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Bowden forever will be the face of FSU football

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Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 08:54 PM

We knew this was coming but it still feels weird.

We even knew it had to come because Florida State University doesn't win as many football games any more. People screamed for change.

Change has come. Bobby Bowden made it official Tuesday. He will retire after 34 years as head football coach. It just seems so strange to be typing that.

He'll coach FSU's bowl game, presumably on Jan. 1 in (of all things) the Gator Bowl. Better stock up on hankies now.

"It's been 34 great seasons," Bowden said in the official news release.

It was a lot more than just that.

One day soon, we'll talk about what all this means for the future at FSU - but not just yet. It's more important first to look back on the remarkable life and career of Robert Cleckler Bowden. I know that last sentence sounds like something you'd write in an obituary, but the man's not dead. Far from it.

While the circumstances surrounding this forced retirement have been undeniably messy, Bowden will make this all work. He'll do some fundraising for the school and he'll continue to be the best ambassador Seminole Nation ever had.

Like I said, though, today is about reflection and perspective about the bit of history that just happened. The move goes beyond just the passing of an era, though. To say the ride that FSU and Bowden went on for 34 years was just an "era" doesn't do it justice.

Countless lives were affected and changed for the better by this single good-hearted man who showed them how to win, how to lose, how to take responsibility, and how to enjoy the ride.

I covered FSU for five seasons starting in 1981, the year the Seminoles played their fabled "Octoberfest". No school in their right mind would play consecutive road games at Ohio State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Pitt and LSU, but the Seminoles did.

They weren't in a conference then and the only way large schools would play an independent was at home.

Bowden took them all on, beat a lot of them, and built a champion.

FSU didn't have a large media following in those days and access to Bowden was virtually unlimited. His home phone number was listed in the Tallahassee directory, for goodness sakes. Because of that, I got to know him pretty well, and he will always rank No. 1 on my list of favorite coaches. I guess we're not supposed to admit that, but if you didn't like Bobby Bowden then I'd suspect the problem is inside you and not him.

The Seminoles would do anything to get on TV in those days, so Bowden agreed to play a weak Louisville team for the national cable exposure. Because of TV, the kickoff was pushed way back. That meant it would end right on newspaper deadlines, so I made a request that wouldn't dare come out of my mouth now.

Since FSU was going to win easily, I asked Bowden several days before the game if it would it be OK if I interviewed him on the sidelines during the game - say, after the third quarter. That way I could get his comments into the morning Tribune.

He pondered a second or two, then said, "Well, just use your own judgment."

FSU was comfortably ahead after three quarters that night, so down I went to the sideline, accompanied by the Seminoles' sports information director (who was still shaking his head at this notion). Bowden was wearing headsets, and the fourth quarter was getting ready to start when the SID tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at me.

Bowden came straight over, gave me a few nuggets as I scribbled in my notebook, and then went back to the game.

I'm trying to picture Urban Meyer doing that. Or anyone else.

A few weeks after I left the beat to do other things at the Tribune, I got a handwritten note from Bowden. He talked about the good times, and there were many. It's the only note I've ever gotten from a coach after leaving a beat.

One more story. You learn a lot about people in how they handle adversity or, in this case, tragedy. We were in Miami, and it was the worst of times. His grandson and former son-in-law had been killed in a car crash and the funeral was the day before FSU met the Hurricanes.

After the game, I asked him a few questions about the ordeal and the pain was so obvious, so deep.

As he was leaving the old Orange Bowl stadium that night, I heard him call my name. The cap he had worn that night came flying in my direction, with his name scrawled on the bill.

"Give it to your grandson," he said.

The cap remains on my mantle at home. One day, hopefully, I'll bounce a grandson on my knee and tell him about a cap that belongs to him now and how it came to be.

It's hard sometimes to separate the man from the coach, especially when the coach has a record like Bowden's.

He had his measure of problems. Even as he leaves, FSU is battling with the NCAA to keep 14 wins from being stripped from Bowden's record as part of an academic cheating scandal that rocked the athletic department.

There were players over the years that didn't do what they should off the field, and a suspicion that he looked the other way when his boys got in trouble. He always told us that wasn't so, that he handled matters like that privately. Learning the consequences of bad behavior is part of life's lessons, too.

I suspect a lot of players learned that the hard way.

No school will ever top the record 14 consecutive top five finishes FSU had under Bowden, and if the Seminoles only had a kicker they would have won many more than two national championships - not that two is a trivial number.

Bowden has 388 wins. The Seminoles either won outright or shared Atlantic Coast Conference championships their first nine seasons in the league. They were as dominant as any program in the history of college football.

We know what has gone on in Tallahassee the last several years as the Seminoles slid into mediocrity. It really is time for a change - and Bowden knows that, even as he suggested publicly many times that he wanted to come back next year. I think he knows it never would have worked. Under that circumstance, next season would have been totally about him. It would have been chaos.

Stepping down is the right call.

He always said he was in no hurry to retire. When you do that, he said, "There's only one big event left."

That's not true.

At 80 years old, Bowden remains a vigorous, vital man with a lot to give. He'll find that out soon enough.

It's Jimbo Fisher's team now because time and circumstances made it so.

It will always be Bobby Bowden's program, though. Nothing will ever change that.

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