JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As Coach Bobby Bowden stood at midfield in front of more than 80,000 fans on a cool New Year's Day afternoon in Jacksonville, Florida, one can only imagine what was going through his mind or what he was feeling as he held the flaming spear of Chief Osceola aloft from a moment before planting into the grass.
In an interview moments later, he told CBS sideline reporter while the moment was emotional, he hoped the circumstances around his retirement would not be a distraction for his team. His goal that afternoon was to cap his illustrious career with one last win and secure yet another winning season for the Florida State Seminoles.
For the past few years, the dynasty Bowden had built at Florida State that peaked in the 1990s had ended. Coming off a 7-6 record in 2007 and a 9-4 record in 2008, Florida State had given the dominance of the ACC over to Virginia Tech under Frank Beamer. For some observers, it seemed both Bowden and Penn State head coach Joe Paterno was simply competing to see who would own the record for the most victories in major college football history.
After limping to a 6-6 season in 2009, Coach Bobby Bowden, who had won his last national championship with the Seminoles 10 years earlier, announced he would step down as head coach after more than three decades of winning seasons.
When the list of bowl games came out that December, Florida State received a bid to play in the Gator Bowl against West Virginia, a school whose football program had been led by Bobby Bowden 35 years earlier. Once the matchup had been announced, the game sold out in only two days, according to the CBS broadcast of the game.
More than 300 of Bowden's former players came to Jacksonville for the game, including Deion Sanders and Warrick Dunn.
The millions of fans who watched at home were treated to a tribute by CBS, narrated by veteran play-by-play broadcaster Verne Lundquist. The tribute opened with a quote from Maya Angelou before Lundquist said: "For more than half a century, Bobby Bowden made me feel, as he would say, 'Pretty dadgum good.'"
After West Virginia made their entrance into Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the capacity crowd erupted in boisterous, but respectful cheers as the 80-year-old legend clad in his garnet tracksuit with a white FSU baseball cap. The cheers grew louder and Chief Osceola and Renegade galloped towards the middle of the field and passed the flaming spear to a handler, who then gave the spear to Bowden. Bowden lifted the spear towards his players then firmly planted it into the grass.
"Awesome," Lundquist said simply at the scene unfolding before him.
With the pregame ceremonies behind him, Coach Bowden turned his attention one last time to the game on hand. He was facing a West Virginia team that had gone 9-3 in the regular season and was ranked number 16 in the final BCS standings.
The Seminoles started the game poorly, with two quick first-quarter touchdowns by the Mountaineers, answered only with a field goal by FSU in between.
Early in the second period, Florida State lined up for a 37-yard field on the right hash. Harking back to some of the sourest moments in Bowden's tenure where the term 'wide right' became a running joke for FSU's rivals, the kick sailed wide left.
"Is it apropos in Bobby's last game to miss these or to make these," analyst Gary Danielson said following the missed kick.
However, three plays later, Florida State's Jamie Robinson picked off a pass from quarterback Jarrett Brown, setting up the Noles at their own 40-yard-line. Seven plays later, Jermaine Thomas scored Florida State's first touchdown of the game to help cut the deficit to four. The interception and ensuing drive helped serve as the game's turning point.
Dustin Hopkins added another field goal just before halftime to cut West Virginia's lead to 14-13.
During the game, the crowd remained engaged with several spontaneous cheers for Coach Bowden while on television, CBS played tribute to his storied career by remembering his championships, notable wins, and his record against coaching rivals. CBS even calculated the number of times Bowden used his catchphrase 'dadgummits,' which stood at 3,394, though Lundquist and Danielson acknowledged that number may be an understatement.
Florida State opened the second half with a huge kick return to the West Virginia 9-yard-line. However, the FSU offense was stopped cold for a three-and-old, leading to a chip shot field goal to give the Seminoles their first lead of the game.
With under four minutes in the third quarter, Jermaine Thomas punched in his second touchdown of the afternoon, extending FSU's lead to 23-14.
The Mountaineers answered back with a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the lead to two points.
On the ensuing drive, the Seminoles slowly marched down the field, beginning at their 18-yard-line. They capped the drive two-yard touchdown run from quarterback EJ Manuel. The touchdown extended the lead back to nine points and shaved more than six minutes off the clock.
After stopping West Virginia on downs, the Seminoles added one last field goal, a kick that almost drifted wide right, to give Florida State a 33-21 lead with just over two minutes left in the game.
"How about that Verne," Danielson said. "He's going to finish with a made field goal."
Now the crowd began to grow with excitement as the final two minutes of Bowden's career ticked down. Bowden jogged to the Florida State section, taking off his white hat, and threw it to the fans in the stadium, the Associated Press reported. As he headed back to the sideline, he began to embrace the players who had come to the game to pay tribute to their coach and mentor.
The final play of the game was a sack by Florida State's defense. As the final ticks came off the clock, Bowden slowly walked towards midfield, surrounded by a sea of photographers.
In his final sideline interview with CBS' Tracy Wolfson, Bowden dropped two last "dadgums", while accepting the trophy as Gator Bowl champions. He finished the season 7-6, keeping his incredible streak of 33 winning seasons alive. He finished his career with 389 wins, though 12 wins were vacated by the NCAA.
"Coming out with a win is kind of a bonus," Bowden said after the game. "This will be good because you're always going to remember that last game so I'll always remember that's a win."
The 2010 Gator Bowl will hardly be remembered as the finest or most thrilling victory of Coach Bobby Bowden's career. Yet, for those who were lucky enough to watch it, it nevertheless served as a fitting end to a legendary career.