Bowden goes out a winner in Gator Bowl

Published 11:57 pm Friday, January 1, 2010

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Bobby Bowden watched the clock run down to :00, then took his last walk to midfield as his Florida State players jumped up and down, thrusting their helmets into the air.

The coach went out a winner, carried off by the Seminoles.

Jermaine Thomas ran for two touchdowns, Florida State scored 20 straight points to take control and the Seminoles knocked off No. 18 West Virginia 33-21 at the Gator Bowl in the final game of Bowden’s storied 44-year career as a head coach.

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‘‘I will not forget it. I won’t forget the other ones we have here, too,’’ Bowden said, his hands wrapped around the silver Gator Bowl trophy. ‘‘Nothing like a win.’’

Bowden finished with a 389-129-4 record, and most importantly to him, a 33rd consecutive winning season. Next week, Jimbo Fisher takes over at Florida State, which finished 7-6 for the third time in the last four years.

That run of mediocrity was the 80-year-old Bowden’s downfall — he wanted to stay at least one more season — but on this day, none of that mattered to the Florida State faithful, which serenaded him with ‘‘Bob-by! Bob-by!’’ chants throughout the day, saving their loudest cries for the very end.

With 1:39 left, Bowden trotted down to the Florida State band section, removing his autographed white cap and tossing it into the seats — and the celebration began. When it was over, Bowden was surrounded by a wall of photographers, trying to make his way over to shake the hand of West Virginia coach Bill Stewart — who was a 177-pound walk-on for Bowden’s first Mountaineers team in 1970.

‘‘It’s got to be memorable,’’ Bowden said. ‘‘It’s my last dadgum ballgame after 57 years of coaching.’’

Bowden leaves as major college football’s second-winningest coach. Joe Paterno earned his 394th victory Friday in the Capital One Bowl as Penn State beat LSU 19-17.

Bowden spent much of the afternoon hugging his former players who lined the sidelines. Some of them now were middle-aged men, their hair tinged with gray.

Noel Devine rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown for West Virginia (9-4), which ran out to a 14-3 lead, then sputtered the rest of the way.

‘‘Well, like so many games, when you’re behind like we were in that first quarter, there’s always an opportunity to quit and to give up,’’ Bowden said. ‘‘And the kids did not. They kept fighting, kept coming back and won the ball game. That’s what you want.’’

There was even a ‘‘wide right’’ — in Bowden’s favor, for a change.

West Virginia’s Tyler Bitancurt pushed a 33-yard field goal try past the right upright midway through the third quarter, a big break for the Seminoles. Bowden’s teams lost four epic matchups with archrival Miami over the years, and probably at least two national championships, because of FSU field goals going wide right.

Let it be noted that on the last field goal his team tried, FSU made it.

This was Bowden’s day, and the Seminoles made sure he wouldn’t be denied.

Everything about the matchup was arranged with celebrating Bowden in mind, and that didn’t change on game day.

More than 350 of Bowden’s former players were there as guests, and thousands of fans — many of whom arrived 2 hours before Bowden — braved 52-degree air and steady rain to line the route the coach and his wife, Ann, would take into the stadium, followed by the rest of the Seminole roster.

There was a pregame video of Bowden highlights. He got a new car, a gift from Toyota and the Gator Bowl. And then came a rare treat even for Bowden, the right to take the flaming FSU spear from Chief Osceola and slam the point into the turf at midfield, one of Florida State’s most revered pregame traditions.

‘‘I’m very excited. Ann and I are very excited to be here in front of the Seminoles and also the Mountaineers,’’ Bowden said from the field to a sold-out crowd moments before kickoff. ‘‘I couldn’t help but get nostalgic when I heard the West Virginia band play their fight song. And then also, to hear the Seminoles play ours.’’

Bowden was head coach at Samford from 1959-62, led West Virginia from 1970-75 and took over at Florida State the next season.

The tributes didn’t stop at kickoff, either.

A fan donned an No. 12 Thad Busby jersey, changed some letters and — voila! — the former Florida State quarterback’s surname went from BUSBY to BOBBY. The Florida State band, instead of spelling out ‘‘Noles’’ at halftime, stood in ‘‘Bobby’’ formation. And on the West Virginia sideline, fans mindful of his stint there as head coach from 1970-75 tacked a ‘‘We (heart) U Bobby’’ banner to the wall.

During the game, Bowden’s demeanor didn’t change much from what’s become the norm in his final seasons.

He often kept to himself, hands either clasped behind his back or at his sides. He talked to players individually, sometimes offered a quick thought to Fisher, then would go back to pacing about. A few times, Bowden took a quick look around the stadium, almost as if he was taking a mental picture of it all.

Bowden knew some pundits thought a mediocre Florida State team didn’t belong in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

The first few minutes suggested they were right.

West Virginia took the opening kickoff and scored without much resistance, a 72-yard, eight-play drive capped by a 32-yard touchdown rush by starting quarterback Jarrett Brown — who was injured in the second quarter. The Mountaineers went up 14-3 on their second possession, after Devine broke off a 70-yard run to get inside the Florida State 5, then wound up scoring from 1 yard out.

One Mountaineer mistake helped turn things around.

After Jamie Robinson intercepted Brown early in the second quarter, Florida State got back into it on Thomas’ first touchdown of the day, a 12-yard rush. Dustin Hopkins, who missed a 37-yard try earlier in the period, connected on a 42-yard field goal with 8 seconds left in the half, getting the Seminoles within 14-13 at the break.

And whatever Bowden said in his 522nd and final halftime speech, Greg Reid must have liked it.

Reid took the second-half kickoff 69 yards to the West Virginia 9, setting up another field goal. And — helped greatly by Jarmon Fortson’s ridiculous, leaping, one-handed, 29-yard catch — Thomas scored from 19 yards out later in the third to give Florida State a 23-14 lead into entering the last 15 minutes of Bowden’s career.

Ryan Clarke plunged in from 5 yards away for West Virginia on the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Seminoles answered with a methodical drive to restore the nine-point lead, quarterback E.J. Manuel’s 2-yard touchdown burst putting Florida State up 30-21.

It would be the last touchdown anyone would score for Robert Cleckler Bowden, and soon, the man who saved Florida State’s program — it almost folded before he was hired in 1976 — would start hugging anyone he could get his arms around on the sideline.