AOL News has a new home! The Huffington Post.

Click here to visit the new home of AOL News!

Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories

In Gator Bowl, a Battle of Friendly Fire

Dec 22, 2009 – 5:13 PM
Text Size
Jim Henry

Jim Henry %BloggerTitle%

Bill Stewart is among the many ardent Bobby Bowden supporters.

The West Virginia head coach calls Bowden one of his heroes and an icon to college football. Stewart completely understands -- and embraces -- the historical significance of the Mountaineers' game against Bowden and Florida State on New Year's Day in the Gator Bowl. Unfortunately, Stewart is well aware of the flip side, too.

"I just hope my guys, honest to God, are not so hyped-up that we go overboard and get all discombobulated, so to speak," the good-natured Stewart explained Tuesday on a teleconference with the media.

The Gator Bowl, as the world knows, marks Bowden's final game as a head coach after nearly 60 years in college football, the last 34 spent at FSU.

Adding to the drama is that it will come against the school that gave him his first Division I head coaching job and against a friend in Stewart, who embodies Bowden's folksy charm and down-to-earth style.

Bowden will be looking to earn his 389th career win in Jacksonville, Fla, before reluctantly stepping into a retirement that should include more time for his passion, golf, speaking engagements and traveling. Bowden and wife Ann are scheduled to tour Israel this summer.

The game also is important to the Mountaineers, who have won four consecutive bowl games and feature 24 Floridians on their roster. WVU might not look at itself as the villain in this made-for-Broadway showdown, but the Mountaineers know they will be out-numbered in the sellout crowd.

The Gator Bowl sold out in less than two hours and FSU's ticket office received 30,000 requests for an allotted 13,500 tickets.

"I told our guys, they know what they are up against," Stewart said.

"I know each and every coach, support staff and most importantly the Florida State Seminole players are going to do everything they can to send this great, great human being and coach out with a win. Our players know it. I am not going to dwell it. I just told them what they are up against and they know exactly it's not another football game.

"It's an important football game. It's a chance for us to win another bowl and Florida State to go out winners," for Bowden.

Bowden, who hopes to schedule time with former WVU players while in Jacksonville, arrived in Morgantown, W.Va., in 1965 as an assistant under Jim Carlen. When Carlen left following the 1969 season to become head coach at Texas Tech, Bowden replaced him.

Stewart's relationship with the Bowden family began that season in 1970, when the skinny freshman linebacker and long snapper from New Martinsville, W. Va., joined the Mountaineers as a "tag-along" with established and recruited prep teammate Wib Newton.

Stewart also befriended Bowden's oldest son Steve during his one season.

"[Bobby Bowden] was so gracious to let me walk-on. He didn't personally recruit me, I can assure you of that," Stewart laughed.

Although Stewart transferred to nearby Fairmont State College, where he was a three-year letterman and team captain for the WVIAC champions in 1974, Bowden's influence remained.

Bowden's six-year record at WVU was 46-24, including three victories over old rivals Pitt and Virginia Tech. He had just one losing season, though that bottom fell out in 1974. The Mountaineers went 4-7 and Bowden survived the indignity of being hung in effigy.

Bowden left WVU for FSU in 1976 and the rest, as they say, is history.

"I always loved the man, admired the man and I always said, 'Boy, that would be a guy I sure would try to emulate if I ever got in this business,' and I did," Stewart said.

"He's very fair, a great man, and a tremendous football coach and we all knew it."

That's not to say Stewart doesn't want to ruin Bowden's finale.

While West Virginia's offense failed to score more than 24 points in any of its final five games, it remains a dangerous attack.

The Mountaineers' best player is running back/Floridian Noel Devine, who finished second in the Big East with 1,372 yards and fourth with 12 touchdowns.

Quarterback Jarrett Brown was third in the conference with 2,129 passing yards, but threw only 11 touchdowns with eight interceptions in 12 games.

West Virginia and FSU share one common opponent -- USF. The Bulls defeated FSU, 17-7, in Tallahassee, Sept. 26, and defeated the Mountaineers in Tampa, 30-19, on Oct. 30.
bill stewart
The Seminoles are 4-0 under Bowden in the Gator Bowl, including double-digit wins over West Virginia in 1982 and 2005.

Bowden is also happy that he'll go out against West Virginia, the school the Seminoles played to start their NCAA string of 28 straight bowl invitations.

Don't worry. The Mountaineers are well aware of Bowden's legacy.

"Our players know this is a big, big game in the career of coach Bowden," Stewart said.

"They know we will get their best shot; we as a staff know that. But our players absolutely know what he has done for college football and they know what they are up against.

"They also know they better come down ready to play in a very disciplined game or we will get caught up in all that hype and it will go against us."
Filed under: Sports