TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – High atop The House That Bowden Built is a stained-glass painting of the revered coach looking down on his garnet-clad masses, an homage to the squatty, homespun man who took this school to the promised land of blowout wins and national championships.

Notre Dame has its Touchdown Jesus.

Well, doggone it, Florida State has its Touchdown Bobby.

After the sun goes down, Bobby Bowden’s colorful image shines brightly from the north side of Doak Campbell Stadium. But the luster on his football program clearly has dimmed, raising the once-unthinkable prospect of college football’s winningest coach being shunted off to his beach home for an unwanted retirement.

Even before the Seminoles limped into November with a .500 record – their worst at this point in the season since 1976 – a prominent booster already had called for Bowden to step aside. The ubiquitous Web site has emerged pleading for a new coach (though, in showing some reverence for Bowden, it uses the word “retire” rather than “fire”). The school’s president and its powerful fundraising group have been bombarded with e-mails calling for changes to restore the Seminoles to their once-lofty position.

Through it all, Bowden has drawn a line in the sand. He insists the program is in good shape, just unlucky. He reacts angrily to criticism of his youngest son, Jeff, who also happens to be his offensive coordinator. And he genuinely believes there’s still time to turn things around, even with his 77th birthday looming just days away.

“It might be easy to go to the beach, but I don’t want to do it,” Bowden said this week, walking beneath the stands of the 82,000-seat stadium that his success and personality helped create. “I don’t know what else I would do. I would rather do this than retire.”

Bowden is a dominating figure among the moss-draped oaks of Tallahassee – and not just because there’s a 9-foot-tall bronze statue of him outside of Doak Campbell’s north gate.

The Seminoles had won four games in three seasons before Bowden arrived in 1976, but he quickly transformed them into a national powerhouse that featured a high-scoring offense and innovative gimmicks. The football program’s success helped raise tens of millions of dollars, allowing Florida State to more than double the size of its stadium and surround an eyesore of a structure with an impressive brick facade that blends in with the rest of the campus.

Even now, Bowden still charms everyone from big-money boosters to lowly freshmen with his self-deprecating wit, with a “dadgum it” here or “doggone it” there delivered in a soothing Alabama drawl, and his willingness to wade into the middle of the Seminole faithful to sign autographs, answer questions or just chat.

Every Monday, Bowden attends a luncheon put on by the school’s booster group, munching on his meal at the head table before taking a few queries on the state of the program.

Inevitably, he receives a standing ovation when he’s introduced. But beneath all the smiles, a revolt is brewing.

The highlights are harder to find, the questions much tougher for a coach who once dominated the college football landscape like no other. Beginning in 1987, the Seminoles began an unprecedented run of 14 straight seasons in which they never lost more than two games and always finished in the top five of The Associated Press rankings. Florida State won two national championships and kicked away some others with all those wide lefts against rival Miami.

Even when the occasional scandal broke out – remember Free Shoes University? – it didn’t stick. He passed Bear Bryant on the career wins list and dueled with fellow octogenarian Joe Paterno for the ultimate title of winningest coach in major-college history.

Things began to change in 2001. This will be the sixth year in a row that the Seminoles (4-4) finish with at least three losses. They are last in their division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, a league they dominated with 12 titles in their first 14 years in the league.

They enter Saturday’s game against Virginia talking about becoming bowl eligible, not winning another championship.

“We’re an also-ran,” said Monk Bonasorte, one of Bowden’s earliest stars at Florida State and now president of the Varsity Club, which represents the school’s former athletes. “We’re in the middle of the pack in the ACC, or actually below the middle of the pack. We’re not talked about on ESPN anymore. The only thing that’s talked about is how Florida State is in last place. That’s hard for a program that has the national prominence we have.”

Bowden is under increasing pressure to get rid of his son Jeff, who took over as offensive coordinator when Mark Richt left to become Georgia’s highly successful head coach in 2001.

The changeover marked a distinct turning point in Florida State’s fortunes. Coincidence or not, the team began losing more games, and the most feared offense in all of college football wasn’t so scary anymore. Naturally, Bowden’s boy became a scapegoat.

This e-mail, sent by longtime booster Larry D. Beltz to Florida State president T.K. Wetherell, captures the sentiment of many Seminole fans.

“The fans are not upset with losing, although we all enjoy winning,” Beltz wrote in the e-mail, which was obtained from the university through an open-records request. “They are upset with how FSU football has lost all its excitement since Mark Richt left and Jeff Bowden took over. He is not competent to coach the quality of players that FSU has. He has continued to demonstrate this year after year for the last six years. If his name wasn’t Bowden, he would have been gone long ago, and if that’s not true, then you would have to consider Bobby’s abilities at this point.

“Are FSU fans doomed until Bobby retires or, God forbid, dies before we’re rid of Jeff?”

Of course, the most effective weapon boosters have is their checkbooks. Beltz, who said he’s donated more than $500,000 over the last 20 years, vowed to use that power to force a change.

“I, for one, will cut my contribution in half next year,” he wrote, “and I have many friends who say they’re doing the same.”

Nothing irritates the elder Bowden more than the criticism of his son. His voice rises and his sparkling blue eyes turn cold when he’s asked whether Jeff is the cause of Florida State’s troubles.

“That is so unfair, it’s unbelievable,” Bowden said. “OK, some of it is correct. But it’s just blown so far out of proportion, it’s unbelievable. If you check our stats in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is the conference we’re in, we’re on top of everything except maybe running.”

In that respect, Bowden is right. Florida State ranks first in passing yards (251 yards per game), second in total yards (362) and third in scoring (a 28.2 average). What he doesn’t mention is how those numbers pale in comparison to the glory days.

For the 1987-00 seasons, the Seminoles averaged 38.7 points and 468.6 yards a game. Over the last five years, it dropped off to 30.4 points and 397 yards. They’re headed for their third straight season of less than 30 points a game, which hasn’t happened since Papa Bowden’s first three years. The running game has become especially inept, averaging 94 yards in 2005 and ranking 10th in the ACC this season (111 yards).

Former Florida State quarterback Peter Tom Willis, an outspoken analyst on the school’s radio network, has gone so far as to say that it looks like the Seminoles are running “a high school offense.”

Ann Bowden also has chimed in.

“I’ve even asked him, ‘Do you really feel that Jeff is making the right decisions,”‘ said Florida State’s first lady of football. “He said, ‘Look, if I didn’t think he was, he wouldn’t be out there.”‘

Wetherell has said repeatedly that Bowden can stay with the Seminoles as long as he likes, which isn’t surprising in light of their close relationship. When Wetherell played receiver at Florida State in the 1960s, Bowden was his position coach.

Although the coach’s current contract ends after the 2007 season, athletic director Dave Hart said there’s a gentleman’s agreement to extend it one year at time. Hart wouldn’t evaluate Bowden or his staff, saying “we’ll do it just like we have the last 12 years – at the end of the season.”

Plenty of Florida State fans already have reached their own conclusions.

Peter Mettler, a Palm Beach, Fla., attorney and former board member of Seminole Boosters Inc., praises the coach’s brilliant career but said it’s time for him to retire. In a letter to Wetherell, the booster wrote, “As our president, I urge you to be the leader I know you are, and do what has to be done.”

On the Web site www.retirecoachbowden.com, there’s a framed picture of the frowning coach accompanied by the caption, “Dazed and Confused.”

It goes on to say, “We mourn the demise of Florida State University Seminole football at the hands of its most trusted builder.” Then it lists each of the 23 losses since the start of the 2001 season, an era it calls the “Bobby and Jeff Pony Show.”

Richt is amazed by such things.

“He took Florida State’s program from almost getting ready to be extinct to one of the major powers in the country,” Richt said. “It’s pretty ridiculous to think that he should have to go through that kind of stuff. But it’s about winning, and it’s about what have you done for me lately.”

Bobby Bowden is unmoved by the criticism. He points out that plenty of people called for his ouster at West Virginia after a losing season in 1974. After moving to Florida State, there were voices of discontent when the Seminoles slipped to 6-5 in 1981 after back-to-back appearances in the Orange Bowl.

“It’s not as tough as you would think,” he said. “If I was 40 years of age, it would be very difficult. I would be wondering if my career was over or about to be over. But most of my career is behind me anyway.”

Bowden points to numerous close losses – Florida State’s four defeats are by a total of 19 points – and a rash of injuries on defense.

“In my 54 years of coaching, I’ve never had a year like this,” he moaned. “Every game is the same ol’ thing: one more play, one more play, one more play, one less penalty, one less turnover. I don’t know how to account for it. But one of these days, we’re going to come out of that and start making that one play.”

Jeff Bowden said he’s never discussed the idea of stepping down to take some of the heat off his father. “No. Never. N-O,” he said defiantly.

He must have gotten that from his daddy. Always fiercely loyal to his assistants, Bobby Bowden scoffs at the idea of firing his son or anyone else to win favor with the administration or the school’s rabid boosters.

“It’s never been my nature to sacrifice somebody for a popularity contest,” he said. “I don’t play that game.”

The Florida State players blame themselves for letting it come to this.

“We take it personally,” ailing quarterback Drew Weatherford said. “We’re the players out there. He’s doing everything possible to prepare us and get us ready to play. He’s been doing it a long time. He knows how to do it. We just haven’t made enough plays down the stretch. We easily could be 8-0, but we’re sitting here 4-4.”

Bowden takes solace in similar trials faced by coaches of equal stature.

Some people wondered if Bryant was through in the early ’70s, when Alabama had back-to-back losing seasons in the Southeastern Conference, but the Bear rebounded to win two more national championships.

Then there’s Paterno, who was under intense pressure to quit when Penn State had four losing seasons in five years. Paterno stubbornly refused to go. At age 78, he led the Nittany Lions to an 11-1 mark, the Big Ten championship and a memorable overtime win over Bowden’s Seminoles in last season’s Orange Bowl.

“Those things keep ringing in your mind,” Bowden said. “You realize that nobody is immune to this. It can happen to anybody.”

There’s another issue that can’t be ignored. Paterno, who is just three wins behind Bowden, has shown no inclination of retiring as he approaches his 80th birthday. Whoever finishes first in this marathon likely will keep the record forever, because it’s hard to imagine another coach hanging around as long.

“I think he would like to go out on top,” Ann Bowden said of her husband. “Deep down, I think he enjoys that legacy.”

Paterno said he might give Bowden a call, but only to offer encouragement – not advice.

“Bobby knows what kind of coach he is,” JoePa said. “He will come out of it all right.”

Bryant went out on top, but he died of a heart attack in January 1983 – less than a month after his final game. That still has a chilling effect on Bowden, who has long said that there’s only one significant event left in your life after you retire.

“I do think about that,” Bowden said. “I remember coach Bryant saying, ‘I’ll probably croak a month after I retire,’ or something like that. What did he live, a month? I do remember that.”

Associated Press writers Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Genaro Armas in State College, Pa., and Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.

AP-ES-11-02-06 1944EST

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