A Napoleon dynamic

Times Staff Writer

Bobby Bowden, noted football coach and 77-year-old student of military history, thinks Napoleon was history's greatest general.

But even Napoleon got it in the end.

"Sure did," Bowden, leaning back in his office chair, said with a chuckle. "Yes he did. Oh yeah, he played in the Emerald Bowl too."

At the sour end of his 31st season as coach at Florida State, Bowden leads the Seminoles into their 25th consecutive bowl game -- but hold your applause.

Florida State is a so-so 6-6, set to take on 7-5 UCLA on Wednesday, in a city-by-the-bay matchup that would have been a showstopper in 1998.

The last time Bowden lost seven games -- in 1974, when he was coaching at West Virginia -- some students hanged his likeness in effigy.

Bowden doesn't have to worry about a lynch mob this time, um, right?

After building Florida State football almost from scratch, and winning two national titles, and becoming the major-college game's all-time leader in victories with 365, a man builds up a ton of football capital.

At least you would think so.

This has been, without doubt, one of the toughest slogs of Bowden's reign -- the ordinary year in an extraordinary career.

After an unprecedented run of success, ebb is starting to kick flow's tail.

Since losing the national-title game to Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl, Florida State has lost 26 games in the last six seasons.

By contrast, Bowden's teams lost only 19 games in the previous 14 years -- a span in which his Seminoles finished in the top five every year.

Now, with the Emerald Bowl as backdrop, Bowden seeks to avoid his first losing season at Florida State since his first, in 1976.

Bowden always said losing would drive him to retirement, yet all it has done is force him to adjust his tolerance level.

He is slipping into old age at the apex of an Internet Age he does not pretend to comprehend. He does not have a computer in his office; all his correspondence is dictated or handwritten.

"I do know this," Bowden says of cyberspace. "It spits out bad things."

This is the year when plaster started peeling from the empire walls, the year when even some loyalists turned on him.

Hasn't he earned the right to have a 6-6 season?

"I think so," Bowden said. "But you know people."

For the clinically impatient, it has been months since Florida State last won an Atlantic Coast Conference title ... in 2005.

This is the season Bowden accepted the resignation of his son Jeff as the team's offensive coordinator, after a shutout home loss to Wake Forest.

There you have it, Seminoles fans -- your requisite pound of flesh.

Jeff didn't even give his dad the chance to talk him out of it -- the paperwork already had been filed.

"It's been bad because he's young and I want him to succeed," Bobby said.

This is the year they really started whispering about Bobby Bowden's age, his acumen and his competency.

He jokes about the Emerald Bowl being his Waterloo, but Bowden is promising a return from exile.

"This year we're going to a lower-tiered bowl," Bowden said. "But that doesn't kill my dadgum ego. I was raised in East Lake, Alabama, baby, out on the other side of them tracks, and all I got to do is go back home and walk them streets a little bit and realize how lucky I am to go to the Emerald Bowl.

"But in the eyes of people, who have seen us successful, they feel like it's below our dignity. But it's not for me. I'm sorry for our players, that I couldn't get them in the Sugar Bowl this year, or a bigger bowl [than the Emerald], but it didn't happen."

Bowden constantly tries to learn from history. His office bookshelves are lined with chronicles of heroes and villains, of failure and redemption.

Two books on his favorite subjects, God and Bear Bryant, are within arm's reach on his desk. He just finished reading "The Last Coach," a biography of Bryant. His mother's Bible, passed on to him after she died in 1989, is a constant teaching tool.

Bowden was raised in Birmingham, the biggest Alabama football fan a kid could be. He can still recite the starting lineup of the Crimson Tide team that played in the 1946 Rose Bowl.

Bowden took a legendary liking to Bryant and twice, in 1986 and four years later, considered leaving Florida State for the Alabama job because it was "home" and he thought maybe "that's the way the Lord planned it."

But thank God, he says, he stayed put in Tallahassee.

"They've had about six coaches since then," he said of Alabama.

Bowden learned from Bryant that even the giants suffer.

"I remember when Coach Bryant had his two 6-5 years, they were ready for him to leave," Bowden said.

Another legend providing historical context is Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, who already has been through what Bowden is going through.

The two legendary coaches, just elected together into the College Football Hall of Fame, both hired their sons and then had to hear unkindness toward their kin.

It was all about play calling, for Jay Paterno and Jeff Bowden.

"Joe's had another experience that I had ... a son," Bowden said. "Boy, that's a rough one. That's a hard battle to win. You better win all your games. ... Joe went through the same thing. I'd seen that. We're the only profession where a guy can't hire his son. A banker can hire his. A construction guy can hire his."

It was only three seasons ago that Paterno's coaching career was asked to walk the plank by that power drink-addled gaggle of change instigators.

Paterno's situation was far more career-threatening. Penn State had posted four losing seasons in a five-year stretch from 2000 through 2004, with the low point a 3-9 finish in 2003.

"I always kept in touch with Joe, and used him as a barometer," Bowden said. "I could see what was happening to him."

Bowden, who still rises at 4 a.m. for work, has insulated himself from much of the naysayer noise. Not knowing how to turn on a computer helps.

Yet, he can feel the negativity.

"I'd call it nasty," Bowden said of some of what he hears, "but you know what? It doesn't surprise me. I was ready for that. I saw it happen to Joe."

Paterno rebounded last year with an 11-1 season that ended with a triple-overtime win against Bowden's team in the Orange Bowl.

Paterno turned 80 on Dec. 21, and, with 362 wins, he trails Bowden by three on the victory list.

Bowden, make no mistake, is plotting his own Paterno-like comeback. Joe already seeded the trail.

Florida State is a young team -- it played 17 true freshmen this season -- and going 6-6 again next year isn't something you'd even joke about.

Five of Florida State's six losses this year were by seven points or fewer.

"If we can just improve another minute," Bowden said. "We have to find out how to win that last minute and get back up to where we ought to be."

Critics will not drive Bowden out, and even if they did ...

"Football ain't my No. 1 priority," he said. "I know people say 'Oh, Bobby Bowden had the worst year they've had in so many years, Bobby Bowden's son's not there anymore.' Hey, man, there's a lot more to life to me than this. I mean football is a priority, but it's not the ...

"I'm not going to sit here and cut my wrist over it. And at my doggone age, I could step out so easily. I don't want to. But I could step out so darn easy and go to the beach and spend the rest of my time. ... It's not like I'm a 40-year-old coach trying to get to the top."

Why go on?

"I still want some more," Bowden said. "I'm not riding it out. Before I ride it out, I'll get out. I'm not interested in riding it out. I want another national championship, that's what I want. We've already proved it could be done. We've won two. And we know what it takes to do it.

"One of them is win your close games, which is what we haven't done."

Bowden's relationship with upper management appears solid, for now.

In the mid-1960s, when Bowden was receivers coach at Florida State, he coached a kid named T.K. Wetherell.

Wetherell is now Florida State's president.

"They've been nice to me," Bowden said of his bosses. "If I hadn't been here so long, I'm sure they would have fired me. Surely they would have fired me. But I've been here so long. I coached the president. If that wasn't true, they'd have fired me."

And what of this strange trip west, to San Francisco, to play a team from Westwood?

Florida State isn't even sending its marching band.

"I'm not too spoiled to go to the Emerald Bowl," Bowden insisted.

It just won't look right, though, Bowden walking into a bowl so second-tier, and you can't help think of the imagery.

Bear Bryant coached his last game in the 1982 Liberty Bowl -- and died a few weeks later.

"You think about it," Bowden says about the way it ended for Bryant. "If I was to retire, I'd have to have something else to do quickly."

Bowden dreams of a better escape plan. The Rose Bowl, maybe his favorite, is the only major bowl that has eluded his grasp.

In 2010, the Rose Bowl is playing host to the national-title game.

Wouldn't that be the way to go out?

"It's a cycle sport," Bowden said of big-time college football. "SC is in their cycle now, Notre Dame, maybe they're in their cycle. Alabama's not in their cycle right now. And we're not either. So what? It'll come back around. I just hope I live long enough to survive it."

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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By the numbers

Bobby Bowden went 5-6 in 1976, his first season as Florida State head coach, and the Seminoles haven't had a losing season since. Some of Bowden's coaching stats at Florida State:

* Record: 292-81-4.

* Bowl record: 18-8-1, including 11 in a row from 1985 to 1995.

* National championships: Two (1993 and '99).

* ACC championships*: 12 (1992-2000, 2002-2003, 2005).

* Seasons of 10 wins or more: 18, including 14 in a row (1987-2000).

* Florida Stae played as an independent under Bowden until it joined the ACC in 1992.

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Source: cfbdatawarehouse.com

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