TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Esteemed colleague Stewart Mandel has made a grievous error. Last week, Mandel omitted former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne from his list of college football's five most legendary coaches of all-time because Osborne, according to Mandel, was "too bland." Stew should have come to Florida State's University Center Club on Wednesday, because Osborne absolutely slayed at a roast for FSU coach Bobby Bowden.
Osborne came out swinging with an oldie but a goodie.
"You can tell from looking that Bobby and I are getting on in life, getting a little older," Osborne said. "This was driven home to me a little while ago. A lady came up to Bobby, and she said, 'My goodness. Drinking makes you look so much better.' He said, 'Ma'am, I'll have you know, I'm not drinking.' She said, 'No. I am.'"
OK, so Osborne wasn't Chris Rock, but he did make former Seminoles quarterback Chris Weinke laugh so hard he almost fell off the dais. Another Osborne zinger involved Bowden's visit to a nursing home. The punchline? "Go to the front desk and they'll tell you who you are."
For 100 minutes Wednesday, Bowden could laugh off his recent travails. The NCAA wants to strip Bowden of 14 wins because of an academic fraud scandal. Florida State president T.K. Wetherell, a former Seminoles football player, has suggested he might haul the governing body of college sports into court to protect those wins. FSU has accepted probation and scholarship losses, but vacating the wins would put Bowden hopelessly behind Penn State's Joe Paterno in the race to retire as the winningest coach in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
If Bowden took anything from Wednesday's panel of roasters, it's that it shouldn't matter what the NCAA does. Osborne, former players Weinke and Ron Simmons and fellow coaches Mark Richt, Mack Brown (on video), Bob Stoops (on video) and Lou Holtz (on video) all agreed to rib Bowden because he has profoundly affected their lives. No matter what number stands beside his name after he retires, his legacy remains intact in the eyes of those whose opinions should matter to him. Plus, no other coach in America will get roasted by the Bandit himself. That's right. Burton Leon Reynolds, quite possibly the proudest former Florida State football player on the planet, came to lob insults and pay his respects to the man who put the Seminoles on the map.
Paterno might be able to pull Steve Guttenberg, but not Paul Crewe himself.
"If I've been asked any question the most in my career, it wasn't about Sally Field," said Reynolds, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing Jack Horner, the fictional Francis Ford Coppola of porn, in 1997's Boogie Nights. "It was about Bobby Bowden."
I would have guessed the most common question Reynolds receives involves either Loni Anderson, Dom Deluise or the combination of some sort of time constraint and 400 cases of Coors beer. With no corroborating evidence from Field, Snowman, Big Enos or Little Enos, we must take the words of the Bandit as gospel. Reynolds, who started at halfback as an FSU freshman in 1954 and had his off-screen football career wrecked by a practice-field knee injury in 1955, never played for Bowden, but in the early '60s, the young actor took a shine to the Seminoles' young receivers coach. The friendship has endured. So have the stories. Reynolds and his fellow roasters painted a picture of Bowden on Wednesday that focused on three major themes.
• Bowden Fun Fact No. 1: We're all his buddy.
When Reynolds first met Bowden, he marveled at how brilliantly Bowden enunciated his nickname. "I always marveled at the fact that he always knew my name," Reynolds said. "Buddy! Get over here. Buddy! Come on in. Sit down. Tell me what's happenin', Buddy!. Then I found out that everybody was Buddy. But it is my name, and I just loved to hear him say it."
Richt, a former Bowden assistant, told the tale of his decision in 1986 to become a born-again Christian. Richt made the choice at a time of great turmoil, and Bowden was thrilled to help Richt into the flock. So the men went into Bowden's office and kneeled to pray. According to Richt, Bowden did the talking with the almighty. "Dear Lord," Richt remembered Bowden saying, "I'm here with ... What's your name again, buddy?"
Weinke remembered that after the Seminoles beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1999 national title, Florida State trooper Billy Smith handed Bowden a telephone in the locker room. "Hey, buddy," Bowden yelled into the receiver. The caller? President Bill Clinton.
• Bowden Fun Fact No. 2: If ESPN really wants to boost ratings, it will add a live Bowden headset feed to its telecasts.
In the first game of FSU's wire-to-wire No. 1 season in 1999, Bowden itched to run a reverse with star receiver Peter Warrick. Richt had taken over as the primary playcaller, but Bowden still reserved the right to thrown in a trick play when the circumstances warranted. Bowden told Richt that every time the Seminoles ran a sweep, Richt needed to check to see one of the Louisiana Tech defensive ends left his assignment guarding the back side of the play. As soon as the end drifted, Bowden would call the reverse. Richt watched diligently, but the end played his assignment perfectly every time. Finally, with the ball on the Bulldogs' 20, Bowden grew tired of waiting. He called the reverse. As usual, the end was in perfect position to blow up the play. Somehow, Warrick squirted through an opening, zigzagged through the entire Louisiana Tech defense and ran about 40 yards for a 20-yard score. After the touchdown, Richt heard Bowden's voice crackle through the headset. "I've still got it, buddy" Bowden said.
A year earlier, Bowden had yanked Weinke in favor of Marcus Outzen during a disastrous game at N.C. State. Weinke had tied an ACC record with six interceptions, but Outzen wasn't faring much better. So as Weinke listened in on the headset, he heard Bowden give Richt an order. "Put him back in," Bowden said. "Let him break the record."
• Bowden Fun Fact No. 3: He likes his naps.
Weinke said Bowden naps in the police cruisers that take him from the airport to the Seminoles' hotel on road trips. He said Bowden dreams up big plays - a 99-yard bomb Weinke once threw to Snoop Minnis against Clemson, for example - during midday naps in Tallahassee. But even with all that sleep, Bowden still retires early. "I'm surprised you're still awake," Weinke said when he took the mic Wednesday.
Sometimes, the themes blur. As the Seminoles were losing the 2000 national title in a 13-2 debacle against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl - Stoops, in his video tribute, said he was sorry for that beatdown - Weinke heard another bit of radio chatter. "Son, I'm the one that's supposed to be taking naps out here," Weinke remembers Bowden telling Richt. "Not you."
Of course, Bowden gave as good as he got Wednesday. Turning to Osborne, Bowden recalled a conversation with an official that may or may not have happened during a Fiesta Bowl against the Cornhuskers. Bowden said the official came to the sideline to inform Bowden that Osborne, on the other sideline, had been complaining all game that the Seminoles were cheating. "Tom," Bowden said, "it's just called the forward pass."
Truly, if FSU wants the NCAA to give back those vacated wins, the Seminoles should just send Bowden to make the oral arguments. Just as he's forgotten more trick plays than the average hotshot coach will ever know, his catalogue of one-liners seems limitless. The members of the Committee on Infractions either will be charmed into handing over the wins, or they'll give them back just to make Bowden stop.
Even if the committee refuses to return the wins to Bowden's record, he shouldn't lose sleep. The fraud happened on his watch, so he may have absorb some of the punishment. His legacy, at least among those whose lives he's touched, will remain undisturbed.
• Reynolds: "Your reputation is what people say about you. Your character is what God and your wife know about you."
• Richt: "I have a very hard time roasting a man, who, next to my father, is the most important man in my life."
• Weinke: "It doesn't matter what the stats say. It doesn't matter what the NCAA says. Coach Bowden will always be the winningest coach in college football."