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College football

Bowden refusing to slow for speedbumps

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 11, 2003

Fourteen years in a row, Bobby Bowden's football team was extraordinary: two national championships, never ending a season ranked worse than No. 5 in polls.

Recite the FSU records and it seemed an unsubsiding, grand symphony, a combined 152-19 from 1987 through 2000. All but automatic. Just keep plugging in hot recruits, ever replenishing with wealths of muscle and speed, and a grinning old Alabamian seemed constantly to be riding atop the glory wave.

After such a glorious barrage, enhanced by the work of Heisman Trophy quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, there was the feel of a comparative crash landing when the Seminoles of 2001 cooled and coughed to an 8-4 record.

Last season, more leaks were sprung in the Good Ship Bowden, with multiple quarterback quandaries involving Chris Rix and Adrian McPherson, and a 9-5 record has brought unprecedented turbulence for Bobby and his athletes.

Bowden is 73, but retirement isn't for him. With characteristic optimism and refestering hope, Bobby steams toward a 28th season as Florida State's football chief. In a telephone interview, he spoke with heavy candor, some dismay and unbridled faith in his ways.

ON THE STATURE OF HIS PROGRAM: "I self-evaluate all the time. I look back on 14 great years (1987-2000), but now I see us having fallen back among teams not quite at the highest level.

"We lost some fine coaches (Mark Richt became football boss at Georgia, Chuck Amato to North Carolina State) and it can take time for a good transition. We're okay on that, I think. But we were unstable at quarterback the past two seasons after 14 years of great stability.

"Jared Jones was scheduled to become the starter in 2001, but I had to put him off the ballclub for disciplinary reasons. Rix wasn't ready, but we had to go with him.

"Last season, if we'd had Ward or Weinke, my guess is that our record would've been closer to 12-2. Now, in spring practice 2003, we do see a Rix who gives every indication of now being ready to handle the job.

"Unfortunately, he (Rix) did miss the Sugar Bowl (due to oversleeping and missing an exam). I want Chris to win back his teammates. That's a must. We are not allowing Rix to talk with media. I don't want him being any kind of spokesman for the Seminoles until he has earned it with fellow players."

Bowden has a 332-96-4 career record. He has those 14 spectacular seasons in the book. Still, in his 24th year as a member of AARP, there is a crackling drive to prove the onetime high school tuba player from Birmingham can prod FSU one more time to the apex of college football.

ON HIS FUTURE WITH THE TEAM: "As long as I'm healthy, there is no interest in retiring. I believe it's in me to have another good, strong run at Florida State. Looking to the time I've got left, it makes me think back to the early '30s, during the Depression, when I was 4 or 5 years old and we kept chickens in our yard to make sure, in tough times, there would be food on the table.

"When my daddy killed a chicken for us to eat, he used an ax. It was quick. But my grandmama would use more of an old-time method. She grabbed the chicken by its neck, then wrung it by moving her arm in a big circle.

"Once the bird's neck popped, grandma would let the chicken fall to the ground. But it wasn't quite dead. As we little kids watched, that bird would flop around in what we called a dying quiver. Finally, it would get real still. It was gone.

"Well, as a coach, I think there is a dying quiver in me. I mean one more strong run of success. Not that I want my neck wrung. Every day at practice, I feel there is a real chance to get back to the top."

While the zeal cooks on, Bowden admits to feeling extra stings of criticism in recent months. Always one of the most available, most open sources among major coaches, Bowden has looked to associates like a man who felt betrayed.

He has been rapped for not having more toughness in dealing with athletes in trouble. Print and broadcast voices have been hammering the Tallahassee icon for far more than dropping nine of his past 26 games.

ON CRITICAL MEDIA ATTENTION: "I've never felt anybody wrote or said anything bad about me just because they really didn't like me. Now, I have heard (media) people saying they were going to find the other side of Bobby Bowden, which they must've thought was awful stuff.

"My feeling is, maybe I've been too accessible to the media. Opened up too much. It's my nature, but some troubling things have occurred.

"After our games, I have always allowed the media into our team's locker room. For 14 seasons, we didn't lose much, but we've had nine defeats the past two years. Our kids didn't always take it too well, and if they slammed a locker or talked among themselves after a disappointing game, it was captured by cameras and written in newspapers.

"Beginning this coming season, I am going to close our locker room to the media. We want and need good exposure, so players the reporters request will be brought into another room for interviews. A lot of schools have done that. I think it will help our boys be more sensible, after they have cooled down."

Bobby's eldest son, Steve, has been indicted for conspiracy to sell unregistered securities, a deal in which the FSU coach lost about $2-million.

ON HIS SON'S BUSINESS PROBLEMS: "He'd been in education an entire career, as a teacher and then administrator. Steve wanted to go into business. He invested with a guy and I invested a lot of money.

"It was like Steve ran a stop sign and never saw it. He did things wrong but didn't know it was happening until it was too late. Our family has dealt with it and there is still great love and understanding."

McPherson started four games at quarterback, winning three, but there were far more serious things happening with the hot prospect from Bradenton. He would be charged with gambling and Bowden quickly dropped the QB from his squad.

ON THE ADRIAN McPHERSON AFFAIR: "Coaching football is as much fun as ever for me, but off-the-field stuff has become a huge task. We're being held accountable for everything that happens with a young man. We are accountable for their entire lives.

"There were rumors about McPherson, but there are always rumors floating around a football team. It was investigated and Adrian swore, 'No, definitely not' about any involvement (with gambling).

"If a kid is not honest with you, it can be difficult. I was shocked. Had no idea anything like that was going on. I didn't see any effects on his performances. I just saw some problems of inexperience.

"I'm just happy none of our other players or anybody else in Florida State football operations were involved."

So, the Bowden beat goes on. Bobby's rules, which have been criticized, are still in place. A man of faith, he begins every day with a period of devotion shared by wife Ann. They read the Bible and other books of faith, praying for guidance.

ON PUBLIC OPINION: "I just try to do what's right. I'm not swayed by public or media opinions. I often punish players but don't announce it. Just because a boy is not dropped from the squad doesn't mean he is getting away with something bad.

"We have our ways. I frankly don't care what other people think."

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