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Does Bowden still have it?

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Editor's Note: Geoffrey Norman is working on a book about college football in the state of Florida. Each week during the 2001 season, he will send a letter to Page 2, in which he will try to make sense of the personalities, events and peculiar culture that make up Sunshine State football.

Dear Page 2:

Well ... as we all know, any team can be upset. Even Florida State. FSU seems to lose an Atlantic Coast Conference game about every three years. To Virginia, in 1995, 33-28. To North Carolina State, in 1998, 24-7. And, then, last Saturday, to North Carolina. By the astonishing score of 41-9. After its previous conference loss, FSU won out and played Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship, so you could, just on reputation, have faith that the Seminoles could still turn it around.

But to a lot of people, this loss feels different. This one makes the FSU fans shiver and imagine that they might be feeling the first cold wins of mortality. North Carolina was 0-3 going into this game and had been outscored by a margin of 108-48. It was the Seminoles' worst loss to an unranked team since 1976, Bowden's first year at FSU. In a year when FSU was rebuilding and looking at three or four tough games, this was supposed to be one of the easy ones. Miami, Florida, and Georgia Tech -- which had been scheduled for last week and will be played on Dec. 1 -- now look decidedly tougher than they did at the opening of the season. Playing at Clemson will not be easy. In Tallahassee, where 10-win seasons are routine, the faithful could be looking at four losses. Or more.

FSU was ranked No. 6 before the game, and there was talk in Tallahassee of the Rose Bowl, the fourth time in the last five years that FSU would be playing for the national championship. But the fans there know that Alabama went into the 2000 season confident of repeating as SEC champions and then playing for the national championship. The Tide lost the opener to UCLA and finished 3-8 under a coach who had already been fired.

Which, no matter what else happens this season, will not be the case at FSU. It is easier to imagine Oprah Winfrey being fired from television than Bobby Bowden being canned by FSU.

Still, the question looms -- does Bobby Bowden still have it?

All things end, and a lot of football people think this might be the end -- or the beginning of the end -- for FSU and Bobby Bowden.

Bobby Bowden
A lot of football people think this might be the end -- or the beginning of the end -- for FSU and Bobby Bowden.
Bowden is closing in on Bear Bryant's record for division I-A victories and will probably get there this year, though Penn State's Joe Paterno will get there first. Paterno, though, is truly struggling at 0-2.

You don't have to listen for whispering about how the game had passed him by; the talk comes through loud and clear. Still, it is a pretty select club -- Bryant, Paterno, and Bowden -- and you could make a good case that Bobby Bowden does not merely belong in that company but that among those giants, he stands tallest.

The argument goes this way: Bryant and Paterno did their best work at universities that were already great football powers. They took their programs to the mountain top, certainly, but they started from a base camp that was pretty well up there. Bobby Bowden did his best work at FSU, after taking over a program that had gone 0-11, 1-10, and 3-8 in the three seasons before he arrived and that was so deeply in debt that there was serious talk of dropping football.

Deficit spending was against state law and FSU was such a new school (it had been a woman's college until 1946, when Florida needed a place to educate the returning World War II veterans) that there weren't enough prosperous alums to hit up for a booster fund. The team played in a "stadium" that was nothing much more than some steel bleacher seats that had been welded together on a piece of open ground away from the campus and its lovely, brooding live oaks. People called that stadium -- perhaps affectionately -- "the erector set."

The University of Florida had the big hogs for boosters, the power in the state, and first claim on all its best high school football players. FSU was the red-headed stepchild Bowden had come to save.

What FSU needed was simple enough. First, it needed to get some players, then it needed to win some games. Then it needed to win some big games. Bowden accomplished all these things. Meanwhile, an energetic man named George Langford took over the booster organization and moved from the world of bake sales to real pledge drives and big-time fund raising. He wiped out the deficit and put the football program and the athletic department healthily into the black.

"I raised the money," Langford once told me, "but I couldn't have done it -- nobody could have done it -- if we weren't winning."

Bowden supplied the winning.

Once I asked a former president of Florida State what he thought Bobby Bowden meant to FSU. The man is an academic, a published economist, and I was expecting to hear something about Bowden's contribution to the university's "visibility" or "profile."

"Oh, 10 million dollars a year, at least," the man said.

There is a classics department at FSU because of football, and there is football because Bowden turned the program around and started winning games.

The stadium complex is brick, now, and seats 80,000 when FSU plays, almost always, at night or late in the day. When FSU was still the red-headed stepchild, playing at night was the only way to get people to come to the games. The afternoon -- the anointed time for playing and watching college football -- belonged to the University of Florida. When Florida first started coming up to Tallahassee, the game was played in the afternoon -- Florida's time. Now, it is played at night. FSU's time.

  There is a classics department at FSU because of football, and there is football because Bowden turned the program around and started winning games.  
Florida people long made a sport of looking down on the "little girls' school" in Tallahassee. They made sure, from their positions of power in the legislature, that the big appropriations went to Gainesville and that FSU got, if it was lucky, table scraps.

Then FSU started winning and growing and producing its own alums who rose to power, one of whom became speaker of the house of representatives and made damn sure that FSU started getting its share. FSU beat out several other schools for a huge physics project called the "mag lab." Its closest rival for the project was MIT. Serious people -- including a man who was chairman of the appropriations committee in the Legislature at the time -- will tell you that without football at FSU, that lab would be up on the Charles River, instead of tucked in among the longleaf and live oaks in the red hills of Panhandle Florida.

And without Bobby Bowden, of course, there wouldn't have been FSU football.

So Bowden changed more than the fortunes of a broken-down football program. He changed the sociology of the state. He has a personal following that is large and adoring and, if he wanted to, he could run for governor and stomp all over Jeb Bush and Janet Reno. Stomp them into puddles and, then, stomp the puddles dry. He endorsed Jeb's brother in the last presidential election and no matter how you feel about the disputed returns in that state, it seems likely that, without the Bowden endorsement, it wouldn't have been close enough to require a recount.

The man is a force. A colossus. He rules his empire as serenely and confidently as Augustus ruled his. The national championships, 10-win seasons, ACC championships, bowl victories, wins over rival Florida ... the numbers don't really tell the story. Even the names -- Deion Sanders, Warrick Dunn, Charlie Ward, Derrick Brooks -- don't tell the story. Bowden is the kind of guy who will pick up the phone in the locker room when the President of the United States is calling to congratulate him on winning the national championship and say, "How come you ain't working tonight?" Then sign off from the call with, "We'll see you, buddy."

Bobby Bowden
No matter what's being whispered, Bowden's job is safe because there wouldn't be FSU football without him.
A man who flew back from Miami with Bowden after his team had lost to Oklahoma for the national championship in January said he had never seen the coach so low after a loss. Bowden had turned 71 a couple of months earlier. Could he have sensed the end closing in on him?

He had been losing assistants over the years, as it became clear that he wasn't going anywhere; if they wanted a head job, FSU wouldn't be the place. His offensive coordinator during the Orange Bowl loss had been a lame duck. Mark Reicht had already taken the head job at Georgia and, plainly, his attention was elsewhere. FSU scored no offensive points that night.

FSU had lost the Orange Bowl to a team that was coached by a man young enough to be Bowden's son. Earlier in the season, in fact, FSU had beaten a Clemson team that was coached by one of his sons. When it came time to replace Reicht as offensive coordinator, Bowden gave the job to another son, Jeff, almost as a legacy.

Then Bowden pulled in what many experts considered the top recruiting class in the country, and FSU followers took this as a sign that he had not lost his vitality. He had always been a great recruiter -- maybe the greatest. But FSU lost three wide receivers to injury and started the season with a redshirt freshman who had never thrown a pass in a college game at quarterback. The defense started six sophomores.

In 1982, one of Bowden's heroes, Bear Bryant, had a team that was considered national championship material. Then something happened that had never happened before. A Bryant-coached Alabama team lost three straight. Bryant hung it up and died a month after his team won a bowl game, the last game he ever coached.

But Bryant was a dark, almost gothic soul. A man who brooded and liked whiskey. Bowden has a preternaturally sunny disposition and is a teetotaler.

In fact, since he quit chewing tobacco, he has no vices, except chocolate and, like another of his heroes, Winston Churchill, he takes a nap every day. He is a deeply religious man who prays every morning. At night, when he is not on the road to recruit or to visit a church as a lay preacher, he reads histories, mostly of World War II.

He is in fine health and has said he might coach into his 80s.

It has been a while since he wore headphones and got his hands dirty working around the actual machinery of coaching. Like Bryant once said of himself, Bowden reached a point, a few seasons ago, where he didn't coach players anymore, he coached coaches. You suspect that this season, he may have reached an even lonelier, more austere place, where he now must coach himself.

Geoffrey Norman

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