JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- For Bobby Bowden, the last month has been both gratifying and uncomfortable.
Never in his 34 years at Florida State, his 44 years as a head coach -- shoot, his 80 years of living -- has Bowden coveted the type of attention he's received since it became known that his career was coming to a close. Not the two national championships, the 388 wins, his name etched on the Seminoles' field, nothing made him embrace the notion by just about everyone crossing his path.
"He's our hero," said Jimbo Fisher, who'll replace Bowden as coach next week.
Whether Bowden likes it or not, a hero's send-off awaits today, when he leads Florida State for the last time.
Could there be a better tribute for a history buff like Bowden? His path began at West Virginia, and it'll be those 18th-ranked Mountaineers (9-3) on the opposite sideline today, facing the Seminoles (6-6) in the Gator Bowl, the 522nd and final game of Bowden's life as a football coach.
"I really couldn't think of a more fitting situation," Bowden said. "I hope that the West Virginians enjoy it as much as I do."
Oh, they will.
Bill Stewart wouldn't have it any other way.
The Mountaineers coach knows he's wearing the black hat, the person with the job of lining up across from one of his mentors -- Bowden allowed the 177-pound linebacker and long snapper to walk onto his West Virginia team in 1970 -- and spoiling the ending of a storied career. There's a 10-win season at stake for West Virginia, but even Stewart knows it all takes a back seat to witnessing history.
"Our guys, they know what they're up against," Stewart said. "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'm not going to dwell on it. They know it's not another football game. It's an important football game."
Bowden has done very little in the way of coaching since the team arrived in Jacksonville, simply because he's been tugged countless other directions.
A quick interview here. Autograph seekers there. Photos every few steps, almost no matter where he is. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners in his honor. A parade to grand marshal.
"To us, losing this game, losing Coach Bowden's last game, that's not an option," Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel said.
Even the West Virginia players realize the significance, although they acknowledge feeling a bit slighted on the attention meter.
"All the work he's put in throughout his career, the attention he's getting in this game is deserved," Mountaineers linebacker Reed Williams said. "He's a legendary coach and it's truly an honor to be playing in his last game, against him and his guys. But there's two football teams in this game. We know that and they know that."
The last pregame celebratory event comes this morning, a pregame walk where Bowden will lead the Seminoles through throngs of fans and well-wishers into the stadium. City officials are bracing for hours-long traffic headaches.
Somehow, Bowden is worried no one will show up.
"I hope somebody's there," Bowden said. "You ever try to slap a hand and there ain't one there?"
The outpouring of accolades Bowden has received this week comes tinged in some irony, since the past few seasons at Florida State have been difficult. Many moves were questioned, Bowden always was getting asked about his retirement plans and it all -- combined with plenty of losing, at a clip like Bowden never experienced before -- began to take a toll.
Bowden wanted to coach at least one more year, then announced Dec. 1 that he would retire. But Thursday, he said that he feels so strong and spry that if a five-year contract was offered, he would have immediately accepted.
"But I didn't win dadgum games to deserve it," Bowden said.
So it's one last game, and then Fisher's time at the controls begins.
"The first thing I'll do is not try to be Bobby Bowden," Fisher said. "There's only one Bobby Bowden. There'll never be another Bobby Bowden. You try to learn from everybody. History's our greatest teacher, in my opinion. And the big thing is, be myself. Apply some principles and values they taught me, but then be myself."
Bowden will graciously let that happen. He'll watch Florida State games from afar, at least for the next year he said, just to ensure that no one thinks he's looking over Fisher's shoulder.
"It's his time," Bowden said.
And for Florida State, that meant it was time to bid Bowden a long farewell.
Bowden said he apologized to Stewart this week for all the fuss over his final game -- but no one is apologizing for the matchup. West Virginia, Bowden said, earned its way to the Gator Bowl, while the Seminoles were essentially gifted the spot in the game, since almost no other circumstance exists where a 6-6 team would go to a bowl like this.
"It's more than special," said West Virginia running back Noel Devine, who was once mentored by Deion Sanders -- a Florida State star under Bowden -- and almost signed with the Seminoles. "There's a lot that's involved in this game."
Then, at least for Bowden, it all ends.
Bowden has big plans for the next few months. Golf, lots and lots of golf. He'll be more involved with his church and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes than ever before, and he's already lined up speaking engagements around the globe.
California. Hawaii. Brazil. West Virginia. He's talking about a trip to see troops in Iraq. If he finds the time, maybe he'll even figure out how to work his cell phone.
One thing he doesn't plan to do Friday? Cry.
No need, he said.
To him, this Gator Bowl is a celebration, not an ending.
"The thing I'll miss the most is the guys," Bowden said. "Not just the ones that are here. ... It's the people you've been with that you miss. That's part of life. Gee whiz, there's more to life to me than football, folks."