JACKSONVILLE — The Bobby Bowden era ended Friday afternoon as if it were following a Hollywood script.
It began with adversity for his Florida State Seminoles against the West Virginia Mountaineers, his former school, in the Gator Bowl. But it ended in a 33-21 triumph that allowed the Seminoles to hoist their retiring coach on their shoulders for one final ride off a field to adoring chants of "Bobby Bowden" from the partisan crowd of 84,129 at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
"You always remember that last game," he said.
How could he not?
Although he called winning a "bonus" since he was either going to end with 388 or 389 wins and "neither one of them will throw me over the hump or nothing," the day was replete with emotionally packed scenes that perfectly, almost too perfectly, summed up his iconic career.
In the waning moments, Bowden, 80, who had wanted to return for one more season but wasn't given that option by out-going FSU president T.K. Wetherell, dashed to the end zone to toss his cap into the stands where the band sat.
Then, he took the time to greet some of his former players who were on the sideline to be there for him one last time, hoping and cheering for him to go out on a winning note.
"I just congratulated him and thanked him," said star linebacker Derrick Brooks, a member of the 1993 title team and a longtime standout with the Bucs.
"It was tough giving him that hug with less than a minute left," added quarterback Chris Weinke, a differencemaker for the 1999 championship team and the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner. "I was trying to hold back some tears. He's the best. Plain and simple, he's the best."
But since Weinke's departure after the 2000 season, Bowden's teams haven't been a fixture at the top of the polls and in contention for national championships. In fact, had the Seminoles (7-6) lost, it would have been Bowden's first losing season since going 5-6 in 1976 — his first year at FSU after a decade at West Virginia.
"I didn't need bookends," Bowden's wife, Ann, said.
The No. 18-ranked Mountaineers (9-4) looked like they might just produce that kind of ending as they jumped out to a 14-3 lead behind dazzling tailback Noel Devine.
Bowden feared his team might lack focus given all the attention his swan song had been receiving all week. The players didn't hide how much they wanted to win one for Bowden. Who didn't?
"I've never wanted to win a game more in my life. Ever," said offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who's taking over for Bowden. "The respect I have for Bobby Bowden, he's the reason I came to Florida State. … I tried not to think of it like that because sometimes if you put too much pressure on yourself you don't do it."
The Seminoles, however, maintained their composure and let their determination show.
Redshirt freshman quarterback EJ Manuel, in just his fourth start after taking over for the injured Christian Ponder, earned the MVP award after hitting 17 of 24 passes for 189 yards and no turnovers, and rushing 14 times for 70 yards and the clinching touchdown.
"They got me on the back of my head," he said as he plowed his way into the end zone on a 2-yard run, "but it was worth it to help Coach Bowden win."
Sophomore tailback Jermaine Thomas, a Jacksonville native, had 121 yards and two touchdowns, neutralizing to a large extent the production of his counterpart, Devine (168 yards, one touchdown).
And the defense, helped in part by West Virginia fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Brown (ankle) leaving the game late in the first half, did its part with a key fourth-quarter stop on downs that had retiring defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews pumping his fists excitedly.
Later, Bowden's postgame news conference produced another lasting image. Ann walked over to him as he was about to answer another question, kissed him and said, "Time to go home, baby."