NEW ORLEANS — Bobby Bowden knows some believe that his time finally has arrived.
To quote Bowden, the popular presumption about his future is "Well, he's going to get out now.''
Not so fast.
The Florida State legend is 73 years old, has won two national championships, and has secured his place as one of the most successful coaches in college football history.
Bowden's team has lost key players for a series of academic and legal reasons. He says the adversity of the 2002 season must make people think "I know it's killing him.''
Says Bowden: "No it doesn't. It makes me want to stick the dog-gone thing out.''
Most notable in a season of turmoil: Bowden has lost starting quarterback Chris Rix for the game because Rix missed two final exams this month.
Bowden suspended starting defensive tackle Darnell Dockett one week ago after Dockett allegedly received merchandise from a Tallahassee mall for free or at an unauthorized discount.
Earlier in the year quarterback Adrian McPherson was kicked off the team by Bowden after McPherson allegedly stole a check. With the McPherson story have come rumors of a betting scandal that threatens to involve other team members.
Along the way, the Seminoles managed to post a 9-4 record that included an Atlantic Coast Conference championship but failed to meet the standards expected of a Bowden team.
Bowden could easily step aside, receive his tributes from around the nation, and enjoy life as a grandfather of 21 and the pride of Tallahassee. Instead, says Bowden, "It challenges me more to want to get the daggum thing straightened out. Now if that changes I've got to get out.''
Those who know Bowden best say he will want to leave Florida State when the Seminoles are back in their customary position as a national championship contender instead of their current uncharacteristic No. 16 national ranking.
Before a drop to four losses in 2001, Florida State set a record with 14 straight top-five finishes in the final Associated Press poll. In an eight-year span, the Seminoles played in five national championship games, winning titles in 1993 and 1999.
Bowden also boasts the best bowl winning percentage in history with an 18-6-1 record (.740). On the list of the most Division 1-A coaching wins all-time, Bowden's 332 trails only Joe Paterno's 336.
Even though a win over Georgia Wednesday night would give Bowden at least 10 wins for the 15th time in the last 17 seasons, that would not be enough to make Bowden think everything has been straightened out.
Said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who worked for Bowden for 15 years at Florida State: "I would think (the adversity of 2002) would drive him further away from retirement. Whenever he does leave, he wants to leave in a blaze of glory.''
By Bowden's standards, a 10-4 finish does not qualify as a blaze of glory.
Including four years at Samford and six years at West Virginia, Bowden has endured only two losing seasons in 37 years as a head coach. His only losing record at Florida State was his 5-6 debut in 1976.
Similarly, simply making it to the Sugar Bowl does not make this season notable. Compared to Georgia, celebrating its first trip to New Orleans in 20 years, Florida State will be playing in its fifth Sugar Bowl in eight years.
Like a master chess player challenged to beat a worthy opponent without a key piece, Bowden seems to be at his best when circumstances point to a loss. Florida State is a big underdog against Georgia, but even though Bowden has to break in a new starting quarterback and replace a key defensive lineman for the game, Bowden seems to almost relish the added challenge.
Said Florida State offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, Bobby's youngest son: "To me, that's where you see the greatness in Bobby Bowden.''
Added Jeff Bowden Saturday: "As an assistant coach I could sit back and wonder why, why, why. To him, it's a challenge, challenge, challenge. It's an opportunity, opportunity, opportunity to do something great. That's how he sees things.''
Richt said this week that his greatest concern is how Bowden will rally his players to make the most of the underdog role. Richt says the psychology of the game favors Florida State because Bowden will make it favor Florida State. Said Richt: "Coach Bowden to me is the gauge on how to handle just about everything.''
The one element beyond Bowden's grasp is the concept of walking away from the game.
At 73, Bowden appears to be as vital and enthusiastic as in 1984, the last time he led his team against Georgia in a bowl game (a 1984 Citrus Bowl that ended in a tie). The only concessions to time may be an occasional problem recalling a date or a player's name.
Said Florida State receiver Yangquan Boldin: "To be honest with you, he shows no sign of retiring. I can't see him walking away. Every day he's the same old coach, very enthusiastic. He's out there ready every time.''
But when the Seminoles show signs of vulnerability, as they did last year when Maryland ended Florida State's nine-year run as Atlantic Coast Conference champions, Bowden knows his age becomes an issue.
"At my age a lot of people are predicting well, he's too old,'' Bowden said. "I could predict that. I knew it two years ago. Joe Paterno is proof to me. As soon as Joe had a couple of bad years, that's what they said. This year Joe had a pretty good year and with a little bit of luck he would be there in that (Fiesta Bowl).''
Bowden says he usually brings up his age to recruits instead of waiting for the obvious question.
"I say ‘Boys, I'm not planning on getting out. As long as my health is good and as long as I can recruit and bring in good football players, I'm not interested in getting out.' ''
Because Florida State keeps bringing in highly rated recruiting classes, recruits believe Bowden. Even so, the coach admits even he is baffled by his own determination to stay on the job.
Said Bowden: "To think, 73 years old and still have no desire to quit coaching.''
Added Bowden: "Why do I feel this way? I don't have any idea.''