As Seminoles falter, Bobby Bowden's legacy crumbles
Florida State's struggles have created more foes than fans for Bobby Bowden
An FSU official, Jim Smith, called for Bowden's retirement as head coach
Bowden may no longer be remembered as a legendary figure in the game
Let's imagine a handyman builds a house with his own two hands. He pours the foundation. He builds the frame. He lays the tile. He brushes on every drop of paint. He lives in the house, but doesn't hold the deed. Without the handyman, the revolving cast of landlords would have a trailer instead of a mansion. For his skill, the handyman has been paid handsomely, and until recently he was allowed to choose his own apprentices. The current landlord tells the handyman he can leave whenever he chooses, provided that day comes sometime in the next two years. The landlord also introduces the man to the new tenant, whom the landlord has put in charge of selecting all the new fixtures and furniture.
Does all the work the handyman put into the house give him the right to stomp cracks in the floors and take a sledgehammer to the drywall before he rides off to his retirement cottage? It's not his house, but at the same time, it is. He built it, brick by brick. He doesn't own it, but he may as well.
Now you understand the dilemma facing Florida State's football program. Coach Bobby Bowden made the Seminoles what they are. He brought them to heights no one ever dreamed possible before his arrival. He presided over a reign of dominance that may never be equaled.
He also hired his son to run the offense and allowed him to keep working, despite an obvious stagnation. Bowden also allowed several long-time assistants to hang around well past their recruiting primes, and the talent level of the program suffered. Now, Bowden's program is a shell of its former self. The chairman of FSU's board of trustees has called for the legend to step down after this season. Despite the happy face the Seminoles have tried to put on for the media, the coaching staff is divided.
FSU's program stands at a fork in the road: Either one of college football's great careers will end with an icon retiring in disgrace, or the icon will grind the program he built into dust out of sheer stubbornness. No matter what happens, the end will hurt.
FSU president T.K. Wetherell, a former Seminoles football player who loves to dabble in athletics, is a lame duck. Athletic director Randy Spetman still must answer to Wetherell for as long as it takes the trustees to find a new president. According to the ceremonial titles described in FSU's media guide, head coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher officially is the fourth-most-powerful member of the staff behind Bowden, associate head coach/defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews and associate head coach/linebackers coach Chuck Amato. This arrangement persists, even though Fisher and hand-picked assistants James Coley and Rick Trickett are the ones convincing most of the better recruits to come to Tallahassee.
On Saturday, Florida State fell to 2-3 with a 28-21 loss at Boston College. On Monday morning, the Tallahassee Democrat came out containing quotes from trustees chair Jim Smith.
"My hope is frankly that we'll go ahead, and if we have to, let the world know that this year will be the end of the Bowden Era," Smith, told the Democrat. "... I do appreciate what he's done for us, what he's done for the program, what's he done really for the state of Florida.
"But I think the record will show that the Seminole Nation has been more than patient. We have been in a decline not for a year or two or three but I think we're coming up on seven or eight. I think enough is enough."
Smith's words sounded eerily familiar to the ones written by former Seminole Boosters board member Peter Mettler in a message to Wetherell. "I am convinced and frankly have been for the last two seasons that coach Bowden should retire or be forced to retire," Mettler wrote, according to an e-mail obtained by The Palm Beach Post. "Someone has to stand up and make this difficult decision. As our president I urge you to be the leader I know you are, and do what has to be done."
The only difference between Smith's call for Bowden's retirement and Mettler's, is the latter wrote his in 2006.
The 2006 debacle -- specifically, a 30-0 home loss to Wake Forest -- forced Bowden to make changes. Seminole Boosters agreed to pay Bowden's youngest son, Jeff, $537,000 over five years to quit as offensive coordinator. Jeff Bowden now serves as a volunteer receivers coach under older brother Terry at North Alabama. He'll receive checks from Tallahassee until 2012.
That's a year after Fisher is scheduled to take over as head coach. When Fisher, then in his first season as FSU's offensive coordinator, became a hot head coaching candidate in late 2007, Wetherell decided to lock down the succession plan by signing Fisher to a coach-in-waiting deal. After Fisher briefly considered taking the West Virginia job, Wetherell tweaked the agreement so that FSU would owe Fisher $5 million if he wasn't named head coach by Jan. 9, 2011 and Fisher would owe FSU $5 million if he left before that date.
So, independent of Bowden, FSU and Fisher are stuck with one another. Despite the program's success in the past three decades, FSU isn't as wealthy as Florida, Texas, Ohio State or the other mega-rich athletic departments. Raising $5 million to buy out Fisher would require significant effort. Meanwhile, no other school will touch Fisher with that buyout hanging over his head.
Given the Seminoles' significant investment in Fisher, it would be logical that Fisher would be a clear first mate under Bowden. Instead, he's more of a lookout. Fisher runs the offense and brings in players, such as the most talented person on FSU's roster, freshman cornerback Greg Reid. Make no mistake, Reid and his classmates signed to play for Fisher, but Fisher has far less power than anyone would expect.
Smith told the Democrat that needs to change, and he said FSU's general counsel already has begun drafting a five-year contract that will take effect when Fisher becomes head coach. But Bowden seems determined to coach through 2010, even if the current direction of the program suggests Bowden will leave Fisher trying to drag the Seminoles out of a deep hole.
That's probably the saddest part. Just 10 years ago, the Seminoles were the baddest team in the universe. They had the best players, and they had an unmistakable swagger. From 1987 to 2000, FSU finished in the top four of The Associated Press poll every single year. We marvel at the fact that Pete Carroll has led USC to a top-four finish every year since 2002, but look at USC's achievement another way: Carroll is only halfway to Bowden's mark.
Unfortunately, if this situation devolves further, we may not remember Bowden's best teams. We may only remember the man who spent the twilight years of his career fighting progress.
Bowden remains convinced he can turn around a program that has slid since FSU last played for a national title following the 2000 season. "You can't give up," Bowden said Sunday. "That's the thing about it. You can't give up. I refuse to."
While some in garnet and gold have given up on Bowden, it's unlikely Wetherell ever will. He, like so many at FSU, owes too much to Bowden. So with little other choice, the landlord probably will leave the handyman to finish demolishing the masterpiece he built with his own two hands.
SMITH SPEAKS: FSU official wants Bowden to retire
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