Bowden contemplating his future

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- More than 90,000 fans packed Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday to celebrate the career of one of college football's greatest players.

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who helped the Gators win BCS national championships in 2006 and '08 and has them in position to win another title this season, was playing his final home game at The Swamp.

But as Florida fans celebrated the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, an equally extraordinary career might have been ending on the opposite sideline.

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose 388 career victories trail only Penn State's Joe Paterno as the sport's all-time winningest coach, seems to be weighing whether his career will end after this season, too.

After saying for weeks that he intended to return to the FSU sideline in 2010, Bowden doesn't seem sure his 34-year tenure with the Seminoles will extend beyond his team's upcoming bowl game.

"Yeah, I want to coach next year," Bowden said, when asked whether he intended to return to the sideline in 2010. "But let me say I need to go home and do some soul-searching."

It's the first time Bowden has hinted that he's considering immediate retirement. In the past, Bowden always said he'd leave Florida State on his own terms and wouldn't be forced out the door. But Bowden, who turned 80 last month, also always said he'd come back only if the Seminoles were winning.

Florida State hasn't won much at all recently. After winning 10 games or more every season from 1987 to 2000, the Seminoles have won 10 games only once in the past nine seasons. FSU's 37-10 loss to the No. 1-ranked Gators on Saturday night left the Noles with a 6-6 record, the third time in the past four seasons they've lost six games.

I think we'll be back up there one of these days. Whether I'll be there I don't know.

-- Florida State coach Bobby Bowden

The Seminoles' sixth straight loss to the Gators might have finally been the breaking point for Bowden.

In fact, it might have showed him how far his program has fallen behind programs such as Florida.

"There's not much you can say about that ballgame," Bowden said. "It was a pretty good whipping."

Such a whipping that when Florida State trailed 30-0 late in the third quarter, Bowden opted to kick a 20-yard field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Florida 2, instead of trying for a touchdown.

The coach who used to throw for the end zone whenever possible wanted to make sure the Seminoles weren't shut out by their biggest rivals.

"That's a darn good question," Bowden said. "I knew it would come up. Why did we go for three? We just wanted to avoid a shutout. I don't believe I've ever done that. The only thing worse than being down 30-0 is having nothing on the scoreboard. We took care of that."

When Bowden was asked about his postgame handshake with Florida coach Urban Meyer, whose teams have beaten the Seminoles by a combined score of 127-37 the past three seasons, Bowden was painfully honest.

"He looks at me like 'You used to do a good job,'" Bowden said.

Florida State used to be very, very good. During the late 1980s and throughout much of the 1990s, there were very few college football teams better than the Seminoles. Bowden led them to national championships in 1993 and '99 and consistently had them in the title hunt.

But now the Seminoles can't even compete with teams like the Gators, and they can barely beat ACC opponents like Maryland and NC State, which used to never beat them before.

"I think we'll be back up there one of these days," Bowden said. "Whether I'll be there I don't know."

For now, Bowden knows he won't be returning to The Swamp as FSU's coach again.

"This is my 34th year at Florida State and half of them have been down here," Bowden said. "We've had a lot of great wins and a lot of great tail kickings here. That was a great tail kicking. It's a great atmosphere, but I won't miss it."

As Bowden slowly walked to the Seminoles' locker room in The Swamp on Saturday night, FSU fans serenaded him with chants of "Bobby! Bobby!" He tossed his white cap into the crowd.

Across the field, Tebow was shaking hands in the stands, as Florida fans thanked him for putting their program back on top.

And Bowden, the coach who once put Florida State on top, might have been walking away from the sport he loved without anyone even knowing.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Bowden said. "If I come back here, I'll have to buy a ticket."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.