Bowden going strong at 75

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Bobby Bowden turned 75 years old on Monday. The Florida State coach seems rounder than he used to -- not Santa-Claus-round, but rounder the way that stones in a riverbed are round, their edges worn away by the unceasing flow of water and time. The slope of his shoulders is softer, the geometry of his face not as sharp as it once was.

Bobby Bowden turned 75 years old three days before the Seminoles beat North Carolina State, 17-10, which was his 350th victory in a career that dates to the Eisenhower administration.

For the most successful active coach in Division I-A, this season should be a continuation of the glory years. The university unveiled a statue of Bowden earlier this season. Next week, Florida State will christen Bobby Bowden Field at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Bowden sees his friend Joe Paterno struggling with Ws that have become Ls, raging against the gods and the fans who believe his coaching is not as sharp as it once was, and he nods in understanding before the question is finished.

Paterno has had one winning season in his last five at Penn State. At the end of the 1999 season, he had won 317 games. Bowden, who had just turned 70 and won a national championship, trailed him by 13 victories.

But once you're 70, a loss is not just a loss. It means you've got one foot on the Eddie Robinson Express, the one-way train from icon to You Can't. Since the beginning of the 2001 season, during which Seminole fans openly fretted about whether Bowden's time had come, he has caught Paterno and passed him by eight victories.

"Oh, yeah, it's over," Bowden said, mimicking the complaints. "The thing about it, I do expect that."

He changes the tone of his voice again.

"'Oh my goodness! Why do they not like me?'"

It is a favorite rhetorical trick of Bowden, to give voice to the arrows shot at him by detractors, whether they have bought tickets or brought laptops. Sometimes he does it to stall while he thinks of an answer. Sometimes, repeating the criticism takes the sting out.

"I'm not naïve," he continued. "I've seen it happen to others. Once you start getting away from that success, especially at my age, they say, 'It's passed him by.'"

Bobby Bowden turned 75 years old with Florida State ranked 11th in the media poll and 12th in the coaches' poll. From 1987-2000, Bowden's Seminoles finished in the top five every year. In the three full seasons since, the three seasons that have made Florida State chat rooms feverish with worry, the Seminoles have won eight, nine and 10 games.

This season, Florida State is 7-2.

In those same three full seasons, Paterno has won five, nine and three games. This season, Penn State is 2-7.

"Of course," Bowden said, "my ambition would be to prove them wrong."

This team has flaws, particularly at quarterback, where senior Chris Rix has been ineffective and sophomore Wyatt Sexton has been inexperienced. Sexton plays well at home and not on the road, but he will start at Carter-Finley Stadium against the Wolfpack.

But the defense has matched the standard set by the Seminole teams in the 1990s, a triumph for veteran defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews and a tribute to linebacker coach Kevin Steele, the former Baylor coach. Steele arrived in Tallahassee last year and reinforced a level of discipline and teaching that had been missing since veteran assistant Chuck Amato left Bowden's staff to take over North Carolina State.

If the Seminoles haven't returned to the dominance they once enjoyed, they're close enough to reaffirm that Bowden still has his fastball. He continues to work at it -- up at 4 a.m., nap at midday, home after practice and in bed as early as 6:30 p.m.

"If I go to bed at 8:30," he said, "I had something to do."

Bowden is sitting behind his desk in his office, twirling a cigar, always unlit, between his teeth. To his left are plate-glass windows looking out from high above one end zone at Doak Campbell Stadium. To his right is a video monitor with an opponent's game video paused.

It is the office of a man with a lot of years invested. There are books about war and football, Bowden's two favorite pastimes, and trophies and mementos of more than a half-century in coaching. There is a wall of photographs, the most prominent of which are those of his family. A large, framed color print includes his 21 grandchildren, among them Bowden Madden, the son of Bobby and Ann's daughter Ginger.

Two months earlier, Bowden Madden, and his father, John, a former player for Bowden as well as his former son-in-law, died in an automobile accident as they attempted to evacuate the Florida Panhandle before a hurricane.

"I'm holding up OK," Bowden said. "You lose somebody like that, of all the grandchildren, 21 of them, we hadn't had that happen. Ann and I had only lost people older than us. I lost my only sister. We hadn't lost children or grandchildren.

"My family is so together. All the 21 children are like brothers and sisters. Every summer, we all go to the beach for two weeks.They've all been so close. When we lost Bowden and John, it was very devastating to us all."

Bowden's bond with his four sons has been well documented. It is natural that a coach who has worked with young men for so many years would feel the way he does.

"When the boys got married, I could not stop crying. I didn't cry for the daughters' weddings," Bowden said. "When the boy died, I saw his picture there at the front of the church in a high school football uniform. I couldn't handle that."

The grandfather composed himself enough to speak at the funeral. Bowden's faith, the foundation of his life, has not wavered.

"It happened to be their time," he said. "I don't know how my daughter accepts it. If your time comes, there ain't a dang thing you can do about it. I always felt like the good Lord knows who we are, where we are, what we're doing. He has a plan. I've always had a faith in everlasting life. That's why I can accept it. They're better off where they are."

Football has given Bowden an escape, a place to park his mind away from the loss and the void left behind.

"Dad compartmentalizes everything," said Tommy Bowden. "One of the reasons he's been successful is that he has no distractions away from his job. The only time I have seen him deal with it was when he was on ESPN (GameDay) and they asked him how much he thought about (the deaths). He said, 'Every unoccupied minute of the day,' and he almost teared up, and that's the first time I'd seen him like that.

"He's not touchy-feely. That's just the way he is. You know he loves you. But he won't tell you."

But Bobby is always thinking about them. Bowden says he can't stop wondering how Ginger is doing, how the other boys are doing. Those thoughts are a constant companion away from the field.

"As time goes by, when a baby comes into the world, and you've had it a week, you think, 'How did I ever live without this baby?' When you lose a child, you don't forget them. You realize they are gone and you accept it."

In his career, Bowden sees his peers gone or suffering, and is aware at some level that time is an implacable foe. In his life, he has embraced time's healing powers.

An old definition of a good coach is one who can adjust to the tools at his disposal. In one of the toughest years of his life, it's the only way he can keep moving the chains.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.