FSU-Miami: The Epitome of Big Games

"You know everybody's watching you," said Tommy Polley, who played linebacker for FSU from 1997–2000. "Other players are watching. Scouts are watching. When it comes time for the NFL Draft, you know they're putting on that tape."

What they see every year—or at least each season since the mid-1980s—is the single greatest aggregation of talent on a football field anywhere in the country. You may find other games that boast an impressive collection of future NFL employees, but year-in and year-out, nothing tops Miami–Florida State for sheer topshelf athletic genius. Pro scouts who don't tune in are missing out on a chance to see the best of the best, playing against the best of the best. Failing to pay attention is like shopping for players from the dollar store rather than hitting the boutiques along Rodeo Drive.

"A lot of our players have aspirations of playing in the National Football League," says Miami head coach Larry Coker. "So does Florida State. They want to see how they do against the best, and that's what you get when you play against them. It's the best opportunity to show what you can do."

Since 1983, the teams have set the gold standard for on-field achievement. Miami has won five national titles, produced 43 first-team all-Americas, two Heisman Trophy winners and an astounding 43 first-round NFL draft choices. That's 17 more than Florida, which is second in producing top-rounders over that span. Even more remarkable is the run from 2002–2005, when 16 Canes were chosen in the first round.

Florida State can't match that resume, but the 'Noles aren't exactly hiding their list of accomplishments. Since '84, FSU has produced 22 consensus all-Americas, two Heisman winners and 25 number-one draft choices. More impressive is the team's run of success from 1987–2000, when Florida State won at least 10 games a year, finished in the top five each season and captured two national titles.

"When we played in 2004, it wasn't the caliber of an NFL game, but it was a level above college football, because there was so much talent," Coker says.

"There are football games. Then there are big football games. Then there's Miami–Florida State," says Terrell Buckley, a Florida State defensive back from 1989–91. "It lives with you. I've been out of there 14 years, and when I see guys I played with, it's like we played Miami yesterday.

"I tell people, ‘It's one thing to make money, but as a competitor and an athlete, the worst thing that can happen is to lose bragging rights to someone.'"

Casey Weldon, who played quarterback for Florida State from 1988 through 1991, remembers the '91 game against the Hurricanes. Miami unloaded on Weldon during that clash, sacking him five times and hitting him on several other occasions. Once, Weldon found himself at the bottom of a pile of ‘Canes and heard some interesting trash talking.

"I was married that year, and I heard one of the players telling me how much fun he had with my wife the night before the game," Weldon says. "He even knew her name. I said, ‘No way that happened. She doesn't like linebackers.' He laughed and said, ‘Good one. You got me.'"

Profile in Greatness: Bobby Bowden

Spend even a little time listening to Bobby Bowden speak, and it's tempting to dismiss him as a homespun bumpkin, whose oldstyle Southern charms and habits of calling just about everybody, "Boy," make him seem like a Grand Ole Opry denizen, rather than the winningest football coach in college history.

It's true, Bowden is as country as cornbread. He's also a shrewd coach who understands that the best way to motivate young people is to give them enough freedom to make them feel like men yet keep them accountable ultimately for their actions on and off the field. He may be 76, but he's no stodgy old man. Bowden's secret to success has been his ability to keep relatively fresh with the players he coaches and recruits without trying to be someone he is not.

"Coach Bowden is a true leader and a general," says Terrell Buckley, who played at FSU from 1989 through 1991. "He backs his troops. He's genuine, respectful, funny and honest. He's everything you look for in a leader."

When Bowden recruited Buckley, he told the prep star that if he did what he was asked, including keeping his grades up and taking care of his business on and off the field, Buckley would be able to play baseball, as well as football. "He kept his word," Buckley says. "Some coaches tell you what you want to hear, and when you sign, they tell you something else. I never had that problem with coach Bowden."

Not too many people did, and that's a big reason why each February, Florida State signs one of the nation's top five or 10 recruiting classes. Players know they'll be treated fairly in Tallahassee.

Oh . . . and they know they'll win. Through the first 29 years of his tenure at FSU, Bowden won 79.5 percent of his games. He posted a remarkable 14-year stretch (1987–2000), during which the Seminoles won at least 10 games and finished ranked in the top five. During that period, Florida State played for the national title five times, winning twice. In 39 years of coaching at Samford, West Virginia and FSU, he has had a total of two losing seasons and 18 double-digit win totals. "Coach Bowden is always teaching you," says Tommy Polley, an FSU linebacker from 1997–2000.

When Bowden first came to Florida State after six years at West Virginia, he developed a reputation for wide-open, fun football. His teams used trick plays often, including the "fumblerooski," in which a guard would pick up a ball left purposely on the ground and gallop downfield. The players loved it, and the fans ate it up. His message was simple: Florida State was playing to win big every Saturday. He didn't want to squeak past opponents; Bowden wanted to smack them down. That created interest in the team and made the late-20th century athlete choose Tallahassee to play his college ball.

Bowden's tenure hasn't been without some criticism. Because he didn't win a national title until 1993, some accused him of not being able to win the big one. And others have pointed to some off-field incidents involving players (there was the time some Seminoles received free athletic shoes from a local store; another time star wideout Peter Warrick was accused of receiving free merchandise at a store) as evidence that he isn't too vigilant in keeping track of his players off the field. But NCAA investigators haven't ever found anything major at FSU during his tenure, and the 'Nole program has been relatively free of scandal. In a 29-year period, that's about as good as it gets.

"Coach Bowden has always treated his players with respect," says Charlie Ward, who played quarterback at Florida State from 1989–93. "He does more than just cultivate a winning environment. He cultivates an environment that encourages and builds character."

If that's country, then country's pretty good.

A new book titled Big Games: College Football's Greatest Rivalries by Michael Bradley hits bookstores at the end of September, and of course one of the ten rivalries included is Miami-Florida State! The previous was an excerpt from the Miami-Florida State chapter. To read more about the book or to order, please visit http://www.potomacbooksinc.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=94236.

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