JACKSONVILLE — The Last Ride of Bobby Bowden was nearly at an end. The coaching career of a legend was down to one final, delicious parade.
Once again, Bowden hovered somewhere above earth, an 80-year-old man perched on the shoulders of his players.
He floated there, just the way he used to in the good days, just high enough to look back on his career, and for one final time, he waved at the fans as they repeated the sing-song cadence of the Seminoles' War Chant.
This is how it ended. This is where Bowden coached his last game against his last opponent in his final bowl game. After all of the games, and all the players, and all of the victories and the trophies and the moments, Bowden said goodbye Friday.
Soon, the best Seminole of them all would leave the stadium.
College football will never feel quite the same way.
Yes, the game could have been bigger, and yes, the final few seasons could have been better, and yes, the final chapter could have been written without so much hostility aimed in his direction.
All in all, however, this was a sweet way for it to end for Bowden. His team came from behind, and it won, and the game formerly known as the Gator Bowl was transformed into the Bowden Love Fest. Suddenly, it did not matter whether you were someone who has loved Bowden all along or if you were someone who has been waiting years to say goodbye to him. This was a farewell everyone could enjoy.
Finally, Bowden signaled to his players that he wanted down so he could walk. As he moved, it was as if the yard stripes were years and the grass blades were players. And then Bowden turned his back to the field and stepped away.
It was over. After a lifetime of having his heart laced to a football, Bowden is done. Maybe there is some sadness there. Maybe, as you looked into Bowden's face, there was some joy, too.
He wanted more. By now, everyone knows that Bowden wanted one more year. He wanted to get to 400 wins, even though he knew he wasn't going to catch Penn State's Joe Paterno.
Still, how many coaches get to end their careers like this? How many get fired or run off or leave after a scandal? Not many sit on a podium and toss jokes around until their wives — Ann, in Bowden's case — lean over and kiss them softly and say, "Time to go home, baby."
Whereupon Bowden, in no hurry himself, grinned and said, "I'll see you there, okay?"
Yeah, Bowden had a ball at this bowl game. At times, he seemed more like the guest of honor at a retirement party. They gave him a car. They trusted him to throw a flaming spear into the turf. His players asked him to autograph every jersey in the room. The fans cheered his name repeatedly. His old players showed up to give their respect. And, with 1:39 to play, he risked a penalty to shuffle down the sideline and toss his hat toward the band.
"Am I at peace?" Bowden said, repeating a question. "Oh, yeah. I really am. I'm not ate up with coaching football all of my life. I have 80 years in. I wanted 81 but I got 80 years in. I can't complain about nothing, y'all.
"We've got Heisman Trophies. We've got national championship trophies. We've got ACC trophies. I got a box at home, must have 50 rings in it. I can't wear but one of them. I've always felt, you can't take it with you, you know? There are things in life more important."
Say this for Bowden. Losing his job hasn't affected his sense of humor. The guy still gives the best news conference in college football, even if he seems to lose all sense of grammar whenever he attempts to be funny.
For instance: "I'm interested in this retirement business. You know what? I ain't got to set my alarm. I get up when I get darned good and ready. And then I go out and look for a job."
For instance: "Someone asked me, 'Can we carry you off?' And I said, 'If you want to.' They must have sent the littlest guys they could. They couldn't even lift me up. They were determined to get me on their shoulders. So they did that when I came off the (trophy) stage. I finally got them to put me down. We were going to run into the wall. If I fell, it would be the end of the stadium."
For instance: "How about them 22 wins I got at South Georgia College? How come that don't count? I know it don't count in the NCAA. But will somebody mention please that I do have 400 wins during a lifetime, although they don't count with them sweet old NCAA people who took away 14 of our games."
Then there was this. Bowden was asked how he might write the story of his last day as a coach.
Bowden answered: "Well, my headline would probably be 'Bobby Bowden pulled out another great win with his excellent strategy. He jerked the mike away from Jimbo Fisher and started calling plays himself. That's how he won.' "
Bowden paused until the laughter subsided.
"Another lie," Bowden said. "It would be another lie."
The truth? The truth is that Bowden has been one of the top five coaches college football has seen. The truth is that his ride at FSU lasted much longer than the brief time he was on the shoulders of his players. The truth is Bowden is going to miss the game, but the game will miss Bowden more. The truth is that Bowden says he feels healthy enough to coach five more years, but he only wanted one.
It was 6 p.m. when Bowden finally left the locker room. He would take a few steps, and he would sign an autograph. Or pose for a photo. Or shake a hand. Someone handed him a plate of cookies.
Finally, Bowden reached the end of the corridor. He opened the door, and he stepped out into the night and away from the game.