Bowden won't walk away from a tough test of time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BEAR BRYANT had to do it at Alabama in the late 1960s after suffering back-to-back five-loss seasons. Joe Paterno had to do it as recently as 2000 when Penn State finished 5-7.

It's tough slipping when you're a legend. It's even tougher when you're a legend with age.

Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, 73, has rolled up his sleeves and decided to fight. He is coming into this season with a chip on his shoulder about as big as the one he had when he first started at FSU 28 seasons ago. There is an integrity issue at stake, which adds some spice to the Seminoles' game against Maryland on Saturday night in Tallahassee, Fla.

After a two-year slump that included a 9-5 record last year, and several off-the-field issues this summer, there are some who believe Bowden has lost control of his program. And if he has another five-loss season in 2003, he won't be able to ride off into retirement on his own terms, but chased by the alumni who once adored him.

Retirement? Chased off? Dadgummit, them thar are fightin' words.

"I've had to face the reality of losing games for the first time in a long time, and I don't like it," said Bowden, who signed a contract last spring that will expire in 2007. "I'm trying to do something about it. I have never considered retirement a day in my life."

"I hear people say we're down and we ain't coming back," said Bowden. "Why? Miami came back, didn't they? Florida came back [under Stever Spurrier], didn't they? Southern Cal came back. Why can't we? I guess it's like an old fighter; you always think you can win that title again, and I do think we can."

Florida State is one of those teams everyone has loved to hate. The Seminoles are 84-5 since joining the ACC in 1992 and have won 10 of the last 11 conference championships. They had a run of 14 consecutive top four finishes nationally, including two national championships.

And they won not because they were the best-coached team, but because they just had so many talented athletes. Win or lose, they are fun to watch whether it's some gimmick play on offense, or a running back like Greg Jones running through an All-American safety.

But the negative headlines seem to almost match the number of positive ones. There was the free shoes caper in 1994 when five players were suspended after agents allegedly treated them to a $6,000 shopping spree at a sporting goods store. In 1998, former state Sen. Charlie Crist called for a review of the use of a state-owned plane when it was revealed that Bowden had run up a tab slightly over $100,000 to ferry football recruits to and from Tallahassee.

How about in 1999, when receivers Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles were videotaped buying $412.28 of men's clothing for only $21.40 in a local department store?

Nothing, though, ever stuck to Bowden. There was too much charm and the great won-lost record. It's hard not to like him personally. He has an easy manner and strong wit. Seldom does he turn down autograph seekers.

"The thing I like about Bobby Bowden is he's not a phony," Paterno recently told The New York Post. "He's very devout, he doesn't drink, but he's not a prude. He's genuine."

Paterno and Bowden keep chasing each other. Bowden has 333 wins and Paterno has 337. As long as Bowden kept winning, he was untouchable in Tallahassee.

But that feeling has changed a little. After two subpar years, at least by Seminoles standards, critics have started to load the gun on Bowden. In April, Bowden's son, Steve, admitted to stealing $10 million from investors, including $1.6 million from his own father. There were other issues, like defensive tackle Travis Johnson's sexual assault case and quarterback Adrian McPherson pleading guilty to gambling and theft charges.

Even though Johnson was found not guilty, the accusation cast questions on the program.

Bowden basically went into seclusion this summer, frustrated by a number of issues. So much, in fact, that the usually camera-ready and accessible Bowden cut off media coverage.

But apparently Bowden used that time to regroup.

He shifted recruiting territories for several of his assistants. He brought in guest speakers to talk to his staff and share ideas on how to build chemistry and leadership.

You talk to any Florida State player these days, and the words "unity" and "trust" are often mentioned. Bowden seems intent on re-establishing a communication line with his players.

He ain't going down without a fight.

"I think Bobby puts more pressure on himself than the university's alumni are going to put on him," said Florida State president T.K. Wetherell. "When you get to his level, the pressures and the expectations you put on yourself are far greater than others, and you learn to expect the criticism that comes with that. I think the issue with Bobby last year wasn't the won-lost numbers, but it was how they lost at some places. I think that bothered him more than the record.

"I'm not too worried about that. You look at the way they're playing now, the kids and their attitude - and it's only been one game and there is a long way to go - but it's a more positive team. They are working together. It was one of those deals where you had to get knocked off that perch to get back up on it. I think that's helped them."

The Seminoles are going to need a great effort. Their non-conference schedule consists of Miami, Florida, Notre Dame and Colorado, while conference foes such as Maryland, Virginia and N.C. State have closed the talent gap between them and Florida State.

But the Seminoles still have one of the best offensive backfields in the college game with tailbacks Lorenzo Booker and Jones. They might have the best overall defense with linebackers Michael Boulware and Kendyll Pope.

And, of course, they have Bowden.

"If you look back over the history and see what happened when Bear Bryant left Alabama or Bud Wilkinson left Oklahoma or Ara Parseghian left Notre Dame, we want to position ourselves so we don't lose any momentum in that deal," said Wetherell. "You just don't replace a Bobby Bowden or Bear Bryant or people like that. Bowden is larger than life in many ways."

Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware, a former Seminoles star and the older brother of Michael, says Bowden will know when it's time to walk away.

"He's not going to go down without a fight," said Peter Boulware. "He has too much character. He has been so successful, and had a tremendous streak of success. He's not going to let two years of average football stop him. One thing you need to understand about Coach is that he wants to win. He wants to win badly. And if he has more years like the last two, they won't have to force him out. He'll walk away on his own."

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