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December 31, 2009

Gator Bowl will be bittersweet end for Bowden

MORE: Gator Bowl preview | Q&A with West Virginia coach Bill Stewart | Bowl schedule/results

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden always wanted to go out on top. That ultimately was the one goal he failed to reach.

One of the most illustrious coaching tenures in sports history will reach a bittersweet conclusion Friday when Bowden leads Florida State (6-6) into the Gator Bowl against West Virginia (9-3).

In at least one respect, this represents an ideal closing chapter for a storybook career. Bowden coached West Virginia for six seasons before beginning his 34-year era at Florida State.

But this isn't the way he hoped to go out.

Florida State must win this game to avoid its first losing season since 1976, the year Bowden arrived in Tallahassee. And this exit came about a year earlier than expected; Bowden planned to coach in 2010 until Florida State officials gave him little choice but to step down.

"It was more disappointing than anything else," Bowden said. "Everything has to come to an end. It would either be now or next year. I was planning on going for another year. It was obvious I could not go another year."

No matter what happens this bowl season, Bowden will retire as the second-winningest coach in major-college history, behind Penn State's Joe Paterno. Bowden, 80, is 388-129-4 during a 44-year career that included four seasons at Samford before his stints at West Virginia and Florida State.

He led Florida State to 12 ACC championships and two national titles (in 1993 and 1999). The Seminoles also played for the national championship in 1996, 1998 and 2000.

Bowden's most remarkable accomplishment may be the Seminoles' record string of 14 consecutive top-five finishes in The Associated Press poll from 1987-2000.

His players now want to salvage a disappointing season by sending Bowden out a winner one last time.

Junior cornerback Ochuko Jenije was born and raised in Tallahassee and graduated from North Florida Christian School, less than five miles from Doak Campbell Stadium. He attended his first Florida State football game as a 9-month-old, and he has been told he did the "War Chant" that day up until he fell asleep. Perhaps more than anyone on the roster, Jenije understands the importance of this game.

"He pretty much built Florida State," Jenije said of Bowden. "He's the main reason why people across the country want to come to Florida State, and why people who lived in Tallahassee can't leave Tallahassee -- because they want to come to Florida State so bad.

"He's a coaching legend. He's the face of college football."

Jenije's comments have been echoed repeatedly over the past month by hundreds of Bowden's former players. The tributes started pouring in as soon as Bowden announced his impending departure.

"Some would say there is a new chapter being written as my beloved father figure, friend and legend steps down," said Jamie Dukes, a consensus All-America offensive lineman at Florida State in 1985 who later spent 11 years in the NFL. "They would be wrong. The legacy of Bobby Bowden is a complete Shakespearean tale complete with a humble beginning and a humble ending. I know I speak for many former players who will always cherish the man that is Bobby Bowden."

Bowden through the years
Here is a look at Bowden's year-by-year coaching record along with the final rankings for each of his teams.
Year School W-L AP Coaches
1962Samford 7-2N/AN/A
1970West Virginia8-3 N/AN/A
1971West Virginia7-4 N/AN/A
1972West Virginia8-4 N/AN/A
1973West Virginia6-5 N/AN/A
1974West Virginia4-7 N/AN/A
1975West Virginia9-3 2017
1976Florida State5-6 N/AN/A
1977Florida State10-2 1411
1978Florida State8-3 N/AN/A
1979Florida State11-1 68
1980Florida State10-2 55
1981Florida State6-5 N/AN/A
1982Florida State9-3 1310
1983Florida State8-4 N/AN/A
1984Florida State7-3-21719
1985Florida State9-3 1513
1986Florida State7-4-1 N/A20
1987Florida State11-1 22
1988Florida State11-1 33
1989Florida State10-2 32
1990Florida State10-2 44
1991Florida State11-2 44
1992Florida State11-1 22
1993Florida State12-1 11
1994Florida State10-1-145
1995Florida State10-2 45
1996Florida State11-1 33
1997Florida State11-1 33
1998Florida State11-2 33
1999Florida State12-0 11
2000Florida State11-2 54
2001Florida State8-4 1515
2002Florida State9-5 2123
2003Florida State10-3 1110
2004Florida State9-31514
2005Florida State8-52323
2006Florida State7-6N/AN/A
2007Florida State7-6N/AN/A
2008Florida State9-42123
2009Florida State6-6N/AN/A
Total44 seasons388-129-4
Each of those current and former players has a favorite story about the legendary coach who won fans throughout the nation with his devout faith and folksy demeanor.

Maybe they'll talk about how Bowden kept bouncing back after all those heartbreaking losses to Miami. Perhaps they'd point out the thrill of having their hero show up in their living room during a recruiting visit. Or they might even cite the one instance in which college football's elder statesman showed the speed of a much younger man.

"When lightning strikes, he's the first man off the field," senior linebacker Dekoda Watson joked. "He may be the oldest one, but he's the first one off the field. Sometimes he doesn't even use the golf cart. He just takes off. If lightning strikes, you won't see him. If you do, he will be a blur."

Bowden won games almost as often as he won friends, but he couldn't keep the Seminoles on top forever. Florida State has lost at least four games in each of the past five seasons. FSU's slip has been magnified by the emergence of Florida, which has beaten the Seminoles six consecutive times and won national titles in 2006 and 2008.

It likely is no coincidence that Bowden made his announcement three days after this season's 37-10 loss to the Gators. Up until that game, Bowden had been steadfast in his pronouncements that he wanted to continue coaching next season.

Before each of the past few seasons, Bowden frequently was asked about his retirement plans. Bowden said he wanted to coach as long as he could and cited the example of former Alabama coach Bear Bryant, who died four weeks after he coached his last game. Bowden said he also wanted to lead Florida State back to national prominence before stepping down.

"I guess I'm like all older folks, just like the old boxers who think you've got one more right," Bowden said. "You're like [Evander] Holyfield. You're like Joe Louis. You're like these older guys, [Muhammad] Ali, and you think, 'If I got it one more time, I could do it.'

"That's kind of the way I always felt, yet it didn't happen. It didn't happen last year. It didn't happen this year."

Bowden's last season may have been his toughest.

Picked before the season to win the ACC Atlantic Division, FSU struggled to a .500 finish while burdened by the worst defense of Bowden's tenure. Rumors about Bowden's future began swirling after a 17-7 loss to USF on Sept. 26 and continued through the rest of the season.

Seminoles players credit Bowden for remaining poised under adversity. Even though he enters the Gator Bowl as the obvious headline attraction, Bowden has argued this game isn't about him and that the focus instead should center on the teams.

"He said, 'I'll be all right no matter what. Play for yourself. Don't play for me,' " Watson said. "For him to say that really showed the type of character that he has and the type of man he is."

Bowden now seems to have made peace with his decision. As he prepared to coach his final game, Bowden discussed his plans for the future. He doesn't have much interest in working as a TV commentator because he doesn't like to criticize people. He seems more likely to speak out on behalf of his Christian faith.

"I don't want to do nothing," Bowden said. "That's what puts you in your grave -- doing nothing. I want to do something. I can't think of anything better for me to do than go out and [do] what I call evangelizing, talk to people on what I believe and what I believe in.

"My whole thing is to help young kids. They need help. Some of them are not getting it at home. Some of them ain't got a home."

Whatever route he chooses to take, Bowden finally seems ready to begin the next chapter of his life.

"I have never tried to make football my God," Bowden said. "I think the coaches that make it their God have a struggle and have a hard time taking lickings and things like that.

"To me, I'm just fixing to start a new life. That's the way I look at it."

MORE: Gator Bowl preview | Q&A with West Virginia coach Bill Stewart | Bowl schedule/results

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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