"I wouldn't be willing to go through a 6-5 season. To have everybody down my neck at that age."
Bobby Bowden in December 1996
TALLAHASSEE — The most delighted 6-5 coach in America is accepting congratulations on the field after beating a last-place team in the final minute Saturday afternoon. On his way to the locker room, a group of cheerleaders stops him to ask if he will pose for a photo.
And so, as the 80-year-old coach stands sandwiched between a group of coeds, a photographer teases him about smiling broadly.
"You would be, too," Bobby Bowden says with a laugh.
On the surface, it was a good day at Florida State. A darned near historic day. The Seminoles came from behind twice in the fourth quarter to beat Maryland 29-26. The win will extend FSU's streak of bowl games to 28 seasons. It also meant the Seminoles avoided their first losing record in the regular season in 33 years.
And it illustrated just how dramatically this program has slipped.
A coach and his team are grateful for what will probably be FSU's worst season since the 1970s. And the level of expectations has fallen so far that fans are thrilled with a last-gasp victory at home against a team with a 2-9 record.
"This game was huge," said freshman quarterback EJ Manuel, who rushed for 35 yards on the winning drive.
More than anything, this game may have bought Bowden more time on the sideline. With a game looming at No. 1 Florida next week, the Seminoles would have been looking at a 5-7 season and certain outrage if they hadn't beaten Maryland.
A losing record is still possible if FSU loses to UF and in a bowl, and outrage remains just around the corner, but the scoreboard looked a lot like a reprieve by the time the teams left the field Saturday. And Bowden was dropping broad hints about returning in 2010.
"I'm probably going to apply for another year. Put in my application," Bowden said with a sly smile. "I don't know if it will go through."
And in an office with the shades drawn and the phone turned off, university president T.K. Wetherell pops a few more Excedrin.
"I want to walk away like Dean (Smith). Winning. Walk away when I want to, not when I have to."
Bowden in November 1989
At this point, my guess is Bowden will return next season. But the university will insist he make it clear that 2010 is the end of the road. Which is where FSU went wrong all those years ago.
When the new millennium began, it was difficult to foresee the relationship getting this uncomfortable. Bowden had just won his second national championship, and the Seminoles had stormed through the '90s with a ridiculous 109-13-1 record. More than that, Bowden had always insisted he would walk away himself if the losses ever began to pile up.
So the idea of a lifetime contract seemed safe enough 10 years ago. But that was before five- and six-loss seasons became the norm. And before Bowden decided to wield his legacy like a weapon.
Nobody wanted to put a limit on Bowden's tenure, but nobody could have imagined that he would want to coach a mediocre team into his 80s.
Now Florida State is down to two choices:
Either give Bowden 2010 with a retirement party at the end of the season, or cut him loose next month if he doesn't accept an agreed-upon date of retirement.
"I'd rather be 11-1, 11-1, 11-1, 11-1 than being 12-0, 7-4, 12-0, 6-5. I can't stand the losses. The losses just kill me. If I lost four games, I'm retiring. I couldn't stand it."
Bowden in January 1999
He hates this. The questions. The speculation. The idea everyone is having a say in something he should decide.
Years ago, Bowden said his wish would be to retire the day before his funeral. It was a funny line, but there was a truth wrapped around the joke. Bowden acts as if his life will be over when he stops coaching, and who would willingly agree to that?
"I was really hoping that I could coach — and nobody say anything about it — and then one day just stop. Say, 'I'm through,' " Bowden said Saturday. "That's why I didn't ever want to say when I was planning on getting out. But it just ain't working that way. Everybody keeps hammering and hammering and hammering on it."
Bowden has given his life to FSU, but the university has given him much in return. He passes a statue of himself on his way into a stadium with a field named after him. He has been made a millionaire many times over and has survived a stretch of 8-5 and 7-6 seasons that would have done in a lot of coaches.
There is dissatisfaction in Tallahassee, and it's not just limited to message boards and call-in shows. The announced attendance of 66,042 on Saturday was the smallest crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium since it was expanded in 1993.
When asked if he considered the possibility this might have been his last appearance in the stadium, Bowden seemed surprised at the suggestion. Later, when talking about memories and legacy, he stopped abruptly.
"I'm getting ahead of myself," Bowden said. "I'm not retiring yet."
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]