in a 2005 interview, saying, “The best thing about this school is what these athletes do after they leave here, how they turn out as people. We’ve had major command leaders, wing commanders, astronauts, war heroes and more. That’s more important than how many touchdowns they score.”

Upon his 2007 retirement, he and his wife, Mae, moved to Corvallis, Oregon, to be close to family and to do some trout fishing. He was back at the Academy that November, when the Academy honored him by dedicating a plaque that still hangs outside of the superintendent’s box at Falcon Stadium. The placement was significant, as Bowman had hosted recruits in that area of the press box for decades.

A few statistics can help quantify Jim Bowman’s longevity at Air Force. While employed at the Academy, he oversaw the recruitment and admission of approximately 14,000 cadet-athletes. Nearly 39,000 cadets graduated during his 49 years at USAFA. He worked with hundreds of leaders, including 16 superintendents, 22 commandants of cadets, eight deans of the faculty, and eight directors of athletics.

Bo also worked with 10 admissions directors. In his position, he interacted extremely closely with those officers, seeking approval from the Academy board to appoint athletes for whom he had labored to secure congressional nominations.

One of those admissions directors was Col. (Ret.) Trapper Carpenter ’70, who served in the position from 2000 until 2007. Trapper succeeded Bo as the Athletic Department’s and the Academy’s primary advocate for athletic recruits. Trapper is careful to clarify that “Recruiting-wise, I moved into Coach Bo’s position when he retired (never replacing him — no one could replace Coach Bo).”

He goes on to say he was, “Blessed to know Coach Jim ‘Bo’ Bowman both professionally and personally; he brought a special passion and dedication to the Academy from its earliest years. Bo ‘Bled Blue,’ establishing a legacy of selfless service that will continue into the future.” They became close friends and fishing buddies.

His half-century of excellence was recognized by several organizations, with the Association of Graduates being the first. In November 1994, the AOG’s board of directors named Jim Bowman an honorary member (fittingly, the same year that Nottingham, his dear friend, was honored). Honorary membership may be awarded to non-graduates who have rendered outstanding and conspicuous service to the Air Force, the Academy and/or the AOG. Honorary members must be recommended by a member of the AOG board and, at the time of his selection, were required to receive unanimous acceptance of all directors. Membership is limited to 25 living persons.

The current CEO of the AOG and the Air Force Academy Foundation, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Mike Gould, recently spoke about the tremendous impact Jim Bowman had on his life, saying, “If not for Coach Jim Bowman, I might have never set foot on the Air Force Academy. My dad was Bo’s ROTC instructor at Michigan ’53-’54. They developed a life-long friendship which led to Coach Bowman’s interest in an undersized, undertalented quarterback and defensive back in 1971. In a very long shot, Coach Bo offered me a Prep School slot two weeks prior to BMT Lackland report date. The rest is history.”

At the conclusion of 1997-98 season, the Academy ice hockey program began presenting an award in his name — the Jim Bowman Award (Scholar-Athlete). “The Bowman” is presented annually to the upperclassman who has excelled in both the classroom and on the ice.

In November 2001, Bo was inducted into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the 1958 football staff. The ’58 squad finished with an undefeated record (9-0-2) including a scoreless tie with Texas Christian University in the Cotton Bowl (back when there were only four bowl games). It was the first bowl appearance for an Academy team.

As an individual, Coach Bowman was part of the second Air Force Academy Athletic Hall of Fame class, which was inducted in 2009. Among the six 2009 honorees was Ben Martin, with whom he worked from 1958 until 1977. The Academy Athletic Hall of Fame began in 2007 with six selectees, which means that “Bo” was among the first dozen people honored for his performance in an athletic program that had been in existence for more than 50 years.

Another of the countless people who admired him was former head football coach Fisher DeBerry, who led the Falcon football program for 23 years (1984-2006), compiling a record of a 169-109-1 and taking the Falcons to 12 bowl games. He remembers Bo as a dear friend, a delightful neighbor and, through his work in candidate counseling, the hidden key to Air Force’s success in athletics.

I also had the extreme good fortune of working directly with Jim Bowman, not once but twice. As a Doolie football manager, I was assigned as Bo’s personal manager. To an 18-year-old, he was a bit intimidating, but he had a heart of gold. We all remember his cheerful greeting, as he offered a meaty hand and thundered “Jim Bowman, Michigan ’56!”

Decades later, I served alongside Norma Nottingham in the Academy Activities Group in the Pentagon. The three of us spent many enjoyable hours roaming the halls of Congress and hosting planeloads of staffers on orientation trips to the Academy. I also had the honor of helping to arrange five visits to the White House, where Bo, the other coaches and the Firstie players received the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy from the president of the United States.

I, and everyone who knew him, can certainly agree with Coach DeBerry’s declaration that “College athletics needs more Jim Bowmans.”

Coach Bowman’s memorial service and burial were held at the Academy Cemetery on Oct. 20. As a member of the Academy’s original cadre, he was authorized burial at USAFA.

Gen. Gould spoke at the service, while others, including family members, childhood friend and lifelong associate Chip Terrill ’70, former Academy basketball coach Reggie Minton, and current Academy head football coach Troy Calhoun ’89, offered tributes as speakers at the Falcon Stadium reception that followed.

The Air Force football team wrapped up the week of Jim Bowman’s final return to the Academy in a very appropriate fashion. Falcon players honored and paid their respects to the legend by wearing “BO” stickers on their helmets during their Oct. 22 game against Boise State.