Somewhere in the culture of Tallahassee, Fla., lurks a love and intensity for college football that burns as hot as any other, even the Ghiradelli-rich one half a nation west in Norman, Okla.
The tradition stretches back more than 100 years to the days of Florida State College and an all-boys school that played a few seasons of football. Those seasons were so irrelevant that they are hardly mentioned when the history of the Seminoles arises. Early in the 20th century, the Florida educational system shrunk to two schools, Florida State College and the newly established University of Florida. FSC became a girls’ school (renamed Florida Female College) and UF became the boys’ school. Shortly thereafter, the fraternity system and football team moved to Gainesville. Tallahassee was left with pearls but no pigskin.
It stayed that way for more than 40 years, when FSU, as we know it today, emerged and football began again in the town in 1947. This is the depth of the Seminole culture, how far back the impact of Osceola – the historic Seminole Indian leader – goes, and yet those of a somewhat younger generation most likely have no clue.
When you take Florida State football at face value in 2011 and pit it against Oklahoma Sooners football, on paper, the Sooner Schooner beats Renegade every time.
Oklahoma has seven national championships in its history. Florida State has two. Since FSU’s football program was reestablished in the mid-40s, OU has won more than 76 percent of its games according to its school website, more than any other team in the country. In 1950, the Sooners won their first national championship under coach Bud Wilkinson. Florida State that season? It beat Wofford in something called the Cigar Bowl (Unfortunately, we can’t joke. We are the era with the PapaJohns.com bowl. Really?)
When the two teams play to head, it’s the Sooners who roll. Oklahoma is 5-1 against Florida State all-time, including a 47-17 embarrassment of FSU last year in Norman. The Seminoles’ only win in the series came in 1965 when Bobby Bowden was an assistant coach under Bill Peterson.
But as we prepare for the showdown this Saturday in Tallahassee, the No. 1 Sooners making their first ever trip to town to face the No. 5 Seminoles, the history doesn’t seem right. The facts are correct, but it doesn’t feel right. Florida State football shouldn’t play stepchild to anybody. Tallahassee should be a College GameDay stop tattooed on the itinerary every season.
This is a program that owns one of the most dominant stretches in college football history, one that its two titles doesn’t do justice. Bobby Bowden built a dynasty that seems to be irrelevant in the national conversation recently.
From 1987-00, FSU set an NCAA record finishing in the top 5 in the AP poll 14 consecutive seasons. During that stretch, the Noles won their two national championships, won 11 bowl games total, won nine ACC titles and produced two Heisman trophy winners. From ’93-01, FSU appeared in five national championship games. During the ‘90s, FSU won 89 percent of its games. The Noles made a cultural impact, as Deion Sanders came along and tried to upstage The U in style and swag.
Today, the Seminoles are a whisper on the national scene. Once a forever program, now a never behemoth. Outside of Tallahassee, where’s the impact? Where has it gone?
More importantly, how do the Seminoles bring it back?
* * *
Sports is a fickle business. Success is finite. Stop winning, and the buzz and cameras and media travel to another town in pursuit of another story.
And that’s been the story for Florida State in the past half-decade. Barely .500 seasons times mid-tier bowls divided by academic scandal equals zzzzzzz.
Well, not the academic scandal. That drew plenty of publicity to the program that it surely could have done without.
In 2007, discrepancies regarding an online music course surfaced, and the football program was one of several programs at FSU with players accused of cheating. After the minutiae and fuzzy alibis were sorted through, almost two dozen Seminoles were suspended for the ’07 Music City Bowl, a game FSU lost to Kentucky 35-28. FSU also lost scholarships, vacated 12 wins, and remains on probation until 2013.
Then two years later, the school’s most iconic figure and greatest ambassador, was shoved out. Or that’s Bowden’s story, anyway. Bowden was supposed to retire after the 2010 season, but after the Noles finished the ‘09 regular season 6-6 — losing to the Florida Gators 37-10 in their last game before the Gator Bowl – school president T.K. Wetherell called a meeting with Bowden.
“Bobby this isn’t going to be pretty,” Wetherell reportedly said when Bowden walked in.
Wetherell gave Bowden two options: stay on as an ambassador coach with no on-field responsibility, or watch the school not renew his contract. Bowden, a competitor and storied coach, immediately declined the first option. He ended up announcing his resignation, and the Gator Bowl was his farewell to the Seminoles.
Bowden released a book last year, Called To Coach, which delves into his side of the story. The coach said he was “forced” out and that he didn’t want to retire. It’s a symbol of how things have gone recently in Tallahassee. The coach who made the program everything it is today couldn’t even leave on his own terms.
When Bobby Bowden drifted away from the program, the Seminoles drifted away from relevancy.
* * *
Bowden resurfaced this week, looking tired and restless.
He’s been on a media tour promoting education and awareness for prostate cancer.
On Good Morning America, Bowden revealed that he was treated for prostate cancer in 2007, a story he somehow kept within the confines of his immediate family – and even they didn’t get many details – for reasons other than dealing with serious health issues is an extremely personal and exhaustive experience.
“What I knew was when something like that happens to a coach and your opponents find out about it, the first thing they say is, ‘Don’t go to Florida State, Coach Bowden is going to die,’” Bowden said.
If anyone knows how the sausage is made in big-time college sports, it’s Bowden, so there’s surely some truth to those words. And as much as we would like to think that people wouldn’t use someone’s poor health to gain an advantage, we aren’t that naïve.
What’s more telling, though, is that Bowden felt, after all these years and all this success, he needed to hide a potentially life threatening disease in the name of recruiting and maintaining the health of Florida State football. He knew the wins weren’t enough. To keep his job, not even cancer could interfere.
This would indicate that the pressure from the administration suffocated Bowden long before the meeting with Wetherell. And Florida State hasn’t been the same.
This game against the Sooners provides an opportunity for the Jimbo Fisher Seminoles to grab some of that lore back. Grab the Bowden brand back. Grab national respect back.
The Seminoles have a budding star in quarterback EJ Manuel. They have an excellent secondary. They return eight starters on each side of the ball. The kind of talent that Bowden used to bring in regularly is there in Tallahassee.
The culture is what it has always been. StubHub reported that this game is the highest-selling Florida State home game in company history. Noles fans are fired up for this, and rightfully so.
They know they are part of Osceola and Renegade and a tradition that is more than a century in the making and worthy of college football’s grandest stage.
They know their program has vastly underperformed in recent seasons.
They know there is an overdue statement waiting to be made, one that needs to be made on this night in Tallahassee.
Teddy Mitrosilis is an Assistant Editor for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. You can follow him on Twitter here and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.