TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State is scheduled to open its 2009 football season Labor Day night against archrival Miami. The most important date of the year for the school and coach Bobby Bowden could be this week.
The university expects to hear from the NCAA as early as Tuesday on its appeal of sanctions resulting from an academic cheating scandal that included taking away as many as 14 victories from Bowden's coaching record.
Such a penalty would leave Bowden unable to keep pace with Penn State's Joe Paterno in their competition to finish long coaching careers with the most wins at the major college level.
"It's just us two and you'd hate to give up in a good battle like that," Bowden recently told the Palm Beach Post during a South Florida booster tour stop. "But as far as losing sleep over it, I don't do that."
Bowden, who turns 80 in November, now has 382 wins, one fewer than the 82-year-old Paterno.
But losing even a handful of those wins in the middle of a long effort to lead the Seminoles out of a decade of mediocrity, would seem to finish Bowden's otherwise distinguished career in an ignominious fashion.
Florida State athletic director Randy Spetman said there's no question Bowden will coach the 2009 season.
"He's coaching for the love of coaching and for the game and the energy, enthusiasm and tradition he's brought to Florida State," Spetman said. "That's why he's there every day and I'm glad he is."
Despite the endorsement, several disturbing trends have raised questions about whether it's time for Bowden to step down.
The 2009 NFL draft, a run of embarrassing player discipline issues in 2008, a clumsy coaching arrangement and declining attendance only adds to the discomfort of some longtime boosters concerned about the fate of a once-proud program that produced an unprecedented run of 14 straight seasons of 10 or more wins, two national titles and Heisman Trophy winners.
Jim Bryan of Tallahassee has owned season tickets for nearly 35 years and says he's among a growing group of fans disenchanted with the program, starting with Bowden's hiring of son Jeff as offensive coordinator in 2001.
"Over the years Bowden was very humble and never defensive when he was criticized or the team was criticized," Bryan said. "When his son started getting criticism he got very stubborn, very defensive and he didn't come off of that. So unBowden-like."
Bryan said that decision was the beginning of the decline.
"He lost control of the program because of it," Bryan said. "It tarnished his image."
Bowden's career record was a gaudy 315-87-4 at the end of that streak. He's a mortal 67-36 since.
Florida State has already contracted with offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to take over by the 2011 season or will pay a $5 million penalty and President T.K. Wetherell is on record that he won't make a penalty payment.
Bowden said it would be natural that Fisher is getting antsy.
"I would," he said.
Other events have some boosters concerned that Bowden's renowned folksy southern charm no longer offsets claims by opposing recruiters that the program has dipped precipitously in the last decade and that Bowden won't be there much longer.
The decline in talent has been underscored by the NFL's increasing disinterest in Seminole athletes on draft day.
Florida State had one player drafted this spring: Defensive end Everette Brown in the second round. That has happened only one other time in Bowden's 33 seasons, in the 1985 draft.
"The draft shows you our problem," Bowden concedes. "One guy?"
It highlights one of several problems on the field, and there are many off it.
The university now is focused on an $82 million budget shortfall and doesn't plan to comment on its present differences with the NCAA, vice president Lee Hinkle said. She said the school refrain from commenting until its differences in the case are settled.
"The penalty requiring the university to vacate wins is excessive and inappropriate," Wetherell said at the time the sanctions were first announced.
The cheating occurred mainly through online testing for a single music history course in the fall of 2006 and the spring and summer semesters of 2007. It included staffers helping students on the test and in one case asking one athlete to take it for another.