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Seasons of admiration later, Bowden within reach of a legend

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2001


MIAMI -- The shadow of the Bear is long, deep, eternal.

Even now, even after all this time, the legendary shadow has not faded. You still can make out the silhouette of the crusty old coach, leaning against the goal posts. You can still see the outline of a hat.

For those who would coach college football, this is the only measurement that matters. You think you cast a big shadow? Try comparing it with this one, if you dare. Try comparing it with Paul Bryant's and hope it does not swallow you whole.

After all, who can possibly compare with the Bear?

Except, maybe, the Teddy Bear.

Bobby Bowden walks across the room, and you cannot help but notice that his own shadow is shorter, and somewhat rounder, than that of the man he calls his idol. Unlike Bryant's, it is not a shadow that has been immortalized by time and legend. If Bryant's shadow looked like that of the Marlboro Man, then Bowden's looks like the Michelin Man.

But every day now, every game, it is more evident. Bowden has moved into Bryant's neighborhood.

At last, it is permissible to compare.

For so long, it was not. Even as Bowden's victory totals piled up (at 315, he is eight short of Bryant), there was the nagging problem about national championships. But if FSU wins tonight's Orange Bowl game againstOklahoma, that would give Bowden three. That's still short of Bryant, but Bowden is gaining. And, shoot, he's only 71.

"Heck, no. I wouldn't compare me to him," Bowden said, laughing that you would even suggest such a thing. "I'd have to win a bunch of national championships first. To me, the highest mark of achievement is a national championship. What did he have? About seven?"

Actually, Bryant had six. But those were different days and, in hindsight you can quibble with at least three of those titles. Keep in mind that Bryant won two of his championships (1973 and 1964) even though his team lost in bowl games; some polls were based on regular-season results in those days. Bryant won another championship (1965) even though his team had a loss and a tie. By today's standards, that wouldn't happen.

Consider, too, that the game has changed. It is harder to win. Scholarship reductions and conference title games and weeknight games and Title IX add up to one thing: More teams can beat you.

It is dangerous stuff, comparing current coaches with legend. But as Joe Paterno (322 victories, two national titles) and Bowden get closer to Bryant's victory total, college coaching begins to look more like Mount Rushmore than Bryant's Peak.

For most of us, that means comparisons.

For Bowden, it means memories.

He still can remember the first time he saw Bryant. It was at a coaching convention, when Bryant was the coach at Texas A&M. He saw him across a room. The next year, when Bryant took the Alabama job, Bowden (the coach of South Georgia College at the time) wrote to ask if he could observe a practice. Bryant said yes, but it fell through.

When Bowden moved to Samford the next year, however, he made the hourlong drive to Tuscaloosa often. He hung out with assistant Gene Stallings, and he studied everything he could about Bryant.

"He was the most fundamentally complete coach there was," Bowden said. "I studied Woody Hayes and Bud Wilkinson and Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. Bear was the guy who was the most sound of them all."

In those days before scholarship reductions, Bryant signed football players until the ink ran out. "He'd get his and yours," Bowden said. "He would get the guys he wanted, and he would see you want that guy and, "I'm going to get him where you can't have him, either.' "

Which meant, every year, Bryant would be stuck with players he didn't really want. And so, every year, he would invite Bowden to come to spring training and pick over the leftovers.

"He'd give me a list of 16 or 17 players that he would not mind seeing leave," Bowden said. "He knew if they left, he was going to get another one. I would go down there, and one of his coaches would take me from drill to drill. It was like buying meat. It was like buying cattle. "I'll take one of those, give me two of those, I think I'll take him.' He was good to me."

As men, they are not particularly alike, Bryant and Bowden. Bryant was known for how hard he drove his players, how unrelenting his discipline could be. Bowden is known for how nice is he is, and his own discipline has been criticized. Bryant was leather-voiced, and he was known to twist open a bottle. Bowden sounds like your Uncle Ned, and he takes naps. Of all the famous quotations you can read from Bryant, none say "Dad-gum-it."

But there are similarities, too. Remember when Bryant called rival Auburn at 6 a.m. and, finding no one there, asked "Don't you take your football seriously down there?" Compare that with Bowden, who was asked Tuesday if he thought Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and assistant Steve Spurrier Jr. had called Steve Sr. to ask for advice. Bowden replied, "Not if they want to win."

There are other similarities. There is the fire to win. There is the commitment to make a plan for everything. Above all, there are the trophies.

Hey, no one is saying Bryant wasn't great.

Only that, finally, he has a little company.

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