- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As his role has become more prominent and the ensuing criticism has become more intense, Florida State offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden has slapped on a pair of blinders this season to shield himself from the outside world.
He hasn't picked up a newspaper, flipped on sports talk radio or surfed Internet message boards. He hasn't watched the sports segment of the nightly news or thumbed through sports magazines. He's been a man in communication hiding. But Saturday morning he let his guard down, picking up a south Florida newspaper. It horrified him.
Not because he read a story about himself. Not because there was mention of the brewing controversy about the head coach's son sidestepping the state's nepotism laws and driving the Seminole offense into the ground. No, Jeff Bowden was upset upset because of a series of articles criticizing the University of Miami after its embarassing 40-3 loss to LSU in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl..
"It was hard to read that," Bowden said. "Tough to read. But you know what, if you read the papers or listen to the radio the week after a loss anywhere, it's hard to take."
Especially in Tallahassee. Though the Seminoles somewhat saved face with their 27-22 win over Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game, the head coach's son is still the most pointed reason for everything that's wrong with the Seminole program.
Students, boosters, former players, the media, they're all still swarming, signing Jeff up as the explanation for Florida State's 0-for-November, when it scored 15, 14 and seven points in consecutive losses to NC State, Clemson and Florida. They say the play calling is too conservative, the execution is embarrassing and the former receivers coach is in over his head.
Put simply: They say it's time for Jeff Bowden to go home. No matter who his dad is.
"It doesn't bother me as much now as it did in the beginning," Jeff said. "I just try to block it all out."
It isn't easy. During one game, FSU radio analyst Peter Tom Willis, a former Seminole quarterback, referred to the unit as "a high school offense." Another alum, NFL linebacker Derrick Brooks, has expressed frustration with the team's struggles. And opposing schools are now starting to use the younger Bowden against Florida State in recruiting wars.
Bobby Bowden, the winningest coach in college football history with 359 wins, has responded angrily. He bubbled over the morning after a 34-7 loss to rival Florida, when he drove past a massive bed sheet that read "Fire Jeff Bowden" on his way into Doak Campbell Stadium.
The next week, Bobby referred to his son's critics as "cowards," the entire controversy as "crap" and said things had "gotten personal."
"Fans had better be glad I'd like to keep this job," Bobby said.
But the question has now become this -- do the fans want him? Several Florida columns and editorials have suggested that Bobby's handling of the situation could tarnish his once teflon-coated Florida State legacy. Prior to the ACC title game, message boards buzzed with chatter that if it took getting rid of Bobby to get rid of Jeff, then fine.
"The public loves hangings," Bobby said. "Oh, do they love hangings. I don't like them. Especially when it's my neck."
The criticism comes at a time when the Seminoles lead the ACC in total offense, passing offense and are second in scoring offense. A team that has been ravaged by injuries, losing its guard, center, tackle, running back and two receivers for different parts of the year, has managed eight plays of more than 50 yards this season. They didn't have one in 2004. And redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford needs only 105 yards to break the ACC freshmen passing record set by NC State's Phillip Rivers.
But critics point to their own numbers. Like the fact that from 1987 to 2000, Florida State averaged nearly 470 yards and 40 points per game, numbers that have slipped to 399 yards and 30 points in the Jeff Bowden era. The Mark Richt unit that led the nation in total offense in 2000 has failed to finish among the nation's top 25 in that same category since.
One stat speaks louder than any other: The school that had 14 consecutive 10-win seasons from 1987 to 2000 has had only one 10-win season since. Somebody has to take the blame in Tallahassee, and it's Jeff Bowden who's getting it.
"He does his job well," FSU running back Lorenzo Booker said. "Of course he could do better -- we all could do our jobs better.
"It just comes down to wins and losses. If we win those three games by one point, you wouldn't hear a peep. If we averaged 100 yards a game but won every game, this would all be irrelevant."
Instead, regardless of Tuesday night's outcome in the FedEx Orange Bowl (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) against Penn State, the Seminoles are guaranteed their third four-loss season since 2001. Some fans have even begun questioning the state's nepotism laws, designed to prohibit bosses from supervising their relatives in government jobs. The Florida State football team circumvents the policy by saying that Jeff reports to defensive coordinator and associate head coach Mickey Andrews as opposed to his father.
Whoever he reports to, it can't be easy to be on a staff with your dad, who just happens to be a college football legend. Jay Paterno faced similar criticism as the quarterbacks coach at Penn State the past few years. And Lou Holtz once demoted his son Skip as offensive coordinator at South Carolina.
"It might even be unfair," Bobby Bowden said. "They're going to catch heck. But I want somebody I can trust. I want somebody that if I can't be at work or I have to make a speech, I know he's going to be there working. And I haven't seen anybody on our staff that works harder than Jeff does."
And that's the reason Bobby refuses change. Though Holtz may have demoted his son while with the Gamecocks, Bobby prefers to rely on another piece of advice Holtz once shared when it comes to what he should do with his coaching staff and more specifically, his son.
"If you have a flat tire, you've got to fix that flat tire," Bowden said. "Firing the driver isn't going to help you.
"We're smart enough to fix it. So let's fix it."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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