Play for keeps

The 'hawks, the chop, the spear ... Hey, Tallahassee's the place to be. Phil Sears for ESPN

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 27, 1999 issue. Subscribe today!

THE 408-HORSEPOWER CROWN VICTORIA barely breaks a sweat as Billy Smith, a retired Florida Highway Patrol major, taps the accelerator with his patent leather butt-kickers and nudges the squad car past 70 mph. There isn't much traffic on Interstate 10 this late at night, and what traffic there is has gingerly moved to the right lane as the motorcade sweeps past.

Tallahassee is less than 40 minutes away. Smith flicks a switch on the Ford beast, and the light show begins. Red-and-blue flashers mounted almost flush against the rear window click on and off like strip-joint neons. A pair of Highway Patrol Harleys roar a quarter-mile ahead. Two Florida State charter buses and another patrol car bring up the rear.

"Bill, we gonna have something?" asks Bobby Bowden from the back seat, an empty box lunch and soda can at his feet.

"Don't know," says Smith. "If not, then shame on them."

Smith has been doing this for 35 years, long enough to oversee the security detail of four Florida State football coaches. He remembers the time in 1977 when Bowden beat Florida at Gainesville and ended a nine-game losing streak to the Gators. Hundreds of cars flanked the highway that night as Bowden and his team arrived home. Horns echoed up and down U.S. 90. Fans waved school flags. Students spilled out of the Tennessee Street bars to hail their Caesar.

But that was before the 1993 national championship, before Deion went Prime Time, before Charlie won a Heisman, before 12 top-4 finishes in the AP poll, before this latest win at The Swamp, which guarantees the Seminoles a second consecutive appearance in the BCS title game. In other words, before Florida State football became hip.

Now, as the motorcade nears the state capital, there is only silence. The 70-year-old Bowden glances out the car window. Once hung in effigy at West Virginia, he is almost taken for granted at Florida State these days. There are worse fates.

"Buddy," he says to the writer beside him, "I'm gonna take a nap." And within two minutes, Bowden's snoring drowns out the clicking of the squad-car lights and the gentle rattling of the worn Styrofoam cooler riding shotgun with Smith. The Crown Victoria passes a car with soap markings on the window: "Spurrier is Satan."

Another features the day's score: "FSU 30, UF 23." The motorcade crosses the Tallahassee city limits and moves quickly along a two-lane road, thanks to a police and sheriff's department force that has closed off each of the 22 intersections leading to the FSU campus. Smith squeezes off a siren burst as the patrol car moves through the intersections, past the Krispy Kreme, past the capitol building, past Bullwinkle's bar, past a store called Condomology, past the president's mansion and the west campus dorms. At last the convoy pulls into the Doak Campbell Stadium parking lot.

Fifty, maybe 75 people, most of them wives, girlfriends and friends, are there to meet the team. Back in '77, before FSU spoiled everyone, there were some 10,000 fans waiting when the buses rolled in. Now, what's the point? Another 11-0 regular season? A third national title game in four years? Yawn.

Bowden grabs his workbag and heads toward the office. He still has his TV highlights show to do. If he's lucky, he'll be in bed by 2 a.m.

This is what it's like inside the reigning dynasty of college football. This is why Nick Maddox, one of the nation's most heavily recruited running backs, stiffed everyone last winter, even his home state of North Carolina, to sign with FSU. It's why David Warren, former USA Today defensive Player of the Year, called FSU's coaches to ask if they wanted him to visit. It's why former Parade All-America QB Jared Jones chose FSU, even though he has to fly from his hometown of Walla Walla, Wash., to Seattle, Salt Lake, St. Louis, Orlando and then Tallahassee just to get to school.

Coolness has its perks, and no program is cooler than Florida State's. Bowden, with all his "daggummits," might sound like he fell off the turnip truck, but don't be fooled. Nobody takes a program on the brink of extinction and turns it into the winningest I-A team of the '90s by accident. Bowden's creation is so accomplished, so accustomed to success, that only national titles bring out the big welcome-home crowds anymore.

Not that he's complaining. Bowden doesn't bother to wear his 1993 championship ring. He doesn't want his players to think he's satisfied. He doesn't wear any of his ACC title rings either, or the stash of bowl rings and watches he has hidden away in a dresser drawer. Those are for his 21 grandchildren. He wears only a ring given to him by Burt Reynolds, who was once an FSU running back.

Bowden's players are no different. They've been taught, almost programmed, to accept nothing less than excellence. From the first day freshmen report to the last day of eligibility, the message is always the same: Don't bother coming to Florida State unless you're in it for the rings that matter. "We want the one that says No. 1," says Bowden. That's his gold standard. Accept anything less and you'll never survive the dreaded winter conditioning program, or the intense scrimmages, or a depth chart choked with the who's who of the recruiting world, or the expectations of teammates who get more TV time than Regis.

While almost every other elite program has suffered an occasional dip in the last two decades, FSU grows stronger, even with Sneakergate, and Dan Kendra's chemistry experiment, and Peter Warrick's unadvertised Dillard specials. Coaches who recruited those players from 13 different states will tell you about the quality education, the campus, the small-town atmosphere of Tallahassee. But FSU football begins with Bowden, the Alabama codger who loves military history, catnaps and coaching. He wears those gawd-awful glasses, and he probably thinks Helmut Lang is some sort of Riddell knockoff headgear. But mommas, daddys and FSU players love the guy.

Name another coach in any sport who could identify with a cast of characters as diverse as Deion, Kendra, Warrick Dunn and Chris Weinke? Credit Bowden's humble Birmingham upbringing. Credit the years he spent coaching his own boys to lay themselves out for the glory of the game. Credit his larger-than-life personality. Bowden might be old enough for an AARP card, but he thinks and coaches young.

He embraced the shotgun before it was fashionable. He understood the value of free publicity: He let a network crew broadcast his pregame locker room speech at the 1980 Orange Bowl. He played anybody anywhere. He ran trick plays. He ditched FSU's duller-than-PBS unis in favor of the arrowhead helmet logo designed by an assistant trainer, and game pants commissioned and paid for by his buddy Reynolds. He listened to his wife, Ann, who pushed for Chief Osceola's theatrical flaming-spear schtick. He killed the media with kindness. He welcomed Nike. He invited NFL scouts to practices.

Most of all, he won games: 230 of them in 24 seasons. You think the nation's prized recruits didn't notice? Jim Gladden has been on FSU's coaching staff since Bowden signed on, back in 1976. "When I first came to Florida State, we were trying to sell Volkswagens," Gladden says. "Now ... well, I don't know what the top of the line is, but we've got to be close to it. " Try a Porsche.

And look at Bowden's sales force. Six of nine assistants have been with him for 14 years or longer. That stability is what hooked Weinke, who signed up not once but twice, with a brief baseball career in between. "I wanted to go where the head coach was going to be there, where the assistant coaches were going to be there," he says. "I came back for the same reason: Coach Bowden. I wanted to play for the best program in the country."

Barring any health problems, Bowden insists he'll coach until he's 75. "What would I do if I quit?" he asks. "I'd be afraid I'd wither and die." Even his own son Tommy tried to use Bowden's age to help with recruiting when he was the coach at Tulane, says Talman Gardner, a star wide receiver from New Orleans. Gardner told Tommy he was strongly considering playing for his old man. According to Gardner, Tommy quipped: "He's too old. He's gonna die." No big deal. Gardner signed with the Noles. Tommy bolted to Clemson.

When offensive coordinator Mark Richt first told him that Jones was interested in the Noles, Bowden scoffed at the notion. "That kid ain't coming from Walla Walla to Florida State," he told Richt. "You're wasting our time and wasting our money." But the coach had underestimated the power of his own program. Sitting in the Joneses' living room, surrounded by the player's parents and family, Bowden wasted little time. "Why would you even be interested in Florida State?" he asked. "Because I've always wanted to be a Seminole," Jones replied.

Even now, Bowden can't believe it. "My goodness," he says. "We're Florida State. Why would you get a guy from there?" For the same reason that Travis Minor wore Dunn's No. 28 jersey back in high school in Louisiana, that Tee Martin used to add the letters FSU to his autographs in Alabama, that LaVar Arrington wore FSU apparel to his prep workouts in Pittsburgh. (Martin was passed up for Kendra, and Arrington chose to stay close to home.) Jones was no different. He liked the helmet logo, the tomahawk chop, the stadium, the athletes, the winning. "If I'm wearing my ACC championship ring or my Fiesta Bowl ring, people see it and they just seem in awe that I play for Florida State," he says.

Of course, FSU isn't for everyone. The Seminoles open each season with almost 300 names on their recruiting board. Game film is viewed. Reference calls are made. The list grows smaller. Bowden's mandate is simple: Look for players with exceptional ability who can run, hit or throw. He has only one ironclad rule: No quarterback gets a scholarship offer, no matter how celebrated, unless Bowden gives his final approval.

Memo to recruits: If you want to impress Bowden during a home visit, you'd better be there when he arrives. You'd better respect your parents and your high school coach. And you'd better fit in during the on-campus visit. If a Florida State player tells Bowden that a prospect isn't worth the trouble, the coach loses interest real fast.

They take this tradition stuff seriously in Tallahassee. Since 1989, FSU has produced 15 NFL first-round picks, one more than Ohio State, Miami and Tennessee. In that stretch, Bowden players have won the Heisman Trophy, the Butkus Award, the Davey O'Brien Award, the Maxwell Award, the Lombardi Trophy, the Thorpe Award, the Unitas Award, the Sullivan Award and the Groza Award. They also have averaged six nationally televised games a season. The Noles are college football's "Truman Show": 44 print, TV and radio outlets cover them with some regularity.

"Like I told our kids before the season: If you've got talent, they'll see it. If you don't make All-America, that's your fault. Don't complain," Bowden says.

The players understand. Television exposure, the rings, the bowls, the party school rep, the possibility of championships and an NFL future are what draw them to Tallahassee. But to stay there, to play there, is something altogether different. Defensive end Roland Seymour says only the Florida, Georgia Tech and Miami games were more difficult than a typical FSU scrimmage. He should know. He once practiced with a unit that included the Raiders' Tony Bryant, the Cardinals' Andre Wadsworth, the Ravens' Peter Boulware and the Bengals' Reinard Wilson.

And wait until the next crop of Seminole recruits goes through its first "mat drill," a 60-minute, no-break, no-water, throw-up-in-the-garbage-can-if-you-must conditioning program that begins at 5:45 a.m. Bowden has always been big on the program. His entire coaching staff is required to attend the 10 sessions. Trainers arrive at the athletic dorm shortly after 5 and wake the players by rapping spoons against the doors. The team is at the indoor facility by 5:30, stretches for 15 minutes, breaks down into three groups (linemen, skill players and quarterbacks/linebackers/fullbacks/tight ends) and then reports to either the basketball court or the "rubber room," a rubber-floored area where part of the agility and speed drills are conducted. Think ropes, sprints, shuttle runs. The seniors are expected to lead, and they do -- they're always the first in line.

"You have to mentally prepare for the mat drills, just like a game," says Dave Van Halanger, FSU's strength and conditioning coach. "If you're not totally prepared for it, it will break you down."

This is where the coaches want their players, at the edge of their stamina and will. Van Halanger tells them the mind is the strongest muscle in the body, and they believe him. Each player must believe he is tougher, more combat-ready, than anyone else. If he doesn't, he rarely sees the light of a starting lineup. "It's not a program for the weak," says tight end Patrick Hughes. "If you're not a hard worker, you'll never make it here."

But if you do make it there, if Bowden aw-shucks his way into your living room and asks for your signature, you'll have cool on your side. As long as FSU can stay out of the Volkswagen business.

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