Bowden operates on his own terms

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The great misconception about Bobby Bowden is that he doesn't have a mean bone in his 76-year-old body. He's as sweet as the Godiva chocolates he loves. "Saint Bobby" -- isn't that what an author called him in the book title?

Bowden is a sweetheart. Most of the time. He might lead Division I-A coaches in Most Inspirational Speeches Given to Church Groups. In fact, I can't remember the last time the left lapel of his suit jacket didn't have a tiny gold cross pinned to it. The man enjoys his Good Book.

What else: he has the kind of belly laugh sitcom producers pray for. He wouldn't purposely big-time anybody. Charities have him on speed dial.

But the thing is, you don't last 30 seasons (going on 31) at a place like Florida State without knowing how to curl your hand into a fist -- figuratively, of course. You don't own the all-time record for most wins by a major college coach without stepping on a few necks. Bowden can "daggummit" and disarm you to death with that barbecue sauce-thick Alabama accent of his, but when it matters, when he has to decide whether you're with him or against him, there is no middle ground.

This has never been more true than in the past five years, but especially last year. True, Florida State won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 2005 (the 12th such title in 14 seasons) and barely lost in triple overtime to Penn State -- and Bowden's good friend, Joe Paterno -- in the Orange Bowl. But the Seminoles' 8-5 record made for the lowest winning percentage of a Bowden team since 1981.

There were backslaps and letters congratulating Bowden on another ACC title and the near miss against JoePa (FSU missed an extra point in regulation and two field goals in OT). But not everyone was thrilled with the Seminoles' fourth single-digit victory total in the past five seasons.

"I got those other kind of letters, too," Bowden said during the recent conference media days at Ponte Vedra, Fla.

The other kind of letters don't understand why his offensive coordinator, who just happens to be his son Jeff, still has a job. They don't understand why FSU is "settling" for ACC championships. And some of them make it clear it's time for Bowden to call it quits himself.

Bowden's office gets those letters, but they never make it to his desk. Bowden's orders. Remember, you're either with him or against him. He doesn't have time for shrillness, for negativity without legitimate alternatives.

"I'm not a 'change' man," he said. "I don't change. Just because I have a losing year or a losing game, I'm going to fire everybody? That ain't me. That might be so-and-so, but that ain't me. That ain't the way I operate. I believe in loyalty. I believe if something goes wrong, it's my fault. Jeff Bowden does what I tell him to do."

There is a pause. Another reporter starts to ask a question, but Bowden isn't finished answering the last one.

"We go out there and play the games we played against Virginia Tech last year [FSU beat Va. Tech in the ACC Championship] and Penn State, and people still want to criticize him," Bowden said. "I feel like if he wasn't my son you'd probably never hear anything about it."

There is nothing soft, nothing grandfatherly about Bowden's voice as he says this. This is about loyalty -- to an assistant coach … to his youngest son. You want to take a swing at the old man, go ahead. But you better be ready for a swing back.

"Oh, yeah, blood," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said, when asked about his father's temper. "You start getting after blood, that's what happens."

I know coaches -- good ones, too -- who think Bowden is a caretaker who spends his office time perfecting his golf swing or taking afternoon naps. He's Don Vito Corleone after son Michael took over the family olive oil business. An honorary overseer, nothing more.

This, of course, is beyond stupid. Bowden is 76 and takes catnaps. Big deal. It isn't as if someone is assigned to wipe dried applesauce off his chin.

Anybody who thinks Bowden isn't in charge of his own program needs a hand slap to the ear hole. Just ask the assistant coaches who occasionally get called into his office for a private scolding. Saint Bobby, my butt.

This is the guy who is aw-shucks gracious after a win but goes sleepless after a heartbreaking loss, of which there have been more than a few in recent years. But phone it in? Not Bowden. Retire? He hasn't even thought about it.

"When you retire, there's only one main event left," he said.

Bowden likes this team and its chances to make a national championship run. He likes it enough to let a documentary film crew chronicle the season. He has a quarterback (Drew Weatherford) who is respected by his teammates and a running back who isn't afraid to issue preseason guarantees.

"If I rush for 1,200 yards, we're going to Arizona for the national championship," senior halfback Lorenzo Booker said.

Hmmm. FSU hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 1996, when Warrick Dunn did it. The 'Noles haven't had a 1,200-yard rusher since 1995, when Dunn did it. But you have to admire Booker's nerve.

Of course, it would help if FSU's defense regained some of its former swagger. The Seminoles haven't recorded a shutout in their past 29 games and gave up 20 or more points in nine of their 13 games in 2005 (five of those nine were losses). Can't blame Jeff Bowden for that.

"We have not struck the fear in people's hearts like we used to," linebacker Buster Davis said.

But just in case you think Bowden and the Seminoles are going soft, don't. With the exception of the Miami game (at the Orange Bowl), almost every difficult game on FSU's schedule is at home. And the ACC Championship is in nearby Jacksonville. The Seminoles have question marks, but motivation isn't one of them.

Florida State football is Florida State football because of Bowden. Its successes, and its flaws, can be traced directly to him. After all, FSU officials didn't put up that 9-foot statue of Bowden outside Doak Campbell Stadium because they had some extra bronze lying around the art department.

"The buck stops with the head football coach," Bowden said.

Fair enough. Bowden created this "factory … dynasty … Triple-A of the NFL," as Davis puts it, so he has to put up with the expectations, however unforgiving. But Bowden is going to do so on his terms, not yours.

Why? Because 359 career wins say so. Because he has two national championship rings and you don't. Because, well, he's meaner than he looks.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.