The message on Bobby Bowden's desk begged for an explanation. "Call Ann-Margret," it said.
"She's just a good friend," said Bowden. He was surprised that a reporter found it noteworthy that a married, 63-year-old Southern Baptist football coach is chummy with the siren once serenaded by Elvis in Viva Las Vegas.
This unlikely pair for a game of phone tag were introduced by their mutual friend, Burt Reynolds, who lettered at halfback for Florida State in 1954. When Ann-Margret injured her leg last year, Bowden sent her an inscribed copy of the book St. Bobby and the Barbarians. "I told her, 'Ya gotta be tough,' that sort of stuff," he says. "She ate that up."
No one can say exactly when Bowden transcended his status as a mere regional celebrity. But a change was noticed about two years ago by Charlie Barnes, executive director of Seminole Boosters Inc., whose members accompany the coach each spring on the six-week Bobby Bowden Tour. This pilgrimage to speak before scattered groups of the Florida State faithful once covered only the South, but now it makes stops in Washington, D.C., Dallas and Los Angeles. "It used to be just me and Coach driving around in a van," says Barnes. "Now he's mobbed wherever we go. It's 'Bobby, could you sign this?' 'Bobby, we love you!' 'Bobby, take my child and raise him as your own.' "
Although he's one of the best-known bridesmaids in sports—Bowden's Seminoles wound up ranked No. 2 in both 1987 and '92—and a favorite interview subject for TV sportscasters, Bowden owes much of his high profile to Reynolds, who has donated money to the school for, among other things, the athletic dormitories that bear his name and the shiny garnet pants that the players broke out for last season's Tulane game. (The new trou are believed to have given the Seminoles the mental lift they needed to squeak past the Green Wave 70-7.) Burt's munificence did not stop there: In the off-season he invited Bowden to appear, as himself making a recruiting visit, on Evening Shade, the situation comedy in which Reynolds stars.
The taping was last February, and Bowden didn't get around to reading the script until the night before his flight to Los Angeles. There's no way I can remember all this, he thought. I guess they'll have cue cards.
An absence of cue cards was but one of the surprises in store for him. "I didn't realize how big the whole thing was," says Bowden. "This is the old Republic Studio, where John Wayne and Charlie Chaplin used to make movies, and I'm intimidated. We get to the Evening Shade set, and cameras are everywhere. Fifty, 60 stagehands. But the worst of it was, they got gosh-darned bleachers! People sit and watch!" He grimaces at the memory.
A script coach sat Bowden down. "He's telling me how to say my lines," recalls Bowden. "I told him, 'I can't remember all that,' and he said, 'Just read your lines, get a feel for 'em, then just put 'em in your own words.' So I tried to do that."
Bowden had three scenes. The time came for him to make his first entrance. "I'm standing behind a wall, the cameras are rolling, and I'm fixing to open this door and walk in," he says. "I can hear 'em doing their lines, there's the sound of a knock on the door, and I hear 'em say, 'Oh, I bet that's Coach Bowden.' "
Coach Bowden froze. "I had not been that scared since I was 14, when I had to give piano recitals," he says. "My mind was a blank. I didn't have a clue what to say. I was just standing there thinking, Bowden, how did you get yourself into this?"
He may repeat the question on Oct. 9—if the Florida State-Miami game comes down to a final kick.
From the moribund loser he took over in 1976, Bowden has built one of the nation's top two or three programs. He has done it with sound defenses, terrific kick-return teams, wide-open offenses and the odd "rooskie," which is Bowdenese for trick play. Last season, for the sixth straight year, the Seminoles won 10 or more games and finished among the top four teams in the country. Bowden's 227 victories make him the second-winningest active coach in Division I-A, behind Penn State's Joe Paterno. Even more remarkable, his teams are undefeated in 11 consecutive bowl games, including a 27-14 humbling of Nebraska last New Year's Day in the Orange Bowl. But all of these feats can be eclipsed by two words: wide right.
As Florida State's Dan Mowrey prepared to attempt a 38-yard field goal that would have tied Miami last October, Hurricane cornerback Ryan McNeil led his teammates in a chant. "Gerry Thomas! Gerry Thomas!" they shouted, invoking the name of the player whom Mowrey would soon join in the annals of Seminole kicking ignominy. Thomas's missed field goal against Miami had cost Florida State a shot at the 1991 national championship. After Mowrey, like Thomas before him, had pushed his kick wide to the right, McNeil explained the chant. "We were reminiscing with Dan," he said.
It was one of the last original nuggets extracted from an overworked vein. However, until Florida State can beat Miami—or lose to the Hurricanes without missing a decisive kick in you-know-which direction—"wide right" jokes will be retold ad nauseam. Pictures of distorted goalposts, the right upright always bent outward, will be faxed to the Seminole football office. Student entrepreneurs in Coral Gables will make T-shirts bearing the legend WIDE RIGHT, THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING.
These witticisms keep the focus on Florida State's failures even as its program enjoys a golden age. Throw out the wide rights, and the Seminoles are in the hunt for their third national championship in a row. Since 1987 they are 64-9. Five of those losses were to the Hurricanes, most of whom waste no graciousness on their upstate brethren. "To me," said Miami defensive tackle Mark Caesar after last year's game, "Florida State is the best three-quarter team in the country."
"We been good, they been better," says Bowden. Then he adds, "These things have a way of evening themselves out."
If that evening out doesn't occur this season, it may never. Only two starters, both linemen, are gone from a Florida State offense that averaged 61 points in its last three regular-season games. (A third starter, tailback Tiger McMillon, hurt his knee in practice Aug. 11 and is expected to be out much of the season.) And after finishing the '92 season playing the best football in the country, the Seminoles reeled in a recruiting class judged by a consensus of experts to be the nation's best.
With this latest bumper crop, Florida State has attracted a Top 3 class for a third straight year. This year's harvest began with a commitment from Thad Busby of Pace, Fla., widely considered the No. 2 high school quarterback in the country (behind Notre Dame-bound Ron Powlus). That, according to Florida State recruiting coordinator Ronnie Cottrell, "kinda started an avalanche." Next aboard was Byron Capers of Marietta, Ga., one of the country's top defensive backs. He was followed by nine high school All-Americas, including Rhodney Williams of Palatka, Fla., SuperPrep magazine's No. 2 tight end; Andre Cooper of Jacksonville, the magazine's third-ranked wide receiver; Clarence (Pooh Bear) Williams of Crescent City, Fla., SuperPrep's top fullback; and Darryl Bush, the magazine's No. 2 linebacker. "All day I was thinking, There's no way we can get all these guys," recalls Cottrell. "They've got to scatter."
They didn't, to the consternation of Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who griped, "I don't know what they're telling those kids up in Tallahassee. I can't believe those kids signed when you look at the list of All-Americas [the Seminoles] already have!" The Seminoles also raided South Carolina, picking off four of that state's leading players and sending a message to their ACC rivals at Clemson: Not only will we kick your butts on the field, but we'll out-recruit you too.
Why the rush for players to sign with a school renowned for its also-ran status? The feeling among this batch of prospects seems to be that the Seminoles' luck has to turn soon. Says Cottrell, "A lot of the guys told me they'd rather help us win our first championship than help Miami win its fifth."
Of all the blue-chippers to commit to the Seminoles, one will be subject to particularly intense scrutiny: placekicker-punter Scott Bentley (page 34), whose right instep, the Seminoles hope, will exorcise the demons that have denied Florida State a national title. Everyone in Tallahassee knows that Bentley routinely booted field goals of more than 50 yards in high school, but no Seminole is getting overly excited. Says fullback William Floyd, "He'll earn my respect when he kicks a 35-yarder against Miami."
Another reason Florida State has become a magnet for All-Americas is its arduous schedule. Says junior Clifton Abraham, "The games we play, everybody in the world watches." Abraham, who along with junior Corey Sawyer is the latest in Florida State's line of velociraptor cornerbacks, attended Carter High in Dallas, a renowned football factory. His teammates signed on with Houston, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Why didn't Abraham stay in state? "Two reasons," he says. "The tradition of cornerbacks [at FSU]"—including NFL stars Deion Sanders and Terrell Buckley—"and the magnitude of the games."
Bowden has made Florida State's reputation in part by beating name opponents on the road. He revels in being the short guy in the bar who taps the big guy's chest and says, "Anytime, anywhere." More often than not, a team that goes into its own alley with the Seminoles gets its head handed to it. In 12 trips to Ohio State, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Clemson, Michigan and Syracuse under Bowden, Florida State is 9-3.
The short guy has won so many scraps, you might think he had little left to prove. But Florida State's scheduling pugnacity persists. Besides Miami and a strong slate of ACC opponents, the Seminoles will play Florida and Notre Dame—on the road. Why? "Ego, I guess," says Bowden.
"Our fans expect and enjoy tough games," says assistant athletic director Andy Urbanic. True, but with the national championship within Florida State's grasp, fans would certainly understand another Tulane or two. Instead, the Seminoles shortened their summer and made their lives more difficult by agreeing to play Kansas in the Aug. 28 Kickoff Classic at the Meadowlands, in East Rutherford, N.J., a game in which Florida State might seem to have nothing to gain and everything to lose.
Bowden disagrees. "Our kids have never been to New York, never played in the Kickoff Classic," he says. Also, the Heisman Trophy campaigns of Charlie Ward, Florida State's dazzling quarterback, and Tamarick Vanover, its outlandishly talented wide receiver and return specialist, stand to get jump-starts from the New York media. Then there is the not insubstantial matter of the $900,000 that the Seminoles stand to earn for the athletic department. Mainly, though, Bowden feels that if his team can't beat Kansas, it doesn't deserve to be No. 1.
"Besides," he says, "I just don't think there's a shortcut to the national championship. Whether it's 12 or 13 games, home or away, you're gonna have to have some luck to win it."
While waiting for his own share of luck, Bowden has survived, and thrived, by adapting. Before the start of last season he let his assistants talk him into adding the one-back and shotgun attacks to the Seminoles' trusty pro-set offense. In a further sign of his flexibility, Bowden—who had long before delegated defensive decisions to Mickey Andrews, his defensive coordinator—handed the play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Brad Scott and quarterback coach Mark Richt.
But Bowden retains ultimate control on both sides of the ball. Against North Carolina in Florida State's sixth game last year, Bowden benched Ward in the second quarter after Ward completed only two of eight passes and had thrown his 12th and 13th interceptions of the season. There was speculation that Ward would be demoted in favor of freshman Danny Kanell the following week against Georgia Tech. Bowden stayed with Ward, who stole the game from the Yellow Jackets.
Earlier in the season Ward had struggled operating the one-back, but he flourished in the no-huddle shotgun. When the Seminoles came out in the shotgun, opposing defensive ends played so wide in deference to Ward's scrambling ability that huge passing lanes opened. And the quicker tempo of play without a huddle suited the basketball player in Ward, who is Florida State's starting point guard after the football season.
Working out of the shotgun in the second game of the year, at Clemson, Ward led the Seminoles to two late touchdowns in a come-from-behind 24-20 victory. His only success moving the ball against Miami, three games later, came when he operated out of the shotgun. Says Bowden, "We got to thinking, Every time we go to that darn shotgun, we don't have to punt."
With 14:27 left in the Georgia Tech game, the Seminoles trailed 21-7. "I was working on my alibis," Bowden would say later. Once Ward dropped back into the fast break, as the shotgun had been dubbed by team radio analyst Vic Prinzi, the Yellow Jackets were toast. The Seminoles scored 22 points in 12 minutes and won 29-24.
By this time, callers to Tallahassee's sports-radio shows were asking the question that Kathy Richt had posed to her husband after the Miami loss: "Why don't you start the game in the shotgun?" Against Maryland three weeks later the Seminoles did just that. Florida State scored on each of its six first-half possessions. Eleven school offensive records fell, and the Seminoles never punted during the 69-21 win. Next on the chopping block was Tulane. Result: that 70-7 rout, the worst defeat in Green Wave history.
Surely Florida State would get a reality check the following week, when it was to host Florida. The Seminoles coasted to 38 first-half points and a 45-24 victory. Finally, in the Orange Bowl, torrential rains limited Florida State to three touchdowns in its whipping of Nebraska.
Should the Seminoles sustain the momentum of the final third of last season and live up to their preseason No. 1 ranking, let it be recorded that this team came of age on Oct. 17, 1992—the day of its outrageous comeback at Georgia Tech. After the Seminoles' loss to Miami, in which their offense failed to score a touchdown, resentment by defensive players had riven the team. Says Abraham, "People on defense were wondering, What happened to that 31 points a game?" When they fell behind by two touchdowns late in the Georgia Tech game, the Seminoles arrived at their "moment of truth," according to wide receiver Matt Frier. "We were either gonna stab each other in the back or bond."
Robert Bly might have scripted the final quarter. On the sideline defensive players crashed the meetings of their offensive counterparts. "Just do this for us!" they shouted. During a timeout in Florida State's winning drive, defensive tackle Dan Footman and linebacker Reggie Freeman stepped onto the field to exhort the offensive huddle. "There were 60 guys hugging, cheering each other on," says Frier. "It was a first for us."
Another augury: In the first quarter of that game, All-America linebacker Marvin Jones left the field with a sprained ankle. His replacement, Derrick Brooks, made 20 tackles. Brooks is a 6'1", 225-pound Academic All-America with 4.45 speed in the 40. "Watch him this season," says outside-linebacker coach Jim Gladden. "He is going to be out of this world."
Of the six defensive starters the Seminoles lost from last year's squad, four were among the first 53 players chosen in the NFL draft. The most damaging exodus was from the line, which lost three of four first-stringers. Then during practice earlier this month Florida State lost senior cornerback Corey Fuller and junior free safety Steve Gilmer to freak knee injuries. The most valuable returnee to the defense may be Andrews, the coordinator, whose off-season flirtation with Houston, which considered him for head coach, threw a good scare into Bowden. Andrews' defense is an attacking, man-to-man scheme heavily reliant on situation substitutions. It is not uncommon for 36 defenders to play at least five downs per game—numbers unheard of at other schools. The offensive-minded Bowden readily admits the system is Greek to him. "Mickey is my Stonewall Jackson," says Bowden, a military-history buff. "He handles that whole show."
One of Bowden's strengths is his ability to see his own weaknesses and delegate accordingly. He has surrounded himself with a superb staff whose average length of tenure is a remarkable 10.8 years. By no means, however, is Bowden a hands-off coach. He frequently sprints up to Richt on the sideline with "suggestions," as he calls them, and is often overheard asking Andrews, "Are you sure you've got the right people on the field?" On the eve of each game, around midnight, Bowden—clad in nothing but his boxers—assembles his staff in his hotel room, pulls up a wastebasket for use as a spittoon and begins his weekly "What if?" meeting.
What if Ward breaks his arm on the first play? What if we score a touchdown and want to go for two—what's the play? What if they tackle us for a safety—do we kick off or punt? Only after each scenario has been satisfactorily addressed are the coaches allowed sleep.
Another key to Bowden's success is his skill as a recruiter. Spurrier and Dennis Erickson, the coach at Miami, may have a slight edge over Bowden as field strategists. Where Bowden is without peer is in the dens and living rooms of the scholastic studfish who often end up on his roster. He has a folksiness and lack of artifice that go over extremely well with parents. "When he looks parents in the eye and tells them, 'I'll take care of your son,' they believe him," says Cottrell.
"Lou Holtz has his magic tricks, and they're pretty neat," says Orlando Sentinel recruiting analyst Bill Buchalter. "But I doubt there is a better coach in the country in the home than Bobby."
"He wasn't just persuasive," says Bob Bentley, a Notre Dame alumnus who was initially opposed to having his son Scott attend Florida State. "He was mesmerizing. He didn't talk about how our son could help Florida State, but about how Florida State could help our son."
Bowden's reputation as a fair man and as a man of his word precedes him throughout Florida, where the Seminoles get about 85% of their recruits. In addition, it does not hurt that Bowden's strong religious faith is common knowledge in the state. Bowden, who begins staff meetings, practices and games with a prayer, has been a lay speaker in churches throughout the South. He still remembers the Sunday when he was 14 and heard Robert Robinson, a member of the 1948 U.S. Olympic basketball team, speak at the Ruhama Baptist Church in the East Lake section of Birmingham, where Bowden grew up.
"Back then I always sat in the back row and cut up during church," says Bowden. "But this guy was so impressive, I just said, 'Boy, I wish I could do that.' Now when I speak, I try to have the same positive influence on kids that he had on me."
Yet another selling point for Florida State is that Bowden welcomes two-sport athletes. Ward plays basketball, and last spring six Seminole football players ran track. Eight of this year's freshmen intend to compete in a sport other than football. Even Bentley, the most heralded recruit, plans to play baseball.
Meanwhile Bowden, like his players, has forced himself to adopt an I'11-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude toward his new kicker's storied field goals. "Fifty-eight-yarders are nice," he says, echoing fullback Floyd and taking nothing for granted, "but what I'm looking for is 38 and straight."
In the Evening Shade studio the terrifying moment passed. Bowden found his voice, opened the door, walked onto the set and into Reynolds' embrace. His lines having escaped him, Bowden winged it. He was terrific.
After each of his scenes the people in the stands applauded. "Cheered like it was a bowl game," says Bowden with a chuckle. "Afterward the guy who wrote the script came up to me and said, 'You know, that's the best script I never wrote.' "
Now maybe Bowden can rework that Miami script.