GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The old man understands basic concepts like the NCAA (bad) and a chocolate Sundae on a hot afternoon (good). The fire is still there, but when you ask him about multi-layered issues, Bobby Bowden drifts back to the simpler days when he was confined to bed listening to Alabama games on the radio.
|'They're just going to kill a dadgum good competition if they take those wins away,' Bowden says. (Getty Images)|
Stress? You would never know it considering the Florida State legend is entering Year No. 47 as a head coach. The shingles have left Bowden without feeling in the left side of his face, just the same determination shooting through his bones.• FSU, Va. Tech favorites in ACC
"It's the worst pain I can ever remember," Bowden said of the six-week battle in the offseason. "I might get it back [feeling in his face], I might not."
Read those words again and apply them to Florida State football. After a national championship berth in 2000, it has been a long, slow, sometimes painful decline this decade. That's all it can be called after 14 consecutive seasons of top-four finishes.
If you want to talk about lack of feeling, survey the critics. They say the 79-year-old is selfish by sticking around, determined to fight Penn State's Joe Paterno to ... well, the grave for the all-time wins mark. At the same time dragging Florida State down with him. While his old pal Paterno has re-invented himself, this decade has been the worst for Florida State since before Bowden took over in 1976. Certainly, he knows that.
Certainly, he doesn't care. Bowden wants to win another national championship before he checks out. Florida State has the talent to win the ACC this season, but the walls are closing in from several sides. The NCAA is a near lock to take away those 14 career wins. Bowden's contract is running year-to-year, eventually destined to run up against a January 2011 deadline, after which FSU owes coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher $5 million if it does not elevate him to head coach.
"You ever heard of me and Jim splitting it?" Bowden asked, suggesting with his usual charm that the end indeed is not near. "Me and him could make $2.5 million off this deal."
There are some FSU fans who will wince at that sentence. They're the ones hoping Florida State isn't a shadow of itself by the time Fisher (if and when) takes over. The rest of us who heard Bowden laughed. Reporters gathered around him Monday at the ACC media days for what is an annual fireside chat with the old master.
The same questions are asked. The same answers are given. You get the impression grandchildren and great grandchildren have been in this position before, waiting at Papa Bowden's feet for another story from the patriarch. What final chapter will they get when Bobby finally steps aside? His legacy is being written as we speak as FSU arm wrestles with the NCAA over the vacation of those 14 wins.
The school has filed suits. Hired suits to file them. Filed appeals and appealed for sympathy. It has asked for special dispensation from NCAA president Myles Brand. FSU president T.K. Wetherell is going to the wall for his former position coach on this one before retiring next year.
To date, college sports' governing body has been resolute.
Does Bowden care? He went back and forth on the issue Monday but it's obvious he cares -- a lot. How would you like to have your life's work stained at the end? FSU is guilty of committing a mortal sin in the NCAA's eyes, academic fraud. Twenty-three football players were involved in 2006 and 2007. Seven of them were starters. FSU argues it suspended those players as soon as it found out, but it isn't that easy.
The likely result is embarrassment; the most infamous asterisk this side of Barry Bonds. NCAA statisticians would attach that little symbol (shift F8 on your keyboard) to his victory total. Even if Bowden does eventually pass Paterno, there could be no official mention of it by Florida State. If the NCAA has its way, Bowden won't have to worry. At age 79, you don't make up 14 victories.
What Bowden and a lot of Florida State fans don't understand is that academic fraud is the worst. It not only means cheating in the classroom, it gives a team a benefit on the field. By vacating those wins, the NCAA is punishing the athletic department (multiple sports are involved). It doesn't look to see who is wearing the head phones when the whip comes down.
Should Florida State have to forfeit 14 victories?
Absolutely: Cheating is cheating
No way: Past is past
Total Votes: 9,225
FSU can handle everything else in the probation that came down in March. It can't handle Bowden having to vacate those wins.
"They're just going to kill a dadgum good competition if they take those wins away," Bowden said.
That competition is one of the storylines for 2009, maybe for the final time. Paterno is ahead by one win, 383-382. One minute Bowden doesn't care, the next minute he is railing against Big Brother in Indianapolis. Maybe it's the onset of old age with Bowden not quite understanding all the high concept stuff.
• Winning, he said Monday, was "cylinder". He meant "cyclical."
• The academic fraud "didn't help us win any ballgames." Well, yeah, it did Bobby. The NCAA thinks so. So much so that a rival ACC coach, Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, supports the penalty.
"I think [the penalties] are more than fair," Friedgen told CBSSports.com in April. "They're playing with guys I can't play with."
"Life goes on," Bowden said. "We're not the only university that had something like this happen. It will happen again next year and the next year and the next year. Life will go on, you correct it and go to work."
Then, upon further consideration ...
"They can do what they want to, I ain't giving them up."
Like most people married to their job, Bowden is trying to do it as long as he can. He still has the wonder of a child discovering the world around him. He has that determination -- some would call it stubbornness -- of a rock climber. Don't look down, keep going up. "He's the sweetest man I've ever met in my whole life," FSU linebacker Dekoda Watson said. "I've heard that man cuss five or six times since I've been at Florida State and that's four years. He has cussed but they weren't even big cuss words. That was the strange thing about it. The 'D' word, maybe the 'H' word but they say that in the Bible."
"He could care less whether those games are forfeited," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "So we could care less. We know it might hurt to lose the Joe Paterno thing but we already know Coach Bowden is one of the greatest coaches in college football."
It's obvious to anyone who has watched that for years Florida State (like Penn State) has been run by the staff. The difference is FSU has a plan. Fisher already is doing head-coaching "stuff" like going out in the summer and speaking to boosters.
Meanwhile, Bobby is hatching one final trick play. This one involves digging up what he says are 22 victories earned while he was coach at South Georgia Junior College from 1956-58. Asterisk that, NCAA.
"I've got to get put in the grave here one of these days ... " Bowden said. "It don't count to them. It does to me."