Commentary

Fitting ending for extraordinary coach

Originally Published: January 15, 2010
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach was with the Florida State football team in Jacksonville, Fla., during Bobby Bowden's final game as head coach during the Gator Bowl. He was in Tallahassee the following day as Bowden's successor, Jimbo Fisher, began life as the Seminoles' first new head coach since 1976.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Bobby Bowden's last day as Florida State's football coach began with a cold, steady rain falling over Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.

It ended with the sun shining on Bowden, after his Seminoles came from behind to defeat West Virginia 33-21 in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesBobby Bowden is carried off the field one last time after a Gator Bowl win over West Virginia on New Year's Day.

Bowden, 80, was forced to retire in early December after 34 seasons as FSU's coach. He led the Seminoles to more than 300 victories, 12 ACC titles and two national championships. Bowden suffered only one losing season at FSU -- 1976, his first season -- and took his teams to 28 consecutive bowl games.

The largest crowd in Gator Bowl history was on hand to say farewell to one of college football's greatest coaches. Only Penn State's Joe Paterno won more games than Bowden among major college coaches, and few coaches had as much of an impact on their schools as Bowden did on his.

Three hours before kickoff on New Year's Day, thousands of FSU fans stood in the chilling rain to cheer Bowden as he made his way from his team's buses to the stadium's gates. Quarterback Chris Weinke, who won the 2000 Heisman Trophy, was there, along with more than 300 of Bowden's former players.

Before kickoff, Gator Bowl officials presented Bowden with a new car. During pregame ceremonies, FSU mascot Chief Osceola handed Bowden a spear, which he proudly planted in the Gator Bowl turf.

After more than a three-hour roller coaster ride, Bowden's day ended with his addressing reporters for the final time as FSU's coach. After the final question was asked, Bowden's wife, Ann, stood from a nearby chair, placed her hand on her husband's shoulder and said, "Time to go home, baby."

Just like that, one of college football's greatest eras was over.

But the memories of Bowden's final game at FSU will last a lifetime. Bowden, his assistants, and his current and former players share their memories of the legendary coach's last victory:

The coach

After Florida State came back from an early 14-3 deficit to defeat the Mountaineers, Bowden finished his career with 389 career victories. The Seminoles finished 7-6 and avoided their first losing record since 1976, Bowden's first season at FSU. In the final minutes of the game, Bowden hugged his coaches, players and former lettermen. He even tossed his white cap into the stands to FSU's marching band.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireBowden couldn't let his last game at Florida State end without tossing his hat to the faithful.

"I was very concerned all week about getting too much attention. I like the attention, but I mean, everything is 'Bobby this, Bobby that, Bobby this, Bobby that.' I have never been treated so royally. I think Ann felt the same way, never felt so royally -- where we stayed and where we went and what we did. Really, I said, 'Now, somehow this has got to work against us. Our players are not going to be focused; their attention is going to be divided or something like that.'

"The way that game started off, I said: 'Yep, that's exactly what happened. These kids got all wrapped up in this Bobby Bowden-leaving thing, and they ain't ready to play football.' But they got better and better as the game went on.

When I first came here, all big wins were finished with carrying you off on your shoulders. That's what people did back in those days. We were on our 200th win, I got carried off. We won our 100th win, we got carried off. The wins over Nebraska, Ohio State, there were usually carry-offs. And then we stopped doing it. I don't know why. We just stopped doing it. I think they like throwing water at you, trying to create pneumonia. I said, 'Men, don't do it anymore. I'm 70 years old. I will die of pneumonia if you hit me with that water anymore.' So they stopped doing that.

A New Chapter Begins

The day after Bobby Bowden ended his illustrious career with a Gator Bowl win, ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach spent time with his successor, Jimbo Fisher, as he began life as the Seminoles' first new head coach since 1976. Story

"But today, we came off the field, someone asked me, 'Can we carry you off?' And I said: 'Well, yes, if you all want to. If y'all want to do it, I will let you carry me off the field.' They must have sent the littlest guys they could. They couldn't even lift me up. And so, anyway, I ended up walking off the field. They were determined to get me on their shoulders. I don't know how far they would have carried me, but I finally got them to put me down.

"[The hat toss] was to the band. I used to do that all the time. When our bands sat on the other end of the field, when I came off the field, I always threw the band my hat. Then we changed them and put them way down there. I never could throw them my hat. I looked down there to see how high up they are. Sometimes they are so high I can't get my hat that high. I said, 'Dadgummit, that's my last game, they can't give me more than 15 yards. So I'm going to throw that hat up there for the last time to the band because they mean so much to me.' I'm a band man. I love the band.

"This [victory] will be good. You always remember that last game, and so you always remember it as a win. It's a good feeling. But, you know, wins last 24 hours. You know, you win, you're happy, you go home and eat good, and you drive back, and then back to work, back to work. Of course, when you are coaching, it is the next game. You lose, you forget about the last win. But it is nice to end your career with a win, and that's what the boys did for us."

The player

Linebacker Dekoda Watson was one of the most productive players on Bowden's last team at Florida State. The senior from Aiken, S.C., was a team captain and a second-team All-ACC selection. A three-year starter, Watson was outspoken when Bowden was forced to retire in early December.

[+] EnlargeDekoda Watson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireThe pressure was on Dekoda Watson and the Seminoles to win their coach's final game.

"I think it was very vital that we sent him out with a big win. He's a man who has done so much for Florida State and really changed a lot of people's lives. Why not go out there and do everything you can to send him out the right way? We went out there for four quarters and didn't make it about us. We made it about the coaches and making sure that we won Bobby Bowden's last game.

"Coach Bowden never made this game about him. He made it about us, and that just shows the type of character he has. Before the game, they had him out on the field doing all the other stuff, but you could definitely feel his presence in the locker room. It was very emotional. We really wanted to make sure we sent him out the right way. I know it was very emotional for him."

The letterman

Former Florida State running back Warrick Dunn was one of Bowden's most beloved former players. The only player in FSU history to run for 1,000 yards or more in three consecutive seasons, Dunn helped lead the Seminoles to the 1993 national championship. Dunn ran for more than 10,000 yards during a 12-year career with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. Dunn, whose No. 28 jersey was retired by the Seminoles, traveled to Jacksonville to watch his former coach's final game from the FSU sideline.

[+] EnlargeWarrick Dunn
US PresswireRunning back Warrick Dunn was one of Bowden's most beloved former players.

"This is history. I've been traveling since Christmas, but I made sure I was going to be here. Are you going to ever see another coach accomplish what he accomplished? Maybe not in my lifetime. You can't replace the feeling of being here in person. I couldn't watch it on TV. To be on the sideline and see him toss his cap to the band, that's something I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life.

"It didn't look good early, but with the way they played from behind and never quit, I think they just played for Bobby and made sure they could send him out with a win. It was a roller coaster of emotions. There were a lot of former players here, and I think it's because of the kind of coach he was and the person he is. It was great to see all these guys come back. The one thing that makes us all smile is that he gets to go out with a victory. That means more to us than anything."

The assistant

Mickey Andrews was Bowden's defensive coordinator and confidant for more than a quarter-century. Andrews arrived at FSU in 1984, eight years after Bowden took the job. Together, Andrews and Bowden built one of college football's greatest dynasties during the 1990s. Andrews' defenses annually ranked among the country's best, and he coached nearly 80 Seminoles who played in the NFL. As a player and coach, Andrews won five national championships. The Gator Bowl was Andrews' last game on the sideline, too, after he announced his retirement in early November.

[+] EnlargeMickey Andrews
AP Photo/Phil CoaleDefensive coordinator Mickey Andrews also coached his last game for FSU on Jan. 1.

"It would have been so sad for [Bowden] to lose this game after what happened against Florida [a 37-10 loss in Gainesville on Nov. 28]. We just kind of challenged our guys. We just told them, 'We can't let this man go out in his last ballgame without a win.' I think it was just determination by a whole bunch of people that were determined to make it happen.

"When you spend as many hours together as we do, you're going to miss him. But what I'm not giving up is what I've given up for 25 years, and that's missing my family. I made the decision so I could do what I need to do. It's not like I wanted to retire. It was just as much fun today as when I started, especially when you see a bunch of kids come together and play as a group like that.

"We didn't expect it to end like this. It just kind of happened this way, which was very unfortunate. I know in Bobby's heart that he'll always wish he could have had one more year. I don't know how a man his age can do what he's done for as long as he has. I think the big thing for all of us was just being here to share it with him in his last game."

The opponent

Bill Stewart was a walk-on player and teammate of Bowden's son Steve on the Mountaineers' freshman team during Bowden's first season at West Virginia in 1970. Four decades later, Stewart, now West Virginia's head coach, found himself squaring off against Bowden in his final game. Throughout the week, Stewart told reporters that he has tried to model his life and coaching career after that of his former coach.

[+] EnlargeBill Stewart
AP Photo/Phil CoaleWest Virginia coach Bill Stewart, who played for Bowden, said the game will miss a classy gentleman.

"You want me to be honest? I don't like to lose. He taught me that. I'm going to miss one of the classiest guys ever, one of the greatest gentlemen in the game, a guy that I try to emulate, a guy that coached me as a skinny son along with his own son. He was tougher on Steve than he was me. We were freshmen together.

"I just love him. I admire him. Let me tell you what, I wanted to whoop him bad today. He was classy after the game. He told me, 'Bill, tell your boys how hard they played and how proud I am.' That's very nice. That's typical Coach Bowden. The game will miss a giant."

The replacement

Jimbo Fisher came to Florida State as Bowden's offensive coordinator before the 2006 season. Near the end of his first season at FSU, Fisher was named Bowden's eventual successor. Under the terms of Fisher's contract, he was to replace Bowden by the end of the 2011 season. But as the Seminoles limped through another mediocre season in 2009, it became evident that a coaching change might come sooner. On Dec. 1, Bowden was forced to retire, and Fisher was later named FSU's new coach.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesAs Florida State's new coach, Jimbo Fisher has some gigantic shoes to fill.

"The respect I have for Bobby Bowden is why I came to Florida State. I came here to learn under him and help him win some games. I came to FSU to be with him, and there will never be another coach like him. I never wanted to win a game as much as this one because it was his last one. I tried not to think of it like that because of the pressure. Sometimes when you put too much pressure on yourself, you don't do it. Our coaches and players did a great job handling that.

"Knowing how we really felt, we took care of the business so we could get to the goal. They didn't back down, and they didn't quit. I told everybody, 'This will be a day where you remember what you did the last day Bobby Bowden coached a football game.'"

The son

Terry Bowden played running back for his father at West Virginia during the 1970s and was one of three Bowden boys to follow their father into coaching. A former Auburn head coach, Bowden now works as coach at Division II North Alabama. Bowden and his brother Jeff, his receivers coach at North Alabama, arrived in Jacksonville the night before the Gator Bowl and watched FSU beat West Virginia from a sky suite with about 30 other family members. Tommy Bowden, a former coach at Tulane and Clemson, was visiting troops in Afghanistan and was unable to attend the game.

"It was bittersweet going into the game. Jeff and I went in the night before the game and really tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. I went to grade school, middle school, high school and college in West Virginia. I know a lot of people from there. Next to the people of Florida State, they love my father as much as anyone. If somebody is going to tell you it's going to be your last game, you couldn't have picked two better groups of fans for my dad.

"When your dad has been a coach every day of your life, it's just hard to think about the day when there's a season when you're all not out there coaching. Of course, this wasn't one of his best teams, and the fear going into the game was that they wouldn't do well. You hoped they'd win the game, and even a close loss would have been OK, but you just didn't want them to do poorly in his last game. I did not want it to end now. Most people in our family wanted him to go out when he wanted, and he was prepared to coach next year.

"The emotional time was when he threw the spear into the field before the game. The spear thing was enough to make you cry. The first half was very tense. As a football coach, I'm analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of both teams. There were a lot of tight moments. But once they got rolling in the second half, it felt good. The game ended up being a very warm feeling for all of us.

"When the game ended, I don't think he was ready to just say, 'It's all over.' It's not that he didn't want to accept it; he just didn't want to participate in the fact that this was the end. He didn't want anybody to carry him off the field and didn't want anybody to cry. He just wanted to treat the game like any other game. He didn't cry a lot and didn't give the long, emotional postgame speech. In his mind, it was all about, 'What's next?' He was ready to move on to the next chapter of his life, and that's kind of been the theme for him."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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