Bowden determined: No. 1 time is now

January 01, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

MIAMI -- He'd better win, or the label sticks forever. It's that simple entering tonight's Orange Bowl. If Bobby Bowden loses -- loses to a 16 1/2 -point underdog, loses with Charlie Ward -- he can talk, wink and cajole into the 21st century, and people will just shake their heads.

Can't win the big one. Tom Osborne faces the same taunt, but it's different for Dr. Tom, isn't it? No one will be surprised if Nebraska loses. Osborne, utterly decent, utterly calm, will just return to Lincoln and stare out at the plains.

"I don't know who needs it worse," said Osborne, 56. "It's in the eye of the beholder. Both of us have an appreciation for the fact that we probably could live without it. I certainly could."

Bowden? He knows this is it. He's 64, in his 28th year of coaching, and only now is he playing for the national title. Even for a Florida State, the chances come only so often. Bowden is 10-0-1 in his past 11 bowls, and, in effect, none of them counted.

No, it's not fair. These things never are. If not for two Wide Rights against Miami, Bowden might already be considered one of the all-time great coaches. Instead, he needs this validation. Needs it more than Osborne, who can rationalize his six straight bowl losses without much problem.

Each of the teams that beat Nebraska finished No. 1 or No. 2, and four of the losses were to Miami or Florida State, in Florida. Besides, Osborne believes he already has won a national championship -- 10 years ago, with the 12-0 team that lost the Orange Bowl by going for two instead of a tie.

Osborne answers only to those good folks in Nebraska who want him to be Bob Devaney, but understand that he's stuck with a one-dimensional offense in cold weather. Bowden, it seems, answers to the entire country. "I've finally figured out what the big one is," he said after the Notre Dame game. "It's the one you lose."

Bowden has a point. He finally beats Miami this season, and what happens? The Big One -- the Game of the Century -- is the one at Notre Dame. Naturally, Florida State lost. Naturally, Bowden got out-coached. Naturally, the myth grew into a monster.

Maybe he was too conservative in the '91 loss to Miami, the one in which Florida State blew a 16-7 lead. Maybe he was too reckless in the Nov. 13 loss to Notre Dame, trying a desperate flea flicker inside his 20. No one wants reasons. No one wants explanations. Just win, baby.

"It's human nature, I think, to focus on the things you haven't done," Osborne said yesterday. "It's kind of unfair, but a lot of times that's the way it is. People don't care about injuries, about who you play, what kind of surface you play on. They want you to win."

And so it is now with Bowden. Florida State has finished no lower than fourth in the past six AP polls, yet the perception is, so what? "You hate to get this close to something and still have a stigma about you," Bowden said. But this is America, the land of No. 1 fixations and short attention spans.

Bowden can argue that he holds the all-time best winning percentage among bowl coaches (.781). He can argue that his 238 victories rank fifth all-time, behind Bear Bryant, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner and Joe Paterno. In this charged atmosphere, it's practically loser's talk.

On Monday, Bowden said he was "obsessed" with winning the national championship, said it would be "an unbelievable relief." Yesterday, he tried pulling an Osborne, becoming Mr. Perspective. His players would have gagged. They've lost track of the number of wind sprints they've run this week.

"This is the hardest we've practiced for a game all year," linebacker Ken Alexander said. "The whole tone, the whole demeanor, the whole psychology has been different. I can tell the whole coaching staff is obsessed. The players are, too."

Obviously, Bowden is trying to guard against overconfidence, especially after what happened at Notre Dame. But just as obviously, he knows this is it. Someone asked Osborne, What would change for you if Nebraska won? His initial response spoke volumes: "Nothing."

Bowden reasoned that even if Florida State lost, "that wouldn't ,, be the end. We'd go after it next year. And if we win it this year, I want another one. So, it's not ever going to stop." Get real, Bobby. At age 65, it would be easier going for your second national championship than your first.

No, it isn't fair. These things never are. But he can't just go stare out at the plains and count his excuses. Bobby Bowden is the 16 1/2 -point favorite. Bobby Bowden has the Heisman Trophy winner. Bobby Bowden needs this game, right now, so bad.

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