Four of Bobby Bowden's 20 grandchildren sat in his office late
last Saturday afternoon while a small television set showed
highlights of the Game of the Year. There were sacks, touchdowns
and a Florida field goal attempt that would have tied the game
in the fourth quarter but instead drifted just outside the right
upright. "Look at that," said Bowden, his eyes flashing like a
child's. "We finally got one of those wide rights." He beamed at
this last piece of poetic justice, and the grandchildren,
teenagers all, filled the room with laughter at the memory of
bitter losses, suddenly less painful in the joy of the moment.
Out a window at the side of the third-floor office lay the broad
expanse of Doak Campbell Stadium, scarred by fresh celebration.
Huge hunks of turf were missing from the field, torn up as
souvenirs. There was no goalpost in the end zone beneath
Bowden's office. A running shoe lay here, a Birkenstock there.
At the other end of the stadium Florida State's 24-21 victory
remained frozen by the scoreboard lights. Bowden, 67, fell into
a spot at the end of his couch and contemplated his team's
victory over the Gators. "Before a game like this, I'm thinking
maybe I could wind up hurting for the next few days, because
they're good, and maybe they're going to lay one on us," he
said. Then he cackled, giddy again. "Right now, I feel pretty
The biggest games rise on the wind of anticipation yet turn on a
series of small dramas. Here was No. 1 (Florida) versus No. 2
(Florida State), each 10-0, playing for everything from the
state title--no small matter, considering the caliber of
football in this particular state--to a clear run at the
national championship. It had been eight years since No. 1 and
No. 2 had met so late in the regular season, and 23 years since
they had faced each other in the final regular season game with
unblemished records. And when Saturday's game was finished, and
when the Seminoles had accepted their formal invitation to the
Sugar Bowl with a primal roar that shook the pillars of the
Doak, the game ball needed slicing. A slab here to a little
running back, headed home to the bayou and a last college game
in the state where he grew up. A big wedge for the defense, so
fierce all season and finally recognized. A hunk for the
quarterback, who had survived, held together and made a very big
play after a long, difficult autumn. And one piece for the
coach, not so old, not so finished after all.
Bowden understood the plot as the showdown approached. This was
Steve Spurrier's time. Last year, his sixth as coach at his alma
mater, Spurrier took the Gators to the national championship
game. His team's embarrassing 62-24 loss to Nebraska had been
reconstructed as education, promising Florida's return for a
title shot this season, as if it were destiny. Meanwhile,
whenever a prominent coaching position was vacated, Spurrier was
mentioned as a possible replacement. "In the coaching business,
he's sitting on top of the world," Bowden said in the week
before the game.
December 9, 1996
It used to be that way for Bowden, until he said no enough times
that the overtures ceased. "I feel like Elizabeth Taylor,"
Bowden said. "Used to be everybody wanted me, now I can't get a
date." He isn't looking for one, but in coaching, there is a
simple hierarchy: You are hot or you are not. Gary Barnett and
Rick Neuheisel are hot; Paul Pasqualoni and Chuck Reedy are not.
Bowden is secure and cherished, a local icon. He is not hot. Not
Moreover, he has seen the ranks of his peers thinned this
autumn. Lou Holtz of Notre Dame, Gene Stallings of Alabama and
Jim Sweeney of Fresno State, all near or past age 60, all
friends of Bowden's, have resigned this fall. "Next time I go to
a convention, it's going to be me and Joe Paterno and LaVell
Edwards, and that's about it," Bowden said. This season, for the
first time since he took over a middling Florida State program
in 1976, Bowden has completely relinquished play-calling, often
shedding his beloved headset while offensive coordinator Mark
Richt has called the game. And with each resignation, with each
duty conceded, with each article extolling the genius of his
neighbor to the south, Bowden was pushed closer to extinction
himself. The effect was quite visceral as this game approached,
and Bowden nodded briskly in addressing it: "It made me want to
whip him again."
To make his players believe they could win, Bowden browbeat them
with the difficulty of Florida's task. "They're Number 1, and
they're coming to our place," he said repeatedly. "The pressure
is all on them." He kept to himself his recollections of taking
a favored No. 1 team to South Bend three years ago, and losing,
and his conviction that this time he had much the better team.
"I believe," he said privately last week, "we're gonna kick
Yet all the pieces came together only very late in Saturday's
game. Barely 12 minutes remained when the Seminoles took
possession on their own 25-yard line with a 17-14 lead. Florida
State's defensive players sat on an aluminum bench, gulping air.
They had been brilliant, holding Florida to two second-quarter
touchdowns, and Gators senior kicker Bart Edmiston had just
fluttered his kick wide right from 41 yards out, leaving the
Seminoles with that three-point lead (and recalling, deliciously
for Bowden, the wide rights that had cost Florida State
back-to-back Miami games, in 1991 and '92). But the Seminoles'
anemic offense hadn't scored since late in the first quarter and
had made only three first downs and a total of 33 yards on five
possessions in the third quarter. "If they don't score, we win,"
Bowden had said at halftime. His words had seemed like
rose-colored coachspeak at the time, but they had become a
"We're on the sideline, reminding each other to hold up our end
of the deal, telling everybody not to give up a big play," said
Florida State junior middle linebacker Daryl Bush. "We had to be
tight right then, tight as a unit. We knew what was at stake."
There is an efficiency to Florida's attack that approaches
arrogance. With Spurrier calling all the plays, and fifth-year
senior quarterback Danny Wuerffel executing flawlessly, the
Gators have the most lethal offense in the country. But there
have been hiccups. A year ago the Seminoles sacked Wuerffel six
times and held the Gators to 94 yards rushing before losing
35-24. Nebraska crushed Florida with a punishing front four and
selective blitzing. "We learned a lot from Nebraska," said
Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. Five days
before last Saturday's game Bowden said, "I wish I had an extra
week to get ready, because there are some flaws in Steve's
blocking system, but I just don't know if we can get everything
in and get it all down."
They got enough down to again sack Wuerffel six times and knock
him down 20 other times, an epic pounding that contributed to
his 23-for-48, three-interception performance. "I'm not sure
Danny's ever gotten beat up like he did today," said Florida
tailback Elijah Williams. What added fury to the Seminoles'
defense was the attention the Gators paid to defensive ends
Reinard Wilson and Peter Boulware, both of whom were
double-teamed most of the game. "They had to," Wilson said. "No
one man can block either one of us." That left noseguard Andre
Wadsworth and tackle Connell Spain with just one blocker each in
the middle and created lanes for blitzing Seminoles that
Florida's offensive line never picked up. "If we had more time
[to throw], we would have killed them," said Gators wideout
Reidel Anthony, who caught 11 passes for 193 yards. Of course
they would have. But Florida State didn't give them that time.
It was the Seminoles' offense, so long as much a Tallahassee
staple as Spanish moss, that nearly betrayed Florida State. A
13-play, 72-yard first-quarter drive produced a field goal, but
two first-half touchdown drives--the first of which followed
Boulware's block of a Robby Stevenson punt, recovered at the
Florida three-yard line--required a total of only 41 yards. The
group of Seminoles that shuffled onto the field in the fourth
quarter following Edmiston's wide right was wounded and failing.
None of them was struggling more than junior quarterback Thad
Busby, who had been 2 for 13 in the third quarter, with four
near interceptions and one intentional grounding penalty. "When
it rains, it pours," Busby said later. "I was just trying to
hang in there."
That would be an apt description of his season. Busby, a 6'3",
220-pound former high school All-America from the small Florida
panhandle town of Pace, was installed last spring as the heir to
Charlie Ward and Danny Kanell. And, just as they once did, he
has wrestled with the complex fast-break offense Florida State
has used for five years. Busby has been booed, has been
criticized by the media and the coaching staff and has felt his
feet put to the fire by promising redshirt freshman quarterback
Dan Kendra. "I knew it would be tough," he said, "and it has
The soothing of Busby's spirits has become a family project of
sorts. Two weeks ago Busby suffered a slight left-knee sprain in
a 48-10 win over Maryland at Pro Player Park in Miami. The next
day Busby's family drove through Tallahassee en route to Pace.
His father, Ken, waited 90 minutes for a film session to end so
he could have a brief visit with Thad, and the two of them
walked from the football building together into the evening. "I
see my dad a lot, and it helps," Thad said on Saturday. The
family was back in Tallahassee last week, and Thad's mother,
Teresa, cooked Thanksgiving dinner at his off-campus house. It
has been a difficult autumn for the parents, watching their son
fight to improve, hearing criticism around them in the stands.
Reminders of Thad's insecurity are inescapable: The Busbys'
12-year-old daughter is named Kendra.
On Saturday, however, Busby never caved in, never made the
critical error that would have bailed out Florida. He fumbled
while scrambling on the Seminoles' last possession of the first
half, but only 20 seconds remained, and the Gators didn't
convert. Bowden blistered Busby in the locker room at halftime.
"I said, 'You can't fumble,'" Bowden recalled after the game.
"That and some other nasty things."
But as quickly as he drilled Busby, Bowden backed off,
apologizing, trying to protect his quarterback's psyche. "I
didn't want to hurt his feelings or get him rattled," Bowden
said. "I just went back and told him, 'Hey, forget about that,
just play.'" And indeed, Busby helped win the game. On
third-and-six from his own 29, he threw 29 yards to Peter
Warrick on a deep crossing route, giving Florida State a first
down at the Florida 42 with 10:30 remaining. It was the single
most important play of the game, cutting the tension of a
defensive stalemate. "Can't keep your head down too long, that's
how you get beat," Busby said later. Make of this statistic what
you like, but neither Ward nor Kanell quarterbacked an 11-0
team. Busby has.
After that vital completion, Warrick Dunn, the Seminoles' 5'9",
185-pound senior tailback, covered 41 yards on three plays: a
catch-and-run, a direct snap from the shotgun and a straight
isolation play to the left side on which he popped outside to
the Gators' one. That set up 286-pound fullback Clarence (Pooh
Bear) Williams's touchdown run for a 24-14 lead with 7:15 to
play. For Dunn, the last flurry was a fitting finish to a
brilliant game in which he rushed for a career-high 185 yards on
24 carries, caught four passes for 24 yards and completed one
pass for 10 yards. In five games against Florida he has
accounted for 862 yards in offense. "Dunn was sensational,"
Spurrier said. "He won the game for them."
Such things were in Dunn's plans nearly a year ago when he
decided to return to Florida State for his senior year. "That,
and school, but not in that order," Dunn said after Saturday's
game. He sat on a wooden stool in front of his dressing cubicle,
slowly pulling on his clothes while two of his five siblings,
Travis and Bricson, waited. Since 1993, when his mother, a Baton
Rouge police officer, was killed during an attempted robbery,
Dunn has helped his grandmother raise the family, and there
would have been scarcely a dissenting voice if he had left
school for the certain and substantial money of the NFL. But he
declined that option. "And since then, I've never heard him talk
about personal goals," said Richt. "It's always been, 'I want to
win the national championship.'"
In the end the Gators were forced far from their script and into
desperation. Wuerffel, beaten but indestructible, took Florida
into the end zone with 1:19 to go, cutting the Seminoles' lead
to 24-21. But an onside kick failed, and a quest was ended.
There is no consolation game for the Gators. There was only one
acceptable finish: Florida needed to get to the Sugar Bowl, and
it needed Nebraska to be there too. The Gators still must play
Alabama on Saturday in the SEC championship game, but even that
trophy means little now.
The failure will fall at Spurrier's feet. He is 2-5-1 against
Florida State, and he exited last Saturday by tossing a chunk of
the blame at Wuerffel. "Danny left on some bad protections," he
said, referring to Wuerffel's failure to audible correctly
against several of Florida State's blitzes. It was an unseemly
criticism of a player who had performed bravely under enormous
pressure. After all, it is Spurrier's system that is given
credit for Wuerffel's many NCAA and SEC passing records. And it
was Spurrier who in the second half abandoned the shuffle
passes, quick screens and draws that had worked effectively
early in the game. Justly, it is Spurrier who must defend a
program that owns Tennessee and Georgia but can't beat the
Seminoles consistently or win a national title. He left
Tallahassee not quite as wise and not quite as young as when the
Bowden, on the other hand, followed his cordon of grandchildren
to a red Ford Explorer, shaking hands along the way with the
easy grace of a politician and posing for pictures, including
one with a Tallahassee couple and their infant son.
Seventeen-year-old Beau Bowden opened the door for his
grandfather, who slipped into the driver's seat and rolled into
the warm evening, reborn.