If I were playing for FSU, a tipsy stroll down Bourbon Street would be exactly what I'd be aiming for, too. You see, this isn't exactly the best of times to be an FSU fan, coach, player, student -- heck, even the president. In what feels more and more like the end of an era, head coach Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles are limping into town for the Nokia Sugar Bowl -- from that dismal six-hour trek down I-10 -- in what may be FSU's darkest hour in years.
A second consecutive season with four losses, along with an almost guaranteed repeat shut-out from a top-10 ranking in the polls. The starting quarterback oversleeps and misses two final exams and is academically ineligible. His backup (and one-time replacement) was kicked off the team last month after being arrested on stolen-check charges. The local paper (my former employer) and everyone else are investigating allegations of widespread gambling among players, student trainers, team managers and other students on FSU's campus. (My favorite Bowden quote last week in the Tallahassee Democrat: "We bring in law enforcement people to talk to our kids -- to talk about the danger. We really hit gambling hard because it's such a big thing with the NCAA." Right. Not because it's unethical or anything.)
And in the fog of all this, the school hires its new president, former Florida state House of Representatives speaker T.K. Wetherell (himself an ex-FSU football player), who previously was the president at the local community college. The runners-up: a former president of Ohio State University and a former Dartmouth College provost and UCLA law professor.
Our rival, the University of Florida, has a very emphatic cheer: "It's great ... to be ... a Florida Gator!" Our cheer is more elliptical: "How 'bout them 'Noles?" Now I see why; the answer depends on the day.
When I moved here four years ago and later got all excited about FSU's national-championship showdown with Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, I was stunned to hear how much New Orleanians hated FSU. Then came the reasons: FSU fans don't spend enough money. Locals are tired of seeing the team's continual presence in the bowl; this game will mark FSU's sixth appearance since 1989 and fifth in nine years. Then there's that admittedly annoying, politically incorrect tomahawk chop and warbling cheer that goes something like, "Heeeey, uh-HAY-uh hooaaaa, heeeey, uh-HAY-uh hooooaaa" (repeat as needed, or ad nauseum).
Even Times-Picayune sports columnist Dave Lagarde got into the act two weeks ago with his little joke that FSU fans bring a shirt and a $20 bill to New Orleans -- and don't change either one during their stay. (To which, if you wanna get personal, I say to the award-winning writer: nice haircut.)
It's getting tougher and tougher to defend my alma mater, but it wasn't always like this. I grew up in the dark shadows of FSU's weakest era, culminating in a 0-11 season and subsequent calls to eliminate the football program. Then came Bobby Bowden, the Alabama miracle worker, the man who turned around FSU's fortunes to the point that the most popular bumper sticker in town was "Hail St. Bowden." In 20 years, FSU went from 0-11 to 12-0 and a national championship -- with several missed opportunities thanks to rival Miami Hurricanes. We truly were a Cinderella story.
But it seemed like the greater FSU's success, the darker its reputation. The national media that once swooned over Bowden's folksy witticisms (his favorite phrase: "Dad-gummit") grew weary as FSU suffered many of the growing pains of a successful football program: suspect commitment to academics, questionable discipline, especially for star players, and basic greed.
The bottom fell out during what was supposed to be FSU's finest hour, when Sports Illustrated followed the Seminoles' first championship season of 1993 with a shattering expose on how scouts for professional sports agents had infiltrated the team. It was called the "Foot Locker" scandal when it was reported that the agents/scouts pre-paid for players to binge on an after-hours, gratis shopping spree at a local mall's Foot Locker store.
Years later, The New York Times ran a scathing piece on how Bowden, a devout Southern Baptist and lay preacher, pushes the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on his players.
And it's always seemed to be like that with FSU; even when times are supposed to be great, something always ruins the moment. Like when FSU won its first Sugar Bowl back in 1989; Deion Sanders, the flamboyant cornerback and kick returner, pulled off a game-saving interception in the end zone to beat Auburn 13-7. The only problem was, Sanders never should have been on the field, but Bowden decided to let Sanders participate even though the player skipped all of his final exams and was arrested a few weeks earlier for shoplifting and verbal assault at a mall in his hometown.
Two years ago, Bowden meted out conveniently timed punishment for wide receiver-kick returner Peter Warrick, who after himself getting arrested for participating in a shoplifting scam at a local mall missed only three games. He returned just in time to help FSU win that Sugar Bowl game against Virginia Tech and its second national title. (What is it with Seminoles and malls, anyway?)
There's no mystery, really. What it all boils down to is, as a school that was an all-women's school until 1947, Florida State suffers from the same symptoms of every other "nouveau riche" athletic program. With little influence in the state Legislature (dominated by University of Florida graduates), FSU for years suffered with its weak-sister status. Essentially, FSU had to buy its success and has felt compelled to earn that money with inconsistent regard for the circumstances. (FSU was, in fact, one of the first athletic programs to ink a massive corporate-sponsorship deal with Nike.)
And now, in the twilight of the 73-year-old Bowden's career, the chickens appear to be coming home to roost. When I returned for Thanksgiving weekend, I was met with the same "the old man's losin' it" gossip I heard as a sportswriter nearly a decade ago. That's mainly because Bowden's counterpart in this week's Sugar Bowl, Georgia coach Mark Richt, was a longtime Bowden assistant and FSU's offensive coordinator until leaving after the 1999 season. The Bulldogs are ranked fifth; FSU is No. 16.
Bowden replaced Richt not by conducting a nationwide search, but by hiring his own son Jeff, who brought minimal coaching experience to the job. (FSU apparently used the same approach in its presidential search.) Some FSU supporters believe it was Richt, not Bowden, who was the brains behind FSU's offense during those national-title runs. Now, working without a net and with a numbskull son for an assistant, Bowden's age and cluelessness are being exposed, they argue.
Maybe so. Or maybe it's because Bowden's been working with inexperienced quarterbacks and myriad injuries the past two seasons. All great programs have to go through rebuilding phases at some point. What's tougher to understand -- and, as a fan, to defend -- are the continued arrests, investigations, academic blunders and what feels like a lack of control over the program. Because when you're living in a town where it's already tough being a Seminole, you need all the help you can get.
How 'bout them 'Noles? Can I get back to you on that one?