On the day Bobby Bowden walked away, you always hoped there would be cheers. For such a long time, Bowden has been such a good guy, and because of it, you could not help but pull for the Hollywood ending. It was easy to imagine Bowden hoisting one more trophy toward the stadium lights while the confetti fell. Even in recent seasons, even as the sound of teeth-gnashing from FSU fans grew louder, you could not help but pull for that last, great season when everything somehow fell into place and, once again, Bowden ruled college football like a benevolent king. Somehow, his quarterback would be electric again, and his receivers would be elusive, and the defense would be exceptional.
On the day someone else finally was the head coach of football at FSU, you always figured there would be tears.
Who could ever imagine FSU without Bowden? This was his program, fashioned from his image and his ambition. In the good times, you might as well have put Bobby's picture on the side of the helmets, because he was the coach who brought the big time to FSU. The good times, too.
Even now, when a great many FSU fans seem to agree that Bowden stayed about five years past his welcome, you might have expected a lump in your throat when you heard the reports that Bowden plans to announce his retirement today. If there isn't a trace of sadness at the thought of Bowden's last day, then you have not been paying attention.
On the day Bowden is expected to call it a career, however, the initial feeling probably won't be joy or sadness.
At this point, it will be relief.
Finally, Bowden gets to be a legend again. Finally, he can return to the land of the beloved. Finally, people can talk of all the things he has done for FSU, rather than for all the things he is no longer doing. Finally, fans can talk of how Bowden defined FSU and how FSU defined Bowden.
Finally, there will be someone else to blame.
Look, I'm a Bowden guy. I always have been. I always found Bowden to be bright, funny, genuine. It struck me that Bowden is the most important person in the history of FSU football, and when a man builds a house, he deserves to stay there as long as he wants.
What Bowden didn't deserve, however, was to have his legacy turned into a piñata. Over the years, as Bowden grew older and the Seminoles grew more ordinary, it became more and more uncomfortable to listen to the unpleasantness that was pointed at him. Too many boosters no longer saw Bowden as an advantage; they saw him as a grumpy old uncle whom you wouldn't trust to drive the family car anymore. That wasn't going to change. Bowden's exit was never going to be easy.
The longer it went on, the easier it became to ask this question:
Why would Bowden subject himself to this? Why would he hang around a place that seemed so unhappy to see him anymore? Why would he listen as fans decided the man who was most responsible for victory was now the man who was most responsible for defeat?
It had gotten so ugly, from this silly coach-in-waiting plan to a board of trustees member calling for his head to an Internet snipe hunt. Why would any legend put up with that?
Not for money. Bowden has made millions of dollars, and except for travel and sneaking the occasional Hershey bar, he doesn't seem in danger of running out. Not for fame. Bowden is already in the College Football Hall of Fame. Not for legacy. In the end, it won't matter that Bowden finishes behind Joe Paterno as far as victories. Bowden's place among college football's top coaches is ensured.
Yet, Bowden coached on because, dadgummit, he liked the work. He didn't leave when he was on top — and he was old then, too — because football was too much fun, and he didn't leave when his program slipped, because he thought he could get it back. Also, there was this. Bowden's coaching idol was Bear Bryant, who died a month after he stopped coaching. Bowden brought that up a few times.
"When you retire," he would joke, "there ain't but one big event left."
For Bowden, perhaps that was a big part of it. Perhaps he could not stand the thought of his career in the rear-view mirror. Like all coaches, he spent a large chunk of his life on the sideline. He measured his accomplishments by a scoreboard. And he said over and over, he never felt too old for the job.
Down deep, I think Bowden still believes that. As recently as Sunday, Bowden said he wanted to be back next season. And maybe the next. After all, two years ago, Bowden said he wanted another five. The gut feeling is that Bowden's preference is still to coach.
If Bowden is leaving to avoid the coming storm at FSU, this still qualifies as a gracious exit by Bowden. As bad as the controversy has been, this had the potential to get even uglier. If Bowden had dug in his heels, the alumni might have split, and someone would have had to choose between firing Bowden and paying Jimbo Fisher walkaway money, and eventually, someone might have had to fire an icon.
As it is, this isn't the perfect way to end a terrific career. In the real world, however, how many coaches get that? Chuck Noll was done by age 59. Tom Landry was fired at age 64. Don Shula was nudged out of the way at 66. Even Bryant was done by 70.
Bowden? He made it to 80.
So what should you remember? There were the two national titles. There were 14 straight seasons of finishing in the Top 5. There were puntrooskies and fumblerooskies. There were the vagabond years when FSU would play anyone, anywhere. There were wide rights. Do you remember his easy humor? His uncommon decency? His best moments? His worst ones?
How about this? Remember that Bowden was football coach, dagnabbit. That's what Bowden did. That's where he found most of his satisfaction.
For some reason, people never really seemed to notice that about Bowden, that as homespun and folksy as he could be, he wanted to win as bad as anyone. He would rather step on an opponent's neck than have one step on his, and he would rather see an opposing coach fired than him. For a good guy, he was a competitive cuss.
"I think that's the thing people don't understand about me," Bowden told me back in 1999. "They think my kids are tough, but I don't seem tough. When you're coaching, you always look for something to deceive the other team. Sometimes, being nice fools them. We want to be nice until the kickoff."
As of today, someone else is going to be in charge of the word "we" when it comes to FSU football. Frankly, Fisher has some work to do to convince everyone his feet are big enough for the shoes. Question: Does Fisher get his own coach-in-waiting? Yes, he does. It's called "the rest of the coaches in America."
On the day Bowden retired, you might have thought FSU would have celebrated his stay. You might have imagined he would be surrounded by his old players, by his co-coaches, maybe even by some of his old adversaries. Maybe there would be a highlight film of the good days.
Instead, there is an urge to exhale.
As of today, Bowden gets to be everyone's favorite uncle all over again.
As of today, the sniping stops, and the admiration re-emerges.
As of today, everyone gets to appreciate Bowden's legacy all over again.