Lions. The old man was talking about lions. But underneath the words, he was talking about something else. Bobby Bowden was talking about Bobby Bowden.
He is older now, slower. He doesn't call a lot of plays, and he doesn't do a lot of sprinting. But give Bowden this: The guy still knows how to handle a metaphor.
"The lion in winter is a dangerous animal," Bowden said. "He knows his days are numbered. He knows he doesn't have forever anymore. He's like that fighter, like (George) Foreman. He's dangerous because he has to be."
This is Bowden, 69 years old and still looking for the kill. There is gray in his mane, and there are days the old lion's joints feel the years. But don't fool yourself. The teeth are still sharp, and there is hunger in the belly.
You hear so much about what Bowden has ceased to be. He doesn't study as much film as he used to, blah blah blah. He has given up the play-calling, yada yada yada. This happens when a coach has so many seasons in back of him.
Bowden has heard the talk, too. But those who are whispering in the shadows have missed the point. It isn't what Bowden has lost. It's what he still has.
"The thing in me, and I guess in Joe Paterno, is that the flame is just as high," Bowden said. "I might walk slower. I might talk slower, think before I say something. But the flame inside is just as as hot. Losing hurts just as much, maybe more."
This is the essential part of Bowden. His absolute, unrelenting, uncompromised love of winning. Forget how grandfatherly he can be. Forget how kind and accommodating and even sweet he can be. The thing a lot of people do not realize is that, beneath it all, there is something hard as flint inside Bowden. Under all the dadgummits and the shared chocolate and the easy laughter, there is a competitive cuss who wants his team to beat someone else's fanny.
"I think that's the thing people don't understand about me," Bowden said. "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."
Understand, then, how much this shot at a national championship means to Bowden. He likes this team. He likes the way it got up off the mat when it lost to North Carolina State and started to build a streak. He likes that a backup quarterback no one believed in has taken over.
Most of all, he'd like another championship, please.
He has won one, in '93. But a lot of coaches win one. Danny Ford won a national title. And Jackie Sherrill. And Lloyd Carr and Vince Dooley and LaVelle Edwards and Lou Holtz and Gene Stallings and Bill McCartney. Some nice coaches there. But most of us tend to think of Bowden as a little more special. Another title would help the argument along.
When it comes to titles, there is a significance to winning a second one. It fits in with the legacy. Multiple championships put a coach into the elite room.
"Two is a lot more than one," Bowden said. "It puts you into another category. It says that the first one wasn't a fluke.
"You know, if we were to win this, I could see myself enjoying it more than last time. Last time was about getting it off my shoulders. I had been coaching a long time but had never won one. We had been close, but we hadn't won. When we beat Nebraska, it was like, "Okay, we won one. Get off my back.' "
Bowden laughs. Who knows how elusive the national title is better than Bowden? You figure if a guy is in college football's final four for 12 years, he should finish first a few times. But the big trophy is a slippery one.
"I remember when I had lost it year after year, a lot of them in October to Miami," Bowden said. "I would look at coaches like La-Velle. After I won one, I would look at coaches like Paterno, who had won a few, and it was out of my comprehension. It blew me away."
If Bowden wins this, he knows the question will come. Will he retire? Would another title be enough for him?
No, he said. It won't. Eventually, losing may drive him out of this game. But winning won't. He likes the feeling too much.
"My metabolism is set to winning," he said. "Losing might. I couldn't stand too many 7-4s at my age."
But when a program is used to victories, they seem to wear off quicker than they used to. Nowadays, Bowden has to win a lot of games in a season to make him happy. Or he has to win one of sufficient size. Such as this year's Fiesta Bowl against Tennessee. Bowden admits he wants this one something awful. Don't get fooled by the road map on his face. Don't get fooled by the hitch in his step. Don't get fooled by those who suggest Bowden is a goodwill ambassador instead of a coach.
In his final years, a brash young reporter asked Bear Bryant how much coaching he still did. His eyes hardened and he growled. "I coach the coaches," he said.
Bowden has used the same phrase. He has a tower now, and that accursed note pad that jots down every mistake he sees. Then he pores over his criticisms to the coaches. He still has input into the game plan. He still calls an occasional play.
Most of all, he still feels the fire. He still likes the hunt. There still is something fierce, something predatory inside him.
That's the thing about this lion. He may be older, but he still wants to be king.