Bowden's way aged to 5-0 perfection

Fla. State coach alters just a bit after 2-year stumble

'Noles No.5, mighty again

October 11, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Separated by four years and a few hundred miles, North Carolina State football coach Chuck Amato laughed at the notion that his former place of employment, Florida State, has slipped a notch and that his former boss, Bobby Bowden, has lost a step - or two - on the competition.

"Did you see that game they played the other night?" Amato asked after the Seminoles, then ranked a modest 13th, opened this season with a 37-0 win at North Carolina.

A little more than a month later, the critics who questioned Bowden the past two years have quietly disappeared. With five straight wins, all but one easy, there is no talk about whether the 73-year-old coach should continue the job he has held since 1976.

Going into today's game against second-ranked Miami in Tallahassee, the Seminoles are ranked No. 5 in the country and shooting to give Bowden his third national championship. But Bowden can't forget the flak when Florida State finished 8-4 in 2001 and 9-5 last season.

It ended a run of 14 straight seasons in which the Seminoles won at least 10 games and never finished out of the top five.

"It makes you enjoy coaching a lot more when you can go 5-0 like we are now," Bowden said during a teleconference this week. "Again, you sure can't get satisfied because it doesn't take long to get back where you were if you're not careful."

Said athletic director Dave Hart: "Most people would be delighted to win our conference title, play in a BCS [Bowl Championship Series] game and be ranked 15th in the country. Most people would think that to be a cause for celebration. Here it was a cause for concern in a lot of corners."

The concern wasn't strictly about how the Seminoles played. It was also about the way some players acted off the field. There was a perception that had popped up periodically over recent years that Bowden had lost control of the program, perhaps for good.

Quarterback Adrian McPherson was charged with gambling. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett of Burtonsville was caught buying $1,000 clothing for $100. After regaining his job as starting quarterback, Chris Rix overslept for a final exam. McPherson was dismissed from the team; Dockett and Rix were suspended for the team's Sugar Bowl game against Georgia. Dockett later pleaded guilty to petty theft.

A former walk-on who played at Florida State when Bowden was a graduate assistant coach there, recently hired president T.K. Wetherell believed that the school needed to be more diligent in investigating its problems and that Bowden needed to be more involved in the day-to-day operation.

"I think Bobby puts more pressure on himself than alumni or the university's going to put on him," Wetherell said in an interview last month. "I think the issue with Bobby last year wasn't the won-lost numbers, but it was how they lost at some places. I think that bothered him more than the record."

The Seminoles lost in overtime on a rainy night at Louisville, starting a stretch of three defeats in four games that included a one-point defeat at Miami and a 10-point loss at home against Notre Dame. Florida State also lost at N.C. State and in the Sugar Bowl.

Asked if the season caused any great introspection, Bowden joked, "I kicked my dog to death. That's about the only thing different."

But he quickly admitted, "I might be a little more directive now than I was a year ago."

Hart was more blunt: "He put his hands on the wheel."

Bowden reestablished the Unity Council, a group of players that monitors behavior in the dorms, work ethic in the weight room and performance on the field.

It also meant Bowden coming down from the tower during practices and being more visible - and vocal - on the field. He hasn't given up his early-afternoon power naps, but Bowden has realized the importance in showing fans, media and prospective recruits that he is not slowing down.

All Bowden has to do is look at what his friend, 76-year-old Joe Paterno is going through at Penn State, to realize that he is another losing streak away from hearing the same whispers that gained momentum last season. Hart knows that Bowden's age makes him more vulnerable.

"It's human nature to think that," Hart said.

The Seminoles have gone back to a familiar formula this season - winning with defense. Florida State ranks first in scoring defense and seventh in overall defense. Junior kicker Xavier Beitia has more points (39) than the defense has allowed (36).

Though it won't come into play today against the Hurricanes (5-0) - a game that marks the last nonconference meeting between the two in-state rivals before Miami joins the Atlantic Coast Conference next season - Florida State has taken advantage of its depth.

"I've said all along, there's no doubt about that our league is getting better and better on 1 through 22, we've closed the gap," Amato said. "I say closed, but there is a big gap, it's a huge gap, it's 23 through 85 where the gap gets real big. That's just my opinion."

Bowden, who is one victory behind Paterno in their race to become college football's winningest coach, has no plans to retire. Bowden and the Seminoles have worked hard to get back into familiar territory.

Today will be an indication if they'll stay there.

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