JACKSONVILLE — Bobby Bowden had all eyes on him again Friday, likely for the final time.
The hours leading up to kickoff of Friday’s Gator Bowl between Florida State and No. 18 West Virginia were filled with tributes to the retiring Seminoles coach, starting with thousands of people lining a rainy path to greet Bowden and his wife, Ann, as they walked into the stadium.
Bowden’s team then gave him a fine farewell, defeating 18th-ranked West Virginia 33-21, the final game of his 44-year career.
Bowden finished his career with a 389-129-4 record.
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More than 350 of Bowden’s former players were there as guests, dozens of photographers tried to capture every moment, and the 80-year-old coach acknowledged that it all touched him deeply.
“I’m very excited. Ann and I are very excited to be here in front of the Seminoles and also the Mountaineers,” Bowden said from the field to a sold-out crowd moments before kickoff. “I couldn’t help but get nostalgic when I heard the West Virginia band play their fight song. And then also, to hear the Seminoles play ours.”
Bowden, who announced his retirement Dec. 1, got a rare treat as well.
One of Florida State’s most revered traditions at home games is to plant a flaming spear at midfield. To commemorate his final game, Bowden took the spear from Chief Osceola — a nod to the Seminole Tribe of Florida — hoisted it toward the Seminoles’ sideline and slammed the point into the turf.
It was one of many pregame highlights for Bowden. He agreed to the “Bowden Walk,” despite the 52-degree temperature and steady rain that pelted 2 1/2 hours before kickoff. When the Florida State caravan arrived, Bowden emerged and made his way through an estimated 10,000 fans, holding an umbrella with one hand and waving to well-wishers with the other.
Fans were packed six-deep along both sides of the route, many of them chanting “Bob-by! Bob-by!” and doing the familiar Seminole war chop.
Once in the locker room, he was greeted by many of his former players, Deion Sanders and Chris Weinke among them.
“This game is all about honoring Coach Bowden,” Florida State linebacker Dekoda Watson said.
Bowden, who’ll retire as the second-winningest coach in major college football, came onto the field about 10 minutes before his players. He stood with his wife and watched a 5-minute tribute video as much of the crowd — both sides of the stadium, since Bowden also was West Virginia’s head coach from 1970 through 1975 — roared in delight.
When the video ended, Bowden was given a new car, a gift from the Gator Bowl. “Thank you so much for this car,” said Bowden, who also served as the grand marshal of Thursday’s Gator Bowl parade.