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Peg him as this: a coach
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2000
NEW ORLEANS -- The old man moved slowly around the field, his hands folded behind his back, the gum in his mouth working overtime. He seemed comfortable in the glare of the lights. He moved around the middle of the football field, saying little to anyone.
By now, Bobby Bowden knows the drill. Almost 400 times, he has led a team onto the field. He has coached a lot of games, called a lot of plays. But if history is going to remember him, this seemed as good a time as any to freeze.
It was in those precious few minutes before a big game started, and it still was possible to believe whatever you wished of Bobby Bowden, who is, after all, partly truth and partly fiction. Think what you will of Bowden. Agree with his supporters that he is the finest diplomat college football has left. Agree with his critics that he is soft on crime. Talk about the games he has won. Talk about the ones he has not.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, where it usually is.
Bowden's legacy needed this game. If he is going to be remembered as something special, he needs more than one notch on a championship belt. A lot of coaches win one title, Danny Ford and Jackie Sherrill and LaVell Edwards among them. Not many win two. Bear Bryant, the man Bowden is closing in on, won six.
Look, you can talk all you want about 13 straight finishes in the Final Four. After a while, when you couple that with only one title, it starts to sound like a negative statistic. If you're that close to the hole all the time, why can't you make a putt?
You get the feeling there is a part of Bowden that is bothered by being next door to paradise so often. It leaves him hungry. Maybe, it leaves him lenient.
This week has been an interesting chapter in the legend of St. Bobby. He has brought his team once more to the brink of a title and, upon arriving, has been reminded constantly of how many times he has fallen just short. He has charmed much of the national media and been skewered by the rest. He has made critics smile and made supporters groan, not to mention the other way around.
When it is done, how will Bowden be remembered? As someone who was warm, or as someone who was soft? As someone with a thick playbook or someone with a thin rule book? For the records of his program or the records of his players?
Or, maybe, as this:
As a football coach.
This week in New Orleans, much of Bowden's charm has backfired on him. He was asked hard questions about the perceived lack of discipline in his program, and he responded with soft answers. He joked around, and he shrugged, and he talked as if the only thing wrong, dadgummit, was that so many people noticed the problems these days. His flippancy seemed like a lack of concern. He did not exactly apply for the role of a warden.
And so the newspapers around America listed the transgressions of this year's FSU team, and they laid the bounty at Bowden's feet. The writer from Pittsburgh called Bowden a phony. The one from Denver suggested he sold a little of his soul every Saturday. The one from Minneapolis suggested one of his players might have shoplifted his Bible. The one from Los Angeles suggested his team is as reckless off the field as it is on it. All of them brought up comparisons to out-of-control programs such as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Miami.
Are those images correct? Not entirely. Are they incorrect? Not entirely.
Most of us prefer Bowden's other image, of course, that of your favorite uncle, funny and friendly and folksy. It is impossible to spend any time at all around Bowden without grinning. And anyone who would suggest that college football is better off without him is foolish.
Honestly? Bowden needs to take his discipline more seriously. He talks about being paternal to his players, but part of being a parent is doling out punishment. And if he had been more decisive in punishing Peter Warrick, or more interested in punishing Sebastian Janikowski, it isn't as if they would have been doomed to destitution.
That's part of the problem. Here's the other part. Us.
For some reason, we seem to expect more of Bowden. We like the guy, for goodness' sake, and we want the guy to do the right thing. We want him to stand for strong rules and send the proper message. Who better to stand for the right things than Bowden?
At the heart of it, however, here is the essential truth about Bowden: He is a coach. Beneath the charm, beneath the humor, there is a coach who wants to win a football game so badly he can taste it. Why do we expect anything else?
No one ever called Dennis Erickson a phony when Miami was having its problems, or Tom Osborne with his, because no one thought as highly of them as we do of Bobby.
Which leads us back to the moment, where Bowden was watching his players prepare for a game. This is his office. This is his yard.
This is where, at age 70, he still strives to show he is something special.
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