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A great makes it official

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2000


NEW ORLEANS -- This is what perfection looks like. It looks very much like an old man body-surfing the shoulders of younger ones. How it looks is like Bobby Bowden on top of the world.

National Champions

FSU 46, Va. Tech 29

Main story

A great makes it official [Gary Shelton]

FSU up to the challenge [Hubert Mizell]


The game in photos

QB Vick: 'Had it in our hands'

Seminole fans set to pull an all-nighter

Turning point

Warrick gets sweet redemption

NFL alumni turn out for Seminoles

Peg him as this: a coach

Good, but could be better

Warrick's turnaround

Rival fans paint town red

This is what perfection feels like. It feels wet from Gatorade. It feels claustrophobic. Bowden moved onto the turf, and the humanity moved with him. In front of him were photographers. Behind him were players, hopping again and again. How it feels is great.

This is what perfection sounds like. It is loud. Fans are chanting whatever comes to mind. Peter Warrick's name. Florida State's initials. And this, over and again:

Bob-by.

Bob-by.

This is how we will remember him. A champion once more, holding a crystal trophy aloft to the crowd. A coach whose team finally refused to finish anyplace but first. A man pardoned at last from watching the other team celebrate.

In a game that tested his mortality, Bowden's immortality as a football coach was validated Tuesday night when Florida State won its, and his, second national championship. Oh, most of us had reason to suspect it all along, what with 303 victories and 13 straight top four finishes. But this crossed the "t' in greatness.

"It's meaningful," Bowden said. "It's a milestone. I could have gone the rest of my life and never won another one."

No more does Bowden have to listen to people talk about how many times he has come close. No longer does his legacy seem next door to paradise. From now on, when you mention his national championship to Bowden, he can answer: "Which one?"

There was a point, late in the third quarter, when Virginia Tech took control. The Hokies, a dazzling team of passion and talent, had roared back from a 28-7 deficit to take the lead. "A moment of truth," Bowden would call it.

Just like that, the old man wasn't shuffling anymore. Bowden was 40 again, perhaps younger. The headphones were back on his head, and his feet were in motion, moving up and down the sideline as if he were doing windsprints. He would stop only when the play was happening, and stand motionless, so close to the edge of the sideline his toes touched green. Then he would pace some more.

This is how it should have been. A second national championship should come with some consternation, in a classic game against a dazzling opponent. In a finish that will be remembered as perfect.

So many times, Bowden has flirted with this. Twelve other times, his team has been in the top four. Only once before did it win a title. For Bowden, then, this was validation in the same manner in which it was for Peter Warrick. It changed his legacy.

Bowden has admitted how much he wanted another trophy. A lot of coaches -- Danny Ford, Jackie Sherrill, Phil Fulmer -- have won one national title. Only two others working, Joe Paterno and Dennis Erickson, have won more.

This championship was won with Bowden's first unbeaten season. His team finally gave him another trophy and finally filled that empty frame that had been sitting on his desk for years, the one he reserved for his first unbeaten team. Oh, there were times that didn't feel perfect. There was about every lousy, frustrating feeling you can imagine except losing.

Lately, the controversy has reached Bowden, too. He has been beaten up by the national press this week. Instead of finding him warm, as it usually does, it found him soft. He answered hard questions with flip answers, joking whenever asked about a perceived lack of discipline.

So newspapers around America listed the transgressions of this year's team, and they placed the blame at Bowden's feet. A writer from Pittsburgh called Bowden a phony. One from Denver suggested he sells a little of his soul every Saturday. One from Minneapolis suggested one of his players might have shoplifted his Bible. One from Los Angeles suggested his team is as reckless off the field as it is on it.

The truth, naturally, is between the critics and the backslappers. Bowden, beneath all the charm and humor, is a football coach. And he desperately wanted to win a game such as this. For a while, it seemed as if Bowden was due for another disappointment. A 28-7 lead turned into "oh no, not again" in the time it took Michael Vick to slalom through the Seminoles' defense. It was as if the fates were teasing Bowden, showing him the trophy and then snatching it away.

This time, however, there was something different about the Seminoles. This time, they decided the silver medal wasn't good enough. This time, they didn't want to live next door to paradise.

This time, the old man got his hardware.

Standing there on the platform, holding it into the air, the memory will go down as perfect.

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