Bobby Bowden has been synonymous with Florida State for 34 years, but as he succinctly and soberly said during an interview Tuesday afternoon, "nothing lasts forever."
As expected, the iconic coach ended a dizzying couple of days by officially announcing that he will retire after this season's bowl game, most likely in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day against his old school, West Virginia.
"I've had some wonderful years here at Florida State," said Bowden, 80, who has been working under a one-year contract the past couple of seasons; his latest deal expires in January. "Hadn't done as good lately as I wish I could have, but I've had wonderful years. No regrets."
After taking over a moribund program in 1976, Bowden built a national powerhouse and made the school a national brand. The Seminoles won two national championships (1993 and 1999) and finished in the Associated Press Top 5 an unprecedented 14 straight seasons (1987-2000).
"This is the end of an era," former star FSU and Bucs tailback Warrick Dunn said. "Coach Bowden brought FSU untold goodwill, turning out winning football teams and strengthening the lives of so many young men, myself included."
School president T.K. Wetherell told the Tallahassee Democrat that Bowden will be offered an emeritus position at the school, perhaps helping with fundraising. Bowden, second to Penn State's Joe Paterno in wins in Division I-A history with 388, will receive a $1 million bonus when he retires, and it's expected that the boosters will reward him with an enhanced package of perhaps $1.5 million more.
"Bobby Bowden, in many ways, became the face of Florida State," Wetherell said. "It was his sterling personality and character that personified this university, and because his influence was so powerful, we were able to advance far beyond what many of us ever dreamed."
But in recent years, Bowden's teams have struggled to maintain their expected level of excellence, prompting criticism from fans and prominent boosters. It reached a crescendo this year when Jim Smith, the chairman of the school's board of trustees, passionately called for the Bowden era to end.
Following an evening of "soul searching" after the 37-10 loss to Florida last weekend that dropped FSU to 6-6, Bowden said he wanted to return for one more season before turning the program over to his anointed heir, Jimbo Fisher. The offensive coordinator's contract calls for him to be offered the job by January 2011 or he is owed $5 million.
But Bowden stressed he only wanted to come back as the head coach. That wasn't one of the options Wetherell and athletic director Randy Spetman reportedly presented to him Monday. If he returned, Bowden would have had to abdicate significant authority to Fisher.
"Bobby's not taking any secondary role," his wife, Ann, said Tuesday afternoon. "It's going to be a better year (in 2010), and he would have liked to have had that to end his career with, but evidently they're going to give it to somebody else and let him have the credit."
Although Bowden said he hadn't decided what to do Monday and still had a meeting set with Wetherell and Spetman on Tuesday morning, word leaked out that he had made his decision to step aside Monday evening. Bowden broke the news to his players on Tuesday afternoon.
"We went in pretty much knowing what was going to happen, with all the reports out there. But having Coach Bowden tell us, it was different hearing it out of his mouth," junior quarterback Christian Ponder said. "Some guys got a little emotional. It was tough. You could tell he was fighting it a little bit. But he's strong. And it was funny. He said the bowl game was going to be his last game, and the next thing he goes into was to make sure we're good on our grades and be ready for practice because we're going to be practicing hard."
Prominent bay area booster Barry Smith, an FSU star in the early 1970s, said nobody ever wanted to see Bowden's era end "because for so many years it was magical" and the school was fortunate to have him.
"We'll never see the likes of Bobby Bowden again," he said, adding that the day brought mixed emotions. "Some coaches make it very easy to make changes. The fact is, the program is not what it used to be. I felt that T.K. stepped up and he and Bobby made the right decision for the university at this time."
Others were less complimentary of the way it played out.
"It's a sad day for Florida State. It's a sad day for college football and a sad day for anybody who had the opportunity and pleasure to ever play for Coach Bowden," said Chris Weinke, the star quarterback who led FSU to the 1999 national title then won the Heisman Trophy in 2000 as FSU reached its third straight BCS finale. He echoed the sentiments of other former players.
"I've had some rough days in my life, but this is a tough one. To look back at what he did for me personally and what he did for the university and so many other kids, to see him go out like this is about as tough as it gets. … I'm biased because I love the guy, but I didn't want to see him go out like this. He doesn't deserve to go out like this."
Ann Bowden, more reserved and less combative than she has been in recent weeks when she suggested that FSU officials would "have to fire him for him not to go another year. … If they've got guts enough, let them do it," said neither she nor her husband is bitter.
"Bobby and I sit every morning and we talk," she said. "He does his devotionals and reads his Bible. We've both decided that the only thing in life that really, really matters is faith and family. We have a strong family. We have a strong faith, and whatever God has in store for us, we'll accept. We feel we're in the hands of a power that's greater than any trustee or any president or anybody else. We're happy. We've had a great, great career, and we've enjoyed every minute of it, and it's been a great part of our life, and we've got another chapter ahead of us that's going to be possibly even greater."
She mentioned a cruise as well as a trip to Jerusalem in July that her husband has long wanted to do. Bowden added he will speak at churches and at Fellowship of Christian Athletes functions and, in vintage Bowden form, joked about the changing times.
"I have to go out and get a job. Can you believe that? I've got to get a job," he said. "I ain't had a job in 55 years."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3347.