Two days before the game, Bobby Bowden held court with reporters on the Superdome turf, cracking jokes in his trademark Southern drawl. His All-America kicker, Sebastian Janikowski, had missed curfew on New Year's Eve but would not be suspended, as Bowden had done with similar violators in the past. Asked about the appearance of "preferential treatment" for the Polish-born kicker, Bowden didn't hesitate: "Does it appear that he is getting preferential treatment? It does to me. ... We're playing under international rules."
The reporters ate it up. How could they not? In 1999, Bowden, then 70, was the king of the college football castle and we were all his minions. Sure, he'd already begun delegating much of the program's day-to-day responsibilities to his coordinators, but his status as a coaching icon remained impregnable. His assembly line of future NFL stars appeared never-ending. His program seemed unstoppable.
In the decade since, I've covered Bowden countless more times -- in bowl-week press gatherings, conference media days, postgame press conferences and post-practice briefings from his trusty golf cart. We've also conducted numerous phone interviews and, in 2007, my last one-on-one visit in his office. Talking college football with the ever-hospitable Bowden was the equivalent of getting to casually chat up Steven Spielberg about films. The man has seen it all, done it all, known them all. His career path spanned from the height of Bear Bryant to the ascension of Urban Meyer.
It's for all these same reasons that covering Bowden this past decade has also been incredibly sad. In 1999, he and his program were pillars of strength. In the 10 years since, I watched him slowly sink from dominance to desperation. Right up until the final moments of his downfall, even after watching his once-powerful team serve as a de facto practice squad for purported rival Florida last Saturday, Bowden, now 80, clung to the belief he could still return the program he once built back into its old intimidating self. Last summer, with his team coming off a 9-4 season and harboring a preseason top 20 ranking, he told me the 'Noles were "one more [recruiting] class away" from regaining their national stature.
Clearly, that wasn't the case. The last of Bowden's 34 FSU squads was arguably the worst since his very first season in 1976, which is why the school had no choice but to hasten his planned departure. We can only hope that Bowden, following his weekend "soul searching," truly realized that walking away was the right decision for himself and his program. Unfortunately, knowing Bowden's pride, that's probably not the case.
Many will argue in the coming days that FSU did wrong by Bowden, that only the Hall of Famer himself should have been allowed to decide his fate. None other than Dick Vitale tweeted Monday night: "After 34 years Bowden deserved to be treated better-one more year big deal!" One more year, though, where every other person associated with Florida State football -- from anointed successor Jimbo Fisher; to 100-plus players and a class of potential recruits; to hundreds of thousands of disgruntled fans; to an athletic department whose coffers suffered when a reported 25,000 Doak Campbell seats went empty for the 'Noles' final home game -- would be forced to wait in limbo and watch another year of bad football solely so the revered coach could enjoy a proper farewell tour.
Others will liken Bowden's situation to that of Penn State icon Joe Paterno, whose program suffered a far more precipitous drop at the start of this decade (four losing seasons in five years) but withstood it and has since produced two Big Ten championship teams. But Paterno's renaissance began almost immediately upon making several important staff changes in 2005. Bowden did the same following a calamitous 7-6 season in 2006, handpicking Fisher to replace his son Jeff as offensive coordinator, bringing back longtime defensive assistant Chuck Amato and importing widely regarded offensive line coach Rick Trickett. Together, they began the task of returning the 'Noles to their proper perch.
Unfortunately, three years later, the program is in no better shape. Strangely, FSU has undergone an almost total reversal, with Fisher turning a once-stagnant offense into the ACC's second-best this season, while the team's long-revered defense deteriorated into one of the worst in the country in coordinator Mickey Andrews' last season. Making this season particularly galling for FSU fans was the fact that it included losses to three in-state schools, Miami, USF and Florida.
The only possible way for Florida State to begin moving forward was for Bowden to step aside and for Fisher -- no sure-thing himself, but the school's wedded choice after promising him both the job and $5 million -- to begin molding the program to his own accord. He needs to hire a defensive coordinator. He'll likely part ways with Amato, his purported staff nemesis, and other assistants. And he'll finally be able to tell prospective recruits when exactly they'll begin playing for him.
But just because Bowden's exit is the right move doesn't make it any less somber. Make no mistake: This is a sad, sad day, for Bowden, for Florida State and for any fan above the age of 10. Bobby Bowden is, and always will be, a college football treasure. He changed a school. He changed the sport. He touched countless lives both inside and outside his program, and he played a part in many of the game's most indelible moments of the past 20 years.
I never would have imagined on that January day nearly 10 years ago that I'd one day be writing about Bowden's forced retirement. It didn't seem plausible. I knew the day would eventually come, but I always figured it would end after yet another victory, with his players carrying him off on their shoulders.
Maybe that moment will still come in the Seminoles' bowl game. The man certainly deserves a more fitting final image than that of his bewildered, beaten expression as he greeted Meyer on the field following last week's dismantling. "I know Urban's doing a great job," said Bowden. "He's looking at me like, 'You used to do a good job.'"
It was a startlingly self-deprecating observation on Bowden's part. Unfortunately, it was also true. Hopefully, as time passes, the college football world will remember the good part and try to forget the unfortunate way it ended.