Florida State sends Bowden out on top

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- For four quarters, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden calmly paced the sideline with his hands clasped behind his back, more a spectator of his final game than the animated young coach who actually called the plays that won it.

The dramatic change at Florida State began long before Bowden announced his official retirement, but on Friday afternoon, before a record Konica Minolta Gator Bowl crowd of 84,129, there was a sense of finality that overshadowed an impressive, emotionally charged come-from-behind win from a scrappy Florida State team determined to send its legendary coach out with a win.

Despite his diminished role since offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher was named head coach-in-waiting, Bowden's presence in the final game of his storied 34 years at Florida State loomed larger than anything that happened on the field.

The unexpected 33-21 win over West Virginia, his former team, was just "a bonus," Bowden said.

"You know," Bowden said, "wins only last 24 hours."

His legacy, though, won't fade.

In the locker room following the game, one player smart enough to ask for an autograph approached Bowden. Then another. And another. Friday was a blur of past and present, as Bowden's current players were encouraged by hundreds of former players including Chris Weinke, Warrick Dunn and Deion Sanders, all of whom came to honor Bowden.

"I think it was very vital we send him out on a big win because the man has done so much for Florida State," said linebacker Dekoda Watson, whose two sacks sparked a surge by the defense. "He really changed a lot of people's lives. Why not go out and win this game for him?"

The Seminoles did, but it didn't look promising until the second quarter. FSU trailed 14-3 before scoring 20 unanswered points in the second and third quarters. The Seminoles were able to run the ball, and rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel racked up 189 passing yards and 70 rushing yards in his fourth career start. Jermaine Thomas finished with 121 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense came up with one big play -- an interception by Jamie Robinson at the start of the second quarter -- that swung the momentum in FSU's favor.

"I've never wanted a game more than this one," said Fisher, just moments after he inherited the program. "The respect I have for Bobby Bowden is the reason I came to Florida State, to learn under him. I came to be with him. He's a guy who there'll never be another one. I tried not to think of it like that because if you put too much pressure on yourself, you won't do it."

West Virginia coach Bill Stewart wasn't about to concede a win to Bowden just because it was the end of Bowden's legendary career.

"I don't like to lose," Stewart said. "He taught me that."

"I just love him," Stewart said. "I admire him. But I wanted to whoop him."

Following the game, Bowden was literally swept up in the moment, as he was carried partway off the field for the last time. He was lost in a swarm of cameras at midfield as everyone wanted to capture one last moment with him. It was a premature ending to his career, but Bowden said he was at peace with it.

"We've got Heisman Trophies. We've got national championship trophies. We've got ACC trophies. I've got a box at home, must have 50 rings, must have 50 rings like that," he said. "I can't wear but one of them. … When I die, I can't take it with me. There are things in life more important. There are just things more important than that to me. That's why I'm at peace with myself."

Bowden promised himself he wouldn't cry Friday -- and he didn't -- but he was overcome with emotion during his one and only pregame walk, when he and his wife of 60 years, Ann, made their way from the team buses through thousands of adoring fans to the stadium.

"That is the most emotional thing I have had," Bowden said. "I was determined I ain't crying. I wasn't going to cry, I don't care what anybody says. I was determined I ain't going to cry. The closest I came was when I walked through those players and fans. That was pretty tough."

With just under two minutes left to play, Bowden threw his hat to the band -- an old tradition he used to have -- and the gesture was as well-received by the crowd as the touchdown that won the game.

"The game will miss a giant," said Stewart.

Ann stuck by Bowden's side for everything but the game itself, and the two of them will drive back to Tallahassee together Saturday. They won't be there too much longer, though. By September, the Bowdens will probably have settled into their "second home," Panama City, Fla.

"I definitely want to leave town," he said. "I have always said when I finish a job like this, I do not want to hang around and get compared … I don't want to go through that. So I'm hightailing it out of here as soon as I can."

As Bowden was answering one of his final questions in his postgame news conference, Ann walked onto the stage, planted a kiss right on him, and said, "Time to go home, baby."

There was laughter in the room as Bowden continued to answer the question. Nobody wanted to rush him, because when Bowden goes home this time, he's not coming back.

Florida State might have won Friday, but college football lost Bobby Bowden, and that's what will be remembered about this year's Gator Bowl.

Heather Dinich covers ACC college football for ESPN.com.