FSU prepares for Gator Bowl goodbye

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After more than a half-century on college football sidelines, the last 34 seasons as Florida State's head coach, Bobby Bowden will bring his legendary career to an end on New Year's Day.

But before Bowden, 80, finally retreats to a Florida beach for what must be the first extended vacation of his life, his coaching career will come full circle when the Seminoles play West Virginia in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl on Friday.

Bowden coached the Mountaineers for six seasons before leaving for FSU in 1976. At the time, Bowden could have never known he'd spend the rest of his coaching career in Tallahassee.

More than 300 victories and 28 consecutive bowl games later, it's hard to believe Bowden's career is finally entering its final chapter.

At least publicly, Bowden says the end means more to his family, friends and former players than it does to him.

"It has sunk in, and I've really paid no attention to it," Bowden said Thursday. "It's just another ballgame, and it will be my last one when it's over. That's not a big deal to me, really."

Over the last week, Bowden has tried to deflect attention away from the end of his illustrious coaching career. More than once, he has apologized to Mountaineers coach Bill Stewart, whose team has been overshadowed as college football prepares to say goodbye to one of its most famous coaches.

"To me, it's their advantage," Bowden said. "We're trying to pat me on the back and they're bringing in a ballclub that was better than we were this year."

Bowden's career certainly won't end without fanfare. More than 300 former FSU players, including Heisman Trophy winners Chris Weinke and Charlie Ward, are coming to Jacksonville to celebrate their former coach's career. Legendary NFL players such as Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Deion Sanders will be on the sideline during the game.

When Bowden arrives at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium on Friday morning, he's expected to be greeted by thousands of fans as he walks from the bus to the stadium. Bowden's former players will form a tunnel to lead him into the stadium as a coach for the final time.

"I hope somebody is there," Bowden joked. "Have you ever tried to slap a hand and there is not one there?"

Gator Bowl Association president Rick Catlett said officials had to expand the press box at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium to accommodate nearly 500 credentialed media members. Catlett said the Gator Bowl usually receives around 275 credential requests.

The Gator Bowl sold out in less than two hours after it was announced that Bowden would coach his final game against West Virginia in Jacksonville. Catlett said FSU had more than 30,000 requests for tickets.

More than anything else, the Gator Bowl will be a celebration of Bowden's illustrious career. And that seems fine with everyone, including the Mountaineers.

"This is all about the legend and the man I absolutely idolize," said Stewart, who was a walk-on player on the Mountaineers' freshman team during Bowden's first season at West Virginia in 1970. "I'm just a drop in the bucket compared to him."

Said West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Brown: "Coach Bowden was at Florida State longer than I've been on this earth. When I first started watching college football, I watched Florida State."

Bowden isn't really saying what the end of his career really means to him. He isn't even sure what he'll say to his players in his final pregame speech.

"When you've talked to a team for 34 dadgum years, and this team for four years, what new can you say?" Bowden asked. "They can probably all say it before I can."

Once again, Bowden said Thursday that he wasn't ready for his coaching career to end. He was forced to resign Dec. 1, after the Seminoles finished 6-6, the third time in four seasons they lost six games or more. Bowden had hoped to return to the sideline for one more season in 2010.

"If I had won some more ballgames, I would have signed another five-year contract," Bowden said. "That's how good I feel. But I didn't win enough dadgum games to deserve it."

The Jimbo Fisher era officially begins at Florida State on Saturday. The Seminoles will spend Friday trying to send Bowden out the right way. By beating West Virginia, FSU would avoid finishing with a losing record for the first time since Bowden's first season in 1976.

"We definitely embrace the fact it's his last game," safety Jamie Robinson said. "We want to win it for him."

It seems Bowden is just now beginning to realize what he'll miss. At the end of his final practice Wednesday, FSU's players gathered around him and prayed.

"The thing I'll miss the most is the guys," Bowden said. "I'll miss the boys, and it's not just the ones who are here. I'll miss the Weinkes. I'll miss the Wards. I'll miss [former FSU All-American] Ron Simmons. I'm sure I'll see them down the road. There's more to life to me than football, folks."

But most Florida State football fans have never known anything but Bobby Bowden.

Billy Smith, a retired Florida state trooper, has been Bowden's sideline bodyguard since Bowden's very first game at FSU. The men are so close that Smith was dispatched to Bowden's home in Tallahassee to inform Bowden that his grandson and former son-in-law had been killed in an auto accident in 2004. For all but a half-dozen games since 1976, Bowden and Smith have been inseparable on Saturdays.

"It's been the highlight of my life," Smith said. "He's such a quality individual. It's just been a pleasure to be with him."

Watching Bowden over the last half-century was a pleasure for most college football fans, too.

"I'm surprised at the outpouring I've had, and I'm thankful," Bowden said. "It goes with age. It goes with time. I've been here for so long."

At least he's here for one more game.

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