By EDDIE PELLS
AP National Writer
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Bobby Bowden has a big decision to make today.
Stay in his hotel and watch Florida State’s quest for a third national title in peace. Or drive out to the Rose Bowl, where he’ll probably miss the whole thing.
“A lot of people will be coming up to me, ‘Can you sign this? Can you take a picture with my girlfriend?’ things like that,” Bowden said. “And I have trouble saying ‘No.’”
Such is life for the 84-year-old patriarch of Florida State football, who now watches from the outside but remains the most recognizable Seminole there is.
That’s the payoff for 34 years of coaching, for taking a program on the verge of extinction and turning it into a national powerhouse — and for doing it all with a dadgum smile.
Bowden’s number is still listed in the phone book. He still lives in the cream-colored brick house in Tallahassee, a drive across town from campus. But when he passes through that campus, which has prospered on every level because of the time he spent there, it never crosses his mind that he helped build all that.
Same thing goes when he looks at the Seminoles, who, four years after Bowden was eased into retirement, find themselves one win away from another championship.
“I’m not built that way,” Bowden said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I love what they’re doing. I want them to succeed, get back on top. I’m happy about it. But as far as looking back and saying, ‘Look at what I did,’ I have no desire to do that.”
No big surprise, given his humble roots and an aw-shucks demeanor that once elicited the almost-believable admission that he was really enjoying easy-listening radio through the headphones he wore on the sideline.
One of his other famous musings — that he feared hanging it up because “after you retire, there’s only one big event left,” hasn’t turned out quite like that. Unlike Bear Bryant or his father, both of whom passed away shortly after they stopped working, Bowden is still going strong. Active as ever, he travels on a private plane and gives up to five inspirational speeches a week at spots across the country.
He is in high demand.
He doesn’t miss coaching all that much.
“I know that might surprise some people,” he said.
He wishes he could have left Florida State on his terms, not the school’s. It was an awkward exit — one Bowden wanted to make a year later than he did, and one that came after a string of seasons that didn’t live up to the expectations he built. From 2001-09, his teams went 74-42 — not good enough for a program that played for the title in five of the previous eight seasons.
“I wanted to go out dadgum big-time,” Bowden said. “We kind of built our own monster there. And then we weren’t winning enough ballgames to get the job done. I’m not bitter about any of it. It was fun.”
The man who coaches Florida State now, Jimbo Fisher, played quarterback for Bobby’s son, Terry, and coached for both Terry and Bobby. Fisher was so close with the Bowdens for years that he was sometimes mistaken as one of the family.
“Bobby built Florida State,” Fisher said with no hesitation. “Florida State had won no games. Bobby came in. Bobby built the brand name of Florida State, and to me, Florida State is one of the best brands there is in the country.”
Gene Deckerhoff, who has been calling Seminoles games on the radio since the 1970s, said there’s no overstating what Bowden meant, and still means, to this program.
“His footprint will always be the face of Florida State football,” Deckerhoff said.
This has been a difficult couple of weeks for Bowden, whose grandson, T.J., was killed in a car crash shortly after the family celebrated Christmas together in Panama City, Fla.
Bowden came to Southern California anyway. At first, he was only going to stay to speak at a breakfast Friday morning. But he got talked into staying the rest of the week.
All of which feels right. Wouldn’t be the same if Florida State won a championship without a Bowden around.
“I’m glad,” Bowden said, “to see ‘em back to where we used to be.”