Tuesday December 1st, 2009

The last time I talked to the old coach was in October. I was in the middle of writing a book and I needed some of Bobby Bowden's memories. He's got a lot of memories and relates them with a flair like something straight from Tennessee Williams. I had talked at length to Bowden dozens of times between 1987 and 2000 when I was covering college football (and Florida State was king), but not much in recent years.

We chatted by phone on a Monday morning and Bowden delivered the goods. It was a solid 20 minutes -- professional, informative and, as always, entertaining. All other issues aside, every writer with a whit of passion for college football should have had the chance to hear living history from Bowden. At the end of the interview, I thanked Bowden for his time, told him it was good to talk again. I wished him good luck because, hell, it was pretty obvious he needed it; two days earlier Florida State had lost at home to South Florida.

Here is what Bowden said at the end: "Thanks, buddy. I enjoyed that. I love talking about that old stuff. Nobody ever asks me about it much anymore.''

I was speechless, and sadder than I can describe, because in the five seconds it took Bowden to speak those words I understood that it really was time for him to leave. The embarrassing fall of the Florida State dynasty that Bowden built was tangible evidence enough, but hearing in the man's voice longing for another time was visceral evidence. When you start to look back too hard, it's over, and it probably wasn't going to end well in Tallahassee.

And it didn't. On Monday, Bowden was forced out as head coach at Florida State after 34 years, painted into a corner and given an ultimatum that he couldn't have -- and shouldn't have -- accepted. He did the right thing by refusing to accept a figurehead sideline role, even if that's what he's been doing for many years. And Florida State did absolutely the right thing by pushing him aside. The younger version of Bowden would tell you in that voice as soft as butter, it's all about winning. Florida State needs to move on.

Aging is unfair. I've got an 82-year-old father who taught me how to pump fake a rolled-up cornerback and now he needs a little help getting around. But the vast majority of people are allowed the dignity of growing old privately. Bowden grew old with 90,000 people watching every Saturday afternoon and it's painful that to some he became a punch line. But all of that will pass, and Bowden will be remembered largely for what took place in the years between 1987 and 2000, when he presided over what was arguably the greatest sustained run of success in college football history.

In 14 years, the Seminoles never won fewer than 10 games and never finished a season ranked lower than No. 5 in the country (in 10 of those years, they were in the top three). They won two national championships, three times lost the national championship game and three other times lost games in the regular season that probably cost them at least a chance to play for other national titles. In an age when college football was killing dynasties, Florida State was utterly dominant.

The coach, meanwhile, was an icon, maybe the last of a 20th century breed, the southern football coach who towered over his program, bigger than governors. Probably too big. Bryant. Royal. Men like that. Bowden was less intimidating than most, but just as important.

Bowden ran his program with a disarming, folksy charm. He must have been holy hell in living rooms all over the South, putting his arm around some high school linebacker's mother's shoulder and telling her everything would be all right. He often delivered sermons in panhandle churches, God right there alongside the Multiple I formation.

He was much the same with media. Back in November 1993 he was getting his Seminoles ready to play Notre Dame and telling stories about his old friendship with Lou Holtz. It turns Lou and his wife visited Bowden and his family in Tallahassee in the summer of 1963 when Bowden was an assistant coach for the Seminoles. About nine months later, Skip Holtz was born, which led Bowden to conclude, "Skip wasn't born here, but you could say his roots are here.''

Prior to the Fiesta Bowl national championship game in January 1999, Bowden delivered a sermon at a sprawling church outside Phoenix. When the time came, Bowden was summoned to the lectern by the pastor, who began by asking Bowden, what he does, after so many years of marriage, to make things right with his wife after they've had a fight.

Bowden stood in front of the church, letting the question hang in the air. He always had great comedic timing. He rubbed his chin. Finally Bowden looked up and said, "There's not really much I can do at this point.'' There was an instant of pause, and then brief titters, and then peals of laughter shaking the huge church.

That was a persona that Bowden created for the public. That was him, to be sure, but he played it bigger than life. There was another side to the man, because you don't win 388 college football games telling jokes and eating some grandmother's pecan pie. In 1996 Florida was the best team in college football and Steve Spurrier was finally ready to win a national championship at his alma mater.

In late November, the Gators came to Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee. Four days before the game I sat with Bowden in his end zone office overlooking the field. In that conversation he lamented his diminishing place in the game (yes, even then). "Next time I go to a coaching convention it's going to be me and Joe Paterno and Lavell Edwards and that's about it,'' he said. He thought back to when his name came up in every coaching search. "Used to be everybody wanted me,'' he said. "Now I can't get a date.''

But there was something else afoot. Florida State's defensive coaches had found some holes in Spurrier's protections. With Peter Boulware, Reinard Wilson and Andre Wadsworth, they had the pass rushers to bring serious heat. A plan was hatched: They would blitz the daylights out of Florida. "I believe,'' Bowden said that day in his office, "we're going to kick their asses.'' That was Bowden, too, fiercely competitive and proud. (When I used the "Kick their asses'' quote in Sports Illustrated the following week, we were inundated with letters accusing me of putting words in Bowden's mouth, because a pious man such as he would never speak like that.)

In that game, Florida State laid a vicious beatdown on soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Danny Weurffel: six sacks, 20 knockdowns. Spurrier publicly accused Bowden's team of hitting after the whistle. Bowden admitted to hitting "Until the echo of the whistle.'' (And Spurrier got the last word, winning his only national title with a 52-20 crushing in the Sugar Bowl.)

There was ample evidence that Bowden ran a loose ship. In the spring after his first national title, SI exposed a wild, agent-funded shopping spree at a local shopping mall. Six years later, in his second national title season, wideout Peter Warrick was suspended two games (but only two games) for getting "deep discounts,'' at a department store. There were regular transgressions. Bowden would always say the same thing: You can't watch 'em all. When the truth is, you have to. (Privately, Bowden was a little different. After beating Florida in '99, he pulled me aside to comment on a piece I had written criticizing him and the University in the handling of the Warrick issue. "We deserved that,'' he said. "We've got to do better.'')

As the late '90s became the 2000s, Bowden's program fell into mediocrity. That proved a much greater sin than having players break rules or laws. It always does.

But time moves quickly now, more quickly than ever. Bowden's last, struggling years will be forgotten, his dynasty remembered for as long as college football is played. Jimbo Fisher is the new coach at Florida State, but Bowden won't be replaced. He is the last of a kind.

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