Eyes on the Opposition

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As it has for most of the lead-up to the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl, the attention of the media during WVU's final pre-game press conference was focused squarely on the history and fanfare surrounding the team's opponent. That seemed to suit the Mountaineers just fine.

With many north Florida and national media affiliates in attendance at the question-and-answer session, the queries focused (quite predictably) on the significance of Bobby Bowden's last game as head coach at FSU.

To hear Bowden's counterpart tell it, that was as it should be.

"This is all about a legend and a man that I absolutely absolutely idolize and have a lot of fond memories for," said Mountaineer head coach Bill Stewart. "I think back to how I was treated as a young kid just a few years back. I'm just a drop in the bucket to this guy. Coach Bowden deserves all the acclaim he's getting."

That was a sentiment echoed by one West Virginia's senior leaders.

"I think with all the work he's put in throughout his career, the attention he's getting on his team is deserved," said WVU linebacker Reed Williams. "It's rightfully done. He's a legendary coach and it's truly an honor to be playing against him in his last game."

While Stewart and the players that joined him at the dais for the formal pre-Gator Bowl press conference let the praise flow for FSU, they could not entirely hide the fact that they were somewhat tired of not receiving any attention to close out their 9-3 season -- a record that was a full three games better than that of Florida State.

"There are two football teams in this game. We know that and they know it, so we've been preparing like it's any other game," said Williams.

"We kind of feel slighted, I guess you could say. We've done our work. We've put in a lot of work this season. We're still the underdog. It's something we've grown accustomed to playing with and we kind of relish the opportunity. It's weird. We continue to win football games, but we still don't get the respect we deserve."

While the Gator Bowl is special to a lot of Floridians because it serves as the end of Bowden's era, for some of those on the West Virginia roster, it has personal significance.

"It's more than special," said North Fort Myers, Fla., native Noel Devine.

"There's a lot that's involved in this game. Coach Bowden used to coach at WVU. This means a lot to the seniors like Reed and Jarrett. We want to send them out on the right track, just as we sent Pat out on the right track. We just want to go out and play our game and focus."

For Devine, a junior running back, there is an added personal element. The speedster was recruited hard by almost every major school in the country, but his decision ultimately came down to West Virginia and the Seminoles.

"It's just preparation," said Devine, when asked how he would keep focused on the task at hand. "We've been preparing pretty well. I'm going to set all the emotions to the side and go out and play."

"We had a great week of practice. We've been getting at it. It would mean a lot to a lot of us. This is a vacation and a business at the same time."

That is doubly true for Mountaineer quarterback Jarrett Brown. The signal-caller is a senior who will play his final college game in the Gator Bowl -- and is also a Florida native (from West Palm Beach) who grew up watching FSU games.

"I grew up watching this team," said Brown of the Seminoles. "Bobby Bowden was here at Florida State longer than I was on this earth."

"When I started watching football, I started watching Florida State. Charlie Ward was my favorite quarterback growing up and I'd imitate him in backyard football. It's just going to be great going out and facing this team."

Williams, a linebacker from Moorefield, W.Va., will not have the pressure of playing in his home state to deal with. But he, like Brown, will have to endure the emotions involved with playing his final collegiate contest.

"We've been so busy here with all the events and having a good time with our fellow players and our coaches, so it hasn't really hit me yet, I guess you could say," said Williams.

"I try not to get too emotional with it. I don't expect tears tomorrow after the game, but I'll deal with that if they come. I've been trying to just enjoy every moment. I know it's my last go-around and I'm not trying to look too far ahead, because you really can't appreciate the time at hand."

Still, most all of the attention when the game kicks off at 1:00 p.m. Friday will be focused squarely on Bowden and his Seminoles.

Some 300 former FSU lettermen are to lead their coach out of the tunnel, and much fanfare surrounding the Hall of Famer's final game begins with Thursday's Gator Bowl parade, for which Bowden will serve as grand marshal.

Stewart said he has continued to admire Bowden as a person as much or more than he has admired him as a coach.

"Men like Joe Paterno, and most importantly in this case, Bobby Bowden, it's how they live their life and who they are," said Stewart. "It's what they are. It's their make-up."

"I know coach Bowden a whole lot better than Mr. Paterno, but coach Bowden, his daily walk has been all throughout his career. He's very secure in the way he lives his life, the type of man he is and husband he is and coach he is. He's never forgotten sight of that. So he's been a tremendous role model for all of us coaches."

When asked if he could see his current coach leading WVU until he, like Bowden, turns 80 years old, Williams laughed.

"You mean he's not 80 right now?" the linebacker quipped. "He's doing things the right way and instilling a way of life at West Virginia University. We're going to continue to win with him at the helm, and they might have to run him out of Morgantown."


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