Among college coaches in any sport, few have achieved iconic status. Bobby Bowden certainly meets that criteria and he gets one last chance to add to his legacy.
Bowden’s historic 44-year career as a head coach reluctantly comes to a close when Florida State meets No. 18 West Virginia on Friday in the Gator Bowl.
The Seminoles (6-6) are in postseason play for the 28th straight year, but it was a difficult season for the affable Bowden. Florida State failed to win more than two in a row and fell for the sixth straight time to Florida, 37-10 on Nov. 28, to finish third in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
Two days later, Bowden, 80, said he hadn’t decided on his future and still had career options – one of them being to remain the head coach. After meeting with university officials Dec. 1, though, Bowden said the Gator Bowl would be his last game.
“Nothing lasts forever, does it?” he said. “But I’ve had some wonderful years here at Florida State, you know it. Hadn’t done as good lately as I wish I could have, but I’ve had wonderful years, no regrets.”
Regardless of the .500 season, Bowden’s accomplishments while building a powerhouse over 34 seasons in Tallahassee are staggering.
Following several near-misses in the 1980s, he won national titles with the Seminoles in 1993 and most recently in 1999, when they went unbeaten and became the first to go wire-to-wire as the top-ranked team in the AP poll.
Another big achievement is a string of 14 straight seasons, ending in 2000, during which Florida State won at least 10 games and finished ranked in the top five. The Seminoles were 152-19-1 in that span.
He has a 315-97-4 record with Florida State, but 73-42 over the past nine seasons.
“Bobby Bowden in many ways became the face of Florida State. It was his sterling personality and character that personified this university,” president T.K. Wetherell said.
Including stints at Samford and West Virginia, Bowden has won 388 games, trailing only Penn State’s Joe Paterno. The NCAA, though, is deciding to vacate 14 of Bowden’s victories accumulated in recent seasons due to an academic cheating scandal.
Florida State has long had a plan in place for Bowden’s successor, naming offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher in 2007. But first, Bowden will get a send-off in a bowl game where he’s yet to lose. The Seminoles are 4-0 under him in the Gator Bowl, including double-digit wins over West Virginia in 1982 and 2005.
The Mountaineers have won four consecutive bowls since that last loss to Florida State and two of those victories have been under coach Bill Stewart, who is among the many ardent Bowden supporters.
“He’s one of my heroes,” Stewart said. “He’s an icon to college football. It’s going to be a real, real challenge because I know they’re going to want to go out with a real bang for coach Bowden.
“I’m just a drop in the bucket compared to him. I love the man. All the accolades he gets, he deserves. I’ll be right there when he’s on the podium clapping louder than anybody.”
But Stewart also had a warning.
“They can’t forget our team. Our team cannot be overlooked. That would be a mistake on anyone’s part to overlook the Mountaineers,” he said.
West Virginia (9-3) appeared to be out of the mix for a New Year’s bowl following late-season losses to South Florida and Cincinnati. However, with three-point wins over then-No. 8 Pittsburgh and Rutgers to close the regular season, the Mountaineers finished tied with the Panthers for second in the Big East behind the 12-0 Bearcats.
“After some of those tough losses, we could have easily shut it down,” said safety Sidney Glover, who returned an interception for a touchdown in the 24-21 victory over the Scarlet Knights. “Especially losing to teams we felt we should have beat, it’s easy to shut down. But we didn’t.”
The Mountaineers’ best player is running back Noel Devine, who finished second in the Big East with 1,372 yards and fourth with 12 touchdowns. Jarrett Brown was third in the conference with 2,129 passing yards, but threw only 11 TDs with eight interceptions in 12 games.
Brown’s counterpart is EJ Manuel, who has started the last three games after Christian Ponder was lost for the season due to a separated shoulder.
Manuel has appeared in six games, throwing for 616 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions.
His top targets are Rod Owens and Bert Reed, who tied for fifth in the conference with 58 receptions, but Owens had only three touchdowns while Reed had none. Jarmon Fortson topped the team with four TD catches.
Jermaine Thomas led the Seminoles’ ground game with 711 yards and seven TDs.