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After national championships and Heisman Trophy winners and too many comebacks to count, the memories of Florida State coach Bobby Bowden patrolling the sidelines will always be heartwarming. But such affection should not cloud reality. It is time to honor his extraordinary dedication to the university and celebrate his historic accomplishments. It is time for Bowden to retire.
It's not the end of the record string of Top 5 final rankings fading with time or the slide from national title games to the Music City Bowl. It's some two dozen players being suspended from the team because of academic misconduct. It's appearing increasingly out of touch at 78 years old while padding the career victory total at the expense of a remarkable legacy and a dignified exit.
Bowden built Florida State football from the ground up. In an era of programmed coaches who switch jobs like socks, he has stayed put for 32 seasons and still says "Hey, buddy" to anybody who walks up. He made it possible for FSU's gorgeous stadium and classroom complex to become a reality. To many, Bobby Bowden is the face of Florida State.
But discipline off the field and academic rigor in the classroom have never been Bowden's strong suit. There's even the "Deion" rule in Florida, which requires college athletes stay in good academic standing and take exams to play in postseason games. The rule is named for star FSU cornerback Deion Sanders, who apparently quit going to class in his final season, skipped exams and still played in the 1989 Sugar Bowl. Then as now, Bowden didn't know until afterward. Those sorts of blemishes were easier for many fans to overlook in the glory days, but there is no sugarcoating it now. A near record for the simultaneous suspensions of players is embarrassing for the legendary coach and the university.
It's understandable that FSU president T.K. Wetherell has tried to engineer a graceful exit for Bowden, publicly insisting the coach can stay as long as he wants while avoiding another long-term contract. Wetherell once played for Bowden and ensured FSU got the money for the stadium renovation when he was state House speaker. But the arrangement designating assistant Jimbo Fisher as head-coach-in-waiting is an awkward delay of the inevitable. It also blurs the lines of responsibility for the integrity of the program.
It is never easy to follow a legend, particularly one as genuine and likeable as Bowden. But the next Florida State football coach has to do more than win. He has to restore a sense of priorities and accountability. As long as big-time college football plays the charade of student/athlete, more attention has to be paid to the student side of the equation. Rampant cheating and other academic shortcomings tarnish not only the football program but a university eager to raise its academic standing.
Bowden's place in the record books and the hearts of Seminole fans is secure. His bronze statue stands outside the stadium, and his three-story stained glass image watches over adoring fans. After 373 career victories, there is nothing left to prove. The coach's friends in Tallahassee are too close to suggest he needs to retire now. But it needs to be said with admiration and firmness.
Dadgummit, Bobby, it's time.
[Last modified December 20, 2007, 17:42:07]