December 7, 2005
TALLAHASSEE -- Hand-in-hand, Florida State players ran onto the field at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville for the inaugural ACC football championship game against Virginia Tech as a 14-point underdog.
Arm-in-arm, they walked off with a 27-22 victory and perhaps the most improbable, if not sweetest, of their 12 league championships in 14 seasons.
"This is what you call shocking the world," FSU freshman defensive tackle Letroy Guion said. "We came out to play as a team, and that's what did it for us."
It's a cliché, to be sure, but Guion certainly had a good argument in support of his explanation. That's because no one who had watched Florida State fade away during a 34-7 loss at rival Florida a week earlier gave the Seminoles much of a chance against the Hokies. No one, that is, except a core group in the FSU locker room.
Count senior tailback Leon Washington, perhaps the most straight-shooting of all players, among that group. Still, few would have held him accountable for his benign promise following the "embarrassing" defeat to the Gators.
"The seniors," Washington said, "are not going to let this team fall apart."
It took some keen vision to see where Washington was coming from, a vision obscured by three consecutive defeats, which led the line of questioning down the path of responsibility. As in, who was responsible for the Seminoles' historic collapse?
Washington, who has been brutally honest in his assessment of the coaches in the past, passed up the opportunity to join the building chorus of fans intent on chasing offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden from the program. No, the Seminoles looked internally for inspiration while coming under fire from all corners, as the media chronicled their demise.
Assistant coaches and players alike said they have never seen -- or heard -- Bobby Bowden as angry as he was in the days leading up to the ACC title game.
"I know he was adamant," Washington said. "He was mad about people talking about us."
Bowden's week-long slow-burn was the equivalent to throwing another log on the fire. The Seminoles already had determined that they weren't going to relinquish their role as the perennial ACC power to the Hokies without trading blows, and that determination came from within.
"We told everybody last night: Forget about the outside," Washington said, afterward. "This is about us. We talked about doing this thing for us. If everybody wants to join in, great."
SENIORS KEPT LOSING TEAM UNITED
Far too often, Bowden's 30th Florida State team has been miscast. Radio reports in Jacksonville prior to the Virginia Tech game suggested that the locker room was racially divided based on the decision to play quarterback Drew Weatherford over Xavier Lee. Rumors of respected assistant Kevin Steele leaving to take the Georgia Southern job also were broadcast. Then, of course, there was the continued noise over Jeff Bowden's future as the Seminoles' offensive coordinator.
Between bristling over the questions about his son's struggling offense, Bobby Bowden insisted that his team had never given up, despite its 7-4 record during the regular season. But somewhere along the line, critics mistakenly confused the Seminoles' physical shortcomings (largely the result of injuries and recruiting errors) and made the leap that the problems were internal, much as they truly had been in some recent seasons.
But this team was different. "This team handled adversity really well," Washington said. It handled it because its seniors stood up and were held accountable.
Washington stuck his neck out early on, when in August he selected the Friday night before the ACC championship game -- in his hometown of Jacksonville -- to deliver his senior speech, despite warnings that he may never even get that chance. Meanwhile, it was sixth-year senior center David Castillo's idea to walk onto the field holding hands.
On the field, senior defenders Brodrick Bunkley, Pat Watkins, Kyler Hall and A.J. Nicholson were stuffing the Hokies' ACC-leading run offense and generally making life miserable for quarterback Marcus Vick. Then there was senior receiver/return specialist Willie Reid, who provided the game-changing play, an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter that broke a 3-3 deadlock.
"Somebody had to make a play," Washington said. "I told Willie Reid, Thank you. I love you.'"
Reid's burst opened the floodgates. Watkins' interception on the Hokies' ensuing drive set up Washington's 14-yard touchdown run for a 17-3 lead. Reid made a leaping grab for a 41-yard gain, leading to a field goal, before Hall and Bunkley came through with a tag-team effort, forcing and recovering a fumble. Weatherford's six-yard touchdown pass to wideout Chris Davis made it 27-3.
Exhausted, the Seminoles somehow managed to hang on despite a furious Tech rally. That was yet another nod to the fortitude of a team that virtually everyone had dismissed.
"We stayed unified through all the troubling times," Bunkley said. "Every team goes through times like that. That's the way champions do it; they overcome those problems."
Reminding anyone within earshot, Washington had one final message for the Hokies and the rest of the league: "The ACC still has to come through Florida State."
That's a lesson the three expansion newcomers -- Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech -- each learned the hard way this season. Now Bowden hopes that Washington and his senior classmates can pass along the same lesson to the underclassmen.
BOARD, PRESIDENT TACKLE FOOTBALL
The outcry for Jeff Bowden's removal as offensive coordinator has reached the stage that politics soon could play a role in the outcome.
At least three members of the university's board of trustees -- chairman Jim Smith, past-chairman John Thrasher and former FSU linebacker Derrick Brooks -- want Bobby Bowden's youngest son out of the post he's held since the 2001 season. All three, however, are extremely close to the head coach, though Brooks' relationship has soured since he approached Bowden about replacing Jeff after last season.
Then there is FSU president T.K. Wetherell, a wide receiver for the Seminoles in the mid-1960s, when Bowden was his position coach. Despite fielding a barrage of calls and letters on behalf of supporters who want a new man calling plays, Wetherell wants no part of forcing the hand of the man he dearly adores.
Bowden has made it abundantly clear that he has grown tired of the criticism of his son, whose offense led the ACC this season and also contributed to its league championship victory over Virginia Tech.
"It irritates me that as soon as we lose a ballgame, Let's fire Jeff Bowden,'" Bowden said, his anger aimed directly at the media following FSU's 34-7 loss at Florida. "That's really cowardly to me. ... I think people are getting personal. They better be glad I like to keep this job."
In the end, Wetherell will leave the issue to athletic director Dave Hart. On more than one occasion, Wetherell has pointed out that Hart makes more money than he does, and therefore should be responsible for the ticklish personnel matter. It's a job no one wants. Some even fear that Bowden would announce his retirement rather than replace his son.
But the board of trustees could make that happen with an affirmative vote to have Jeff Bowden removed. Wetherell would in turn drop that hot potato directly into Hart's lap.