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A Napoleon dynamic

Bowden, Hall of Fame coach and military history student, keeps pushing at age 77. He insists one bad season won't be his Waterloo.

December 24, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — Bobby Bowden, noted football coach and 77-year-old student of military history, thinks Napoleon was history's greatest general.

But even Napoleon got it in the end.

"Sure did," Bowden, leaning back in his office chair, said with a chuckle. "Yes he did. Oh yeah, he played in the Emerald Bowl too."

At the sour end of his 31st season as coach at Florida State, Bowden leads the Seminoles into their 25th consecutive bowl game -- but hold your applause.

Florida State is a so-so 6-6, set to take on 7-5 UCLA on Wednesday, in a city-by-the-bay matchup that would have been a showstopper in 1998.

The last time Bowden lost seven games -- in 1974, when he was coaching at West Virginia -- some students hanged his likeness in effigy.

Bowden doesn't have to worry about a lynch mob this time, um, right?

After building Florida State football almost from scratch, and winning two national titles, and becoming the major-college game's all-time leader in victories with 365, a man builds up a ton of football capital.

At least you would think so.

This has been, without doubt, one of the toughest slogs of Bowden's reign -- the ordinary year in an extraordinary career.

After an unprecedented run of success, ebb is starting to kick flow's tail.

Since losing the national-title game to Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl, Florida State has lost 26 games in the last six seasons.

By contrast, Bowden's teams lost only 19 games in the previous 14 years -- a span in which his Seminoles finished in the top five every year.

Now, with the Emerald Bowl as backdrop, Bowden seeks to avoid his first losing season at Florida State since his first, in 1976.

Bowden always said losing would drive him to retirement, yet all it has done is force him to adjust his tolerance level.

He is slipping into old age at the apex of an Internet Age he does not pretend to comprehend. He does not have a computer in his office; all his correspondence is dictated or handwritten.

"I do know this," Bowden says of cyberspace. "It spits out bad things."

This is the year when plaster started peeling from the empire walls, the year when even some loyalists turned on him.

Hasn't he earned the right to have a 6-6 season?

"I think so," Bowden said. "But you know people."

For the clinically impatient, it has been months since Florida State last won an Atlantic Coast Conference title ... in 2005.

This is the season Bowden accepted the resignation of his son Jeff as the team's offensive coordinator, after a shutout home loss to Wake Forest.

There you have it, Seminoles fans -- your requisite pound of flesh.

Jeff didn't even give his dad the chance to talk him out of it -- the paperwork already had been filed.

"It's been bad because he's young and I want him to succeed," Bobby said.

This is the year they really started whispering about Bobby Bowden's age, his acumen and his competency.

He jokes about the Emerald Bowl being his Waterloo, but Bowden is promising a return from exile.

"This year we're going to a lower-tiered bowl," Bowden said. "But that doesn't kill my dadgum ego. I was raised in East Lake, Alabama, baby, out on the other side of them tracks, and all I got to do is go back home and walk them streets a little bit and realize how lucky I am to go to the Emerald Bowl.

"But in the eyes of people, who have seen us successful, they feel like it's below our dignity. But it's not for me. I'm sorry for our players, that I couldn't get them in the Sugar Bowl this year, or a bigger bowl [than the Emerald], but it didn't happen."

Bowden constantly tries to learn from history. His office bookshelves are lined with chronicles of heroes and villains, of failure and redemption.

Two books on his favorite subjects, God and Bear Bryant, are within arm's reach on his desk. He just finished reading "The Last Coach," a biography of Bryant. His mother's Bible, passed on to him after she died in 1989, is a constant teaching tool.

Bowden was raised in Birmingham, the biggest Alabama football fan a kid could be. He can still recite the starting lineup of the Crimson Tide team that played in the 1946 Rose Bowl.

Bowden took a legendary liking to Bryant and twice, in 1986 and four years later, considered leaving Florida State for the Alabama job because it was "home" and he thought maybe "that's the way the Lord planned it."

But thank God, he says, he stayed put in Tallahassee.

"They've had about six coaches since then," he said of Alabama.

Bowden learned from Bryant that even the giants suffer.

"I remember when Coach Bryant had his two 6-5 years, they were ready for him to leave," Bowden said.

Another legend providing historical context is Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, who already has been through what Bowden is going through.

The two legendary coaches, just elected together into the College Football Hall of Fame, both hired their sons and then had to hear unkindness toward their kin.

It was all about play calling, for Jay Paterno and Jeff Bowden.

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