Bowden goes out a winner in Gator Bowl, 33-21
Published: Friday, January 1, 2010 at 8:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 1, 2010 at 8:28 p.m.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Bobby Bowden rode only a few bouncy steps on his players' shoulders, then hopped off.
"I thought it was about time to get down," he said.
Time to say goodbye. As a winner, too.
Jermaine Thomas ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns, MVP E.J. Manuel threw for 189 yards and ran for another score and Florida State knocked off No. 18 West Virginia 33-21 Friday at the Gator Bowl in the final game of Bowden's storied 57-year coaching career.
"The winning was really a bonus," Bowden said. "Knowing it's your last game, I'll be honest with you, I'm kind of interested in this retirement business. I ain't got to set my alarm no more, I'll get up when I'm darn good and ready, then like I say, go out and look for a job."
Bowden finished with a 389-129-4 record, and most importantly to him, a 33rd consecutive winning season. Next week, Jimbo Fisher takes over at Florida State, which finished 7-6 for the third time in the last four years.
That run of mediocrity was the 80-year-old Bowden's downfall — he wanted to stay at least one more season, but was essentially forced into retirement after Florida State offered him a lesser role for 2010. But on this day, none of that mattered to the Florida State faithful, which serenaded him with "Bob-by! Bob-by!" chants throughout the day, saving their loudest cries for the very end.
"Eat your heart out, Florida State," Ann Bowden, the coach's wife, said afterward. "Eat your heart out."
With 1:39 left, Bowden trotted down to the Florida State band section, removing his autographed white cap and tossing it into the seats — and the celebration began. When it was over, Bowden was surrounded by a wall of photographers, trying to make his way over to shake the hand of West Virginia coach Bill Stewart — who was a 177-pound walk-on for Bowden's first Mountaineers team in 1970.
"It's got to be memorable," Bowden said. "It's my last dadgum ballgame after 57 years of coaching."
Losing to his mentor didn't make it easier for Stewart.
"I don't like to lose," Stewart said. "He taught me that."
Bowden leaves as major college football's second-winningest coach. Joe Paterno earned his 394th victory Friday in the Capital One Bowl as Penn State beat LSU 19-17, now the official winner of the back-and-forth race to be the game's all-time win leader, something that wasn't lost on Bowden.
Paterno could win No. 400 next year. By his own math, Bowden's already beyond that benchmark.
"How about them 22 wins I got at South Georgia College? How come that don't count?" Bowden said, talking about where he was from 1956-58, before heading to Samford. "I know it doesn't count NCAA, but will somebody mention, please, that I have 400 wins during my lifetime?"
He laughed, clearly at ease.
This retirement thing is already working.
Noel Devine rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown for West Virginia (9-4), which ran out to a 14-3 lead, then sputtered the rest of the way.
"Well, like so many games, when you're behind like we were in that first quarter, there's always an opportunity to quit and to give up," Bowden said. "And the kids did not. They kept fighting, kept coming back and won the ball game. That's what you want."
There was even a "wide right" — in Bowden's favor, for a change.
West Virginia's Tyler Bitancurt pushed a 33-yard field goal try past the right upright midway through the third quarter, a big break for the Seminoles. Bowden's teams lost four epic matchups with archrival Miami over the years, and probably at least two national championships, because of FSU field goals going wide right.
Let it be noted that on the last field goal his team tried, FSU made it.
This was Bowden's day, and the Seminoles made sure he wouldn't be denied.
"It was a great place to be," said FSU safety Jamie Robinson, who helped turn the game around with a second-quarter interception.
Everything about the matchup was arranged with celebrating Bowden in mind, and that didn't change on game day.
Deion Sanders, Warrick Dunn and more than 350 of Bowden's former players were there as guests, and thousands of fans — many of whom arrived 2 hours before Bowden — braved 52-degree air and steady rain to line the route the coach and his wife would take into the stadium, followed by the rest of the Seminole roster.
"That was the most emotional thing I have had," Bowden said. "I was determined, I ain't cryin'. But I tell you what, the closest I came is when I walked through them players and the fans. That was pretty tough."
There was a pregame video of Bowden highlights. He got a new car, a gift from Toyota and the Gator Bowl. And then came a rare treat even for Bowden, the right to take the flaming FSU spear from Chief Osceola and slam the point into the turf at midfield, one of Florida State's most revered pregame traditions.
Bowden was head coach at Samford from 1959-62, led West Virginia from 1970-75 and took over at Florida State the next season.
The tributes didn't stop at kickoff, either.
A fan donned an No. 12 Thad Busby jersey, changed some letters and — voila! — the former Florida State quarterback's surname went from BUSBY to BOBBY. The Florida State band, instead of spelling out "Noles" at halftime, stood in "Bobby" formation. And on the West Virginia sideline, fans mindful of his stint there as head coach from 1970-75 tacked a "We (heart) U Bobby" banner to the wall.
During the game, Bowden's demeanor didn't change much from what's become the norm in his final seasons.
He often kept to himself, hands either clasped behind his back or at his sides. He talked to players individually, sometimes offered a quick thought to Fisher, then would go back to pacing about. A few times, Bowden took a quick look around the stadium, almost as if he was taking a mental picture of it all.
"I probably reflected back to games here in the Gator Bowl, because they were fresh in my mind," Bowden said.
Bowden spent much of the afternoon hugging his former players. Some of them now were middle-aged men, their hair tinged with gray.
West Virginia took the opening kickoff and scored without much resistance, an easy drive capped by a 32-yard touchdown rush by starting quarterback Jarrett Brown — who was injured in the second quarter. The Mountaineers went up 14-3 on their second possession, after Devine broke off a 70-yard run to get inside the Florida State 5, then scored from 1 yard out.
After that, all Florida State. The Seminoles led 23-14 entering the fourth, and after West Virginia got within two, Manuel's 2-yard touchdown burst put Florida State up 30-21.
"When I went to bed last night, I prayed I could just do my job to help him get this last victory," Manuel said.
It would be the last touchdown anyone would score for Robert Cleckler Bowden, and soon, the man who saved Florida State's program — it almost folded before he was hired in 1976 — would start hugging anyone he could get his arms around on the sideline.
An hour later, Ann Bowden wrapped her arms around her husband, tousling his gray hair.
"Time to go home, baby," she said.
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