He has been playing the role as long as he can remember, going back to his days as a good-but-not-great high school quarterback in Birmingham, Ala., who grew up to become a Little All-American at a place called Howard College, which had to change its name when it got big enough to become a full-fledged university.
"The wrong side of the tracks," Bobby Bowden likes to call it.
But now, going into his 16th season as head coach at Florida State, Bowden is no longer the underdog, no longer coaching in the shadows of others. When the Seminoles open practice Thursday in Tallahassee, they will do so as a nearly unanimous preseason No. 1. When they begin playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1992, they will be at the head of a suddenly competitive class.
For Bowden, 61, there is a price to this success, to Florida State becoming one of the country's perennial powers. It comes with the expectations that Bowden's team should win a national championship this season and that the man with the twinkling baby blues and self-deprecating, down-home charm should take his rightful place among the game's coaching legends.
With it also comes the chief byproduct of those expectations: pressure.
"I would like to win one real bad," Bowden said last week in Wintergreen, Va., during the three-day preseason conference of ACC coaches and media. "But not enough to cut my wrists. If we happen to be around the top long enough, it'll happen. I'm not obsessed with it. But don't tell my alumni that."
Since 1979, the Seminoles have had six legitimate chances to win a national championship. But something, or someone, always seemed to get in their way. Four years ago, it was a one-point defeat to Miami on a two-point conversion in the waning moments that ruined a perfect season. Two years ago, it was two straight defeats to start what would be a 10-2 season.
Some say that Bowden's never-say-tie attitude -- only three of them in 282 games and 25 years as a head coach -- has hurt his chances. Others say that Bowden's willingness to gamble in fourth-down situations has led to as many big-game defeats as victories. "I kid him that a Southern Baptist isn't supposed to gamble so much," said Florida State assistant head coach Chuck Amato. "But he'll gamble in a heartbeat."
Who can forget "The Puntrooski" Bowden called against Clemson three years ago, when a faked punt with a little more than a minute left, and a through-the-legs handoff to Leroy Butler, led to a 78-yard run and set up the game-winning field goal? But Bowden is more than just a merry prankster. He is as highly regarded for his offensive wizardry as Joe Paterno, the only active coach who ranks ahead of Bowden in career victories, is for defense.
His voluminous playbook, which has its share of standard draws and quick slants, as well as double reverses and halfback option passes, is admired and, in fact, copied unabashedly by others. "Even when he was at West Virginia, they could always move the football," said Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross, who is a tad more conservative than Bowden and still is considered one of the top offensive minds in the college game.
But what makes Bowden so universally respected and, in a business where back-stabbing is de rigueur, genuinely well-liked, that he never has acted like a big-timer, even though he is a big-timer. Told that he may be the best coach never to have won a national championship, Bowden took it as a compliment.
"I'll take that if it includes the first part," he said with a laugh.
And if Bowden keeps that title, maybe one of his sons eventually will accomplish what the old man couldn't. Terry Bowden is head coach at Samford University (formerly Howard College). Jeff Bowden is an assistant at Southern Mississippi, and Tom Bowden is offensive coordinator at Auburn.
Bowden recently returned from a family vacation with his wife, Ann, their six children, 14 grandchildren -- 27 people all told sharing two condos he owns and one he rented for the annual get-together in Panama City, Fla.
"He has real family involvement," said Bowden's first cousin, Richard, a Timonium businessman who has been close to Bowden since childhood. "I have eight kids and my brother has 10 kids, and Bobby remembers all their names."
Unlike most college football coaches, who drone on about how their team's third-string quarterback has a chance to beat out a Heisman Trophy candidate, or some who talk out of both sides of their mouth, or some who barely come out of their film marathons to peek into the real world, Bowden seems to have his priorities in order. He knows that Operation Desert Storm wasn't devised at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
"I just believe in having a good time," said Bowden. "Football is drudgery."
Or, when it comes to playing Florida State these days, bludgeon-ry. Part of the Seminoles' ride into the fast lane of college football was met with opposition, if not on the field, then in the recruiting battle zone.