Saturday November 21st, 2009

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Maryland freshman punter Nick Ferrara didn't know it, but his misfiring right foot saved a legend's job Saturday. Because Ferrara couldn't follow his own coach's instructions during a 29-26 loss, Florida State's Bobby Bowden will have a chance to retire on his own terms.

Had Ferrara honored coach Ralph Friedgen's wishes and kicked the ball out of bounds Saturday, Florida State, down four, would have had to march the length of the field with a redshirt freshman quarterback making his second start, one timeout and less than two minutes to play. Maryland's defense probably would have held, and the Terrapins probably would have won their third game of the season.

Meanwhile, a loss to the lowly Terps would have left FSU at 5-6 with an unwinnable game at No. 1 Florida next week. It probably would have snapped Florida State's nation-leading 27-year bowl streak. Most importantly, it probably would have emboldened someone in power -- either President T.K. Wetherell or athletic director Randy Spetman -- to tell legendary coach Bowden, thanks for the memories, but coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher will take it from here.

The sheer quantity of blood in the water after a loss to Maryland would have made the decision tolerable, even to those loath to chase off a man who built a dynasty and then helped it crumble. But it isn't tolerable now. Not after Ferrara's punt wobbled into the waiting arms of freshman cornerback Greg Reid.

Reid, who started Saturday ranked second in the nation in yards per return, snagged the ball at his own eight-yard line, made one mind-blowing cutback and raced 48 yards to the Maryland 44. Then it was up to quarterback E.J. Manuel, the redshirt freshman who so ably replaced the injured Christian Ponder last week in a win at Wake Forest. Manuel had thrown two crushing interceptions already, and he was determined to make up for those mistakes. On two consecutive plays, the pocket broke down. Manuel scrambled for 15 on the first, 20 on the second. Two plays later, freshman tailback Lonnie Pryor crashed over the goal line for the go-ahead score.

The stands, which featured entire empty sections in the upper end zones, shook from the roar. The FSU fans who bothered to show up cheered as if they'd actually won something significant, as if a program that ruled the nation 10 years ago wasn't so mediocre that its postseason life depended on eeking out victories at home against two-win teams. At some point later Saturday, it probably dawned on all those cheering fans that they'd just been guaranteed another year of Bowden, which could mean another year of great wins (BYU, North Carolina) and mystifying losses (South Florida, Boston College).

After the win, Bowden said he never even considered that Saturday might be his final game on Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium. "No," he said. "That didn't cross my mind." Maybe it hadn't dawned on him how close it really was. A segment of FSU fans and boosters have called for Bowden's retirement for years. Those chants grew loudest this year when an October loss to Boston College left the Seminoles at 2-3. Bowden's wife, Ann, only stoked the fire this week when, during an interview with USA Today, she essentially dared the FSU administration to fire her husband.

"You know, we don't need the university as much as they need us -- as much as they need him and his connections and reputation and everything," she told the paper. "If they want to pull that trick, we'll just shake the dirt off our feet and go to Europe or go on a long cruise or something.

"They'll have to fire him for him not to go another year ... If they've got guts enough to do it, let them do it."

Had FSU lost to Maryland, they would have had the guts.

Bowden also had a hand in his salvation. You don't win 388 games without accumulating some significant wisdom, and Bowden proved that Saturday. As Maryland's punt team trotted onto the field, Bowden and a group of coaches discussed whether they should try to block the kick or set up a return and hope the Terrapins would foolishly kick to Reid. "We debated," Bowden said. "First, they had the punt block on. I said, 'No, let's return the thing.' I was afraid if we tried to block it, we might rough him and they'd run the clock out."

Maybe, just maybe, the confluence of events that headed off an ugly divorce didn't happen purely by accident. Maybe something greater was at work Saturday in Tallahassee.

Retiring coordinator Mickey Andrews' defense played horribly for most of his final home game, but on the final series Andrews coached in Tallahassee, the defense stuffed Maryland on three consecutive plays, forcing that fateful punt.

After the win, a group of Seminoles hoisted Andrews onto their shoulders at the 50-yard line and began carrying him toward the tunnel in the end zone. They reached the 20 before Andrews' feet were back on terra firma. "He doesn't want all that attention," linebacker Dekoda Watson said. "He said to put him down." Later, Andrews explained his reason for shortening the ride. "If the players had done what they'd needed to do," Andrews said, "they wouldn't have had the energy to hold an old man."

Andrews, a true defensive innovator in his heyday, is retiring for all the right reasons. He and his wife are raising two of their grandsons following the suicide of their son in 2007, and Andrews wants time for his wife and his boys. Saturday, Andrews expounded on his decision to leave the job he's had since Bowden hired him on a cold day in 1984 during an interview at a Tallahassee McDonald's. "I can't remember if it was a double-cheese," Andrews joked.

The most heartbreaking postgame moment came when someone asked Andrews if he'd have any regrets.

"Yeah, I've got some regrets," Andrews said. "No. 1, I didn't end up a head coach. But, like I said, I've accepted that fate.

"The other thing I regret is the amount of time it's taken away from my family. There have been a lot of times when I needed to be a husband, and I wasn't. I was up here at the office. There were times that I needed to be a daddy, and I wasn't. I was busy working. There were times when I needed to do something for my grandkids, and I couldn't. That's the reason I won't be back next year."

So maybe that's why events unfolded so dramatically Saturday. Maybe a good man needed a proper sendoff.

And maybe another year will allow a legend a chance to craft a proper goodbye of his own. A few years ago, a wise old coach said this: "What is my toleration point? It's pretty strong. What I don't want to do is coach longer than I should -- [where] I feel I can't do it. You watch boxers. They fight one year too long. I hope I don't do that. Whenever I get out, I must leave it in good order."

That quote appeared in a 2002 Tallahassee Democrat story penned by the late Steve Ellis. The man Ellis quoted? Bobby Bowden, who now has one more year to ensure he leaves things in good order.

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