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Meet, golf, eat; meet, golf, eat . . .

Routine is set but never gets old for Bobby Bowden on his FSU booster tour.

BRIAN LANDMAN
Published May 26, 2004

TAMPA - The Ford van is meant to be inconspicuous, offering no hints of its famous passenger.

There are no emblems or even a Florida tag; it's from Georgia. Instead of garnet and gold paint, it's white. And if you peek inside, you'll likely spot a six-pack of bottled water, perhaps a 5th Avenue candy bar wrapper and maybe a stray piece of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco on the passenger-side floorboard.

It could be any man's car. But for much of the past six weeks, it has been Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden's main address.

"It's simple," is how Charlie Barnes, executive director of Seminole Boosters and the man behind the wheel, describes the van. "But it's big."

Roomy is a must when Bowden logs about 1,000 miles a week crisscrossing the state during his annual tour of 25 booster groups.

At essentially each stop for the past 29 years, Bowden, 74, has played golf, posed for pictures, eaten dinner - often the same menu - repeated many jokes, answered the predictable questions about the coming season and been immediately whisked away.

"I do enjoy it," he says before leaving the Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club, the site of his Tampa visit and the 23rd of the tour.

* * *

Although Bowden has the luxury of flying to Tampa for the May 17 tour stop - he actually arrives the night before with his wife, Ann - the drives along Interstates 75, 10, 4 and 95 aren't really so bad.

He and Barnes have a chemistry like brothers. They love to tell jokes. They share a passion for military history, military books and, as they learned many years ago, old-time gospel hits.

"We were leaving Tampa headed for Winter Haven, and we started talking about church hymns and how they don't sing the same hymns anymore," Barnes recalled. "I said, "You know what? I've got a Statler Brothers greatest gospel hits CD.' "

The radio or CD player is the least used feature in the van. That might sound strange given Bowden's passion for music. He plays the trombone and piano, and, Barnes will tell you, he has a wonderful singing voice.

This night, Bowden urged him to pop in the disc.

"We went screaming up I-4, singing every one of the songs, and we didn't stop until we were in Winter Haven at the hotel," Barnes said. "It's my best memory of the tour."

* * *

By 7:45 a.m. that Monday in Tampa, Bowden, dressed in khakis, a collared polo shirt and a straw hat, is outside the clubhouse, shaking hands, smiling and posing for pictures. The photo op lasts precisely 25 minutes so he can have a 20-minute warmup before playing.

The rigidly choreographed schedule begins with Barnes, who for 27 years has been the conductor working to ensure a tour without a sour note. He keeps a spiral-bound notebook with the itinerary for each stop, complete with directions to the day's events, cellular numbers for contacts and the names of the foursome in Bowden's group.

Monday requires a change because of a late golf cancellation. The replacements are briefed on the cardinal rule: Though the tournament is a scramble, Bowden prefers to play his own ball, "raw golf" as he calls it. Instead of appearing rude, he would agree to the scramble if asked, but don't ask.

A good round spoiled is not the way to begin the day.

"Golf will let you do anything," Bowden quips.

On the 1994 tour, the Foot Locker agent scandal usurped the afterglow of the Seminoles' first national championship, and reporters desperately sought time with Bowden.

"We were in Clewiston, which is very, very remote," Barnes said. "I was standing in the clubhouse, and the (golf) club manager came screaming up in a panic holding a walkie-talkie (saying), "I don't know what to say. You talk to them.' "

One state media outlet had chartered a helicopter for its team of reporters. They were hovering nearby and wanted to know which hole Bowden was on so they could land and interview him. Barnes, naturally, wasn't too helpful. "That," he said, "was a rough time."

On this sunny day, there are no such distractions.

Masood Khan, 63, of Tampa; his son, Khalid, 26, of Tampa; and Jason Nicholas, 21, of Brandon, are Bowden's playing partners, and none peppers him with football questions. That topic hardly comes up during the five-plus hours on the course. It's understood the time is for golf and about golf. Conversation is almost entirely about that game, with encouragement and support for each other between shots.

"Just my luck," Bowden deadpans when his tee shot on No. 2 rolls into the sand.

He recovers, artfully chipping his next shot onto the green.

"Great shot," Nicholas gushes.

Besides the round, Bowden comes away with a bonus: The elder Khan gives him a Punch cigar after the first hole, and the coach, though not a smoker (he chews Levi Garrett), gleefully chomps on it while riding in the cart.

"See the benefits," he says, laughing.

* * *

The booster tour isn't just fun and games. It's also about money. Lots of it.

Bowden's contract calls for the Seminole Boosters to pay him $500,000 annually for his tour stops, which also include private stops at boosters' homes. The visits not only put Bowden, for some the face of FSU, in contact with donors and potential donors, they give Barnes and his staff the opportunity to cultivate contacts.

One private stop in Clearwater during this tour culminates with a $1-million gift, Barnes says.

For the individual booster clubs, the golf and dinner serve as their principal fundraiser for the year. At Tampa Palms, the golf costs $100 per person and draws about 120; nearly 200 pay $35 for the dinner.

"Every year, it has been better and better, and this year we'll give in the $10,000 range for athletic and academic scholarships," outgoing Tampa Bay Seminole Club president Chip Storm says after the golf. "I'm just proud to be a Seminole."

* * *

Unlike most tour stops, the golf, hotel and reception in Tampa aren't spread out around town. Tampa Palms is the Wal-Mart of the tour, one-stop shopping, or the "perfect storm," as Barnes calls it.

That means less time in the van for Bowden and more time in his room between golf and the banquet. In other words, it affords him a time to nap and even read a bit.

"If I can rest, I'm okay; that keeps me energized," Bowden says.

At 6:30, he emerges refreshed in a coat and tie, and for the next 30 minutes he has his picture made (as he says) with the guests. He might not remember all their names, but he doesn't forget faces and makes them realize that.

"Hey, how you doing?" he says.

"Be good now," he adds with a pat on the back.

A dinner - salad, steak, shrimp on a kabob, mashed potatoes and asparagus spears - follows, and then Barnes, the emcee, warms up the crowd with several stories as well as a few sales pitches for sponsors of the tour. At 8:25, he introduces "our star."

As he has done at the other stops, Bowden launches into his usual spiel, including a story - "some of it's true, some of it's exaggeration" - about Burt Reynolds giving him $50,000 shortly before the 2003 Florida game to buy something essential. Not jerseys or pants or shoes, as Reynolds expected.

"I gave it to the officials," Bowden says, a punch line that's punctuated by roars from the folks, all of whom are keenly aware that many disputed calls went the Seminoles' way in the 38-34 win in Gainesville.

The stories may be old, even corny, but his Seinfeld-ian - make that George Burns-like - timing all but ensures laughter. Bowden finishes his 45-minute talk by fielding questions that range from the development of his quarterback, Chris Rix, to the opener against new ACC brother Miami.

"It's good to see all of you again," he says finally. "Y'all seem like my family, too. ... I hope we can all be back here together again next year."

With that, he leaves for a car - not the van this time - to take him to the airport for a short hop home. As is often the case, the exit isn't seamless.

"I remember in the mid '80s, we were in Wauchula, and we had just gotten to the motel at 1 in the morning. We had rooms side by side, and it wasn't 10 minutes after I shut my door when I heard a knock on his," Barnes said. "I'm very protective and went out and saw two deputy sheriffs.

"They were grinning, and they said, "Coach Bowden, we've got us a drug stakeout going (across the street), but we saw you come in, and we wanted to know if you'd give us an autograph for our kids."

He did, of course. As he does on this night, graciously signing a couple of footballs and a program from the banquet, and greeting a few others before slipping out in his ride. A white BMW this time.

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