Compared to Bobby Bowden, King Midas had the touch of lead.

With its second straight Orange Bowl invitation on Saturday, Florida State certified one of the most successful rebuilding projects of a football program in recent years.

Credit Bowden, the head coach with the magic hands who arrived in Tallahassee in 1976 as a largely unknown commodity in Florida but who now enjoys a golden reputation from Pensacola to Miami.

From 1973 through 1975, FSU had a 4-29 record. There were allegations of a brutal offseason training program in 1973 and a resultant NCAA probation the following year. Attendance averaged less than 30,000.

"It was depressing," said John Bridgers, who became athletic director during the middle of all this and now is trying to patch things up at New Mexico. "It was just kind of hard to find anybody who expressed much enthusiasm for football. Everyone was half-mad or all the way mad."

Bridgers hired Bowden, the moderately successful (42-26) coach at West Virginia, after a 3-8 FSU season in 1975. Bridgers had known Bowden from Bowden's days as a quarterback at tiny Howard (now Samford) University in Alabama. Bowden was an assistant at FSU under Bill Peterson in 1964 and longed to return to the Florida panhandle.

The results were noticeable if not astounding. A young FSU team went 5-6 in 1976. The big breakthrough came in 1977, when the Seminoles were 10-2 with a Tangerine Bowl victory. In 1978 they were 8-3 and last year 11-0 in the regular season before losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

But quality must endure, or else it is labeled a fluke. The Seminoles have endured in 1980. Despite losing its two quarterbacks of the last three seasons, and having to play Nebraska and Pittsburgh in succession, Florida State is 9-1. The only loss was to Miami, 10-9, when the Seminoles failed on a two-point conversion.

Crowds now exceed 50,000 at Doak Campbell Stadium, and expectations are high. People were angry after the UPI coaches' poll that ranked FSU fourth, even though it was the highest ranking ever for a Division 1-A team in Florida.

Bowden said he was sleeping on a flight from Miami to Jacksonville when the pilot approached him. "He asked if he could say something over the loudspeaker about how much everyone appreciated what we've done," Bowden said, "and also how wrong it was that we were only ranked fourth."

These are good times for Bowden, 51, who was rewarded last year with a five-year contract package worth more than $100,000 a year. The fans and boosters were starving for a winner, and they got it.

But Bowden's style is at least as noteworthy as his winning substance.

Few successful coaches are comfortable with the press. Paranoia seems to dampen the most affable spirits. Yet this is how Bowden describes his relationship with the media: "I feel that without the press we couldn't do anything. We couldn't survive financially. The press is vital. I disagree with them at times, but I respect them. Coaches must work with the press. We need it."

A few years ago, a writer from central Florida was scheduled to interview Bowden in Tallahassee. But Bowden realized he had made a recruiting commitment in Georgia. Cancel the interview? C'mon up, Bowden said, and ride with me and Dick Howser, then the FSU baseball coach.

Bowden even permitted the writer to sit in on the sales pitch with the proceedings being on the record. "I thought people might love to know what goes on in recruiting," Bowden says, without any resentment that the recruit, Buck Belue, turned down FSU and now quarterbacks top-ranked Georgia.

The only problem for Bowden is that where it used to be that a couple of writers might call during a week, he now is swamped with requests for interviews and calls from well-wishers.

"I hope no one tries to think I'm big-leaguing it because I'm not," said Bowden, apologizing for his sometimes lack of accessibility. "But I'm used to returning calls from the press because no one else would call me."

Bowden's success has been accomplished without the best players. There are, to be sure, a few blue-chippers, such as noseguard Ron Simmons. But after competing with Florida and Miami in the state, and Georgia and Alabama in the region, the talent can be spread pretty thin.

Bowden's fortes are organization and motivation. An offense-oriented strategist, Bowden delegates sizable authority to his assistants, primarily his defensive coordinator, Jack Stanton. And with the second-year offensive coordinator, George Henshaw, more experienced, Bowden has cut back his active role with the offense.

The motivation is not the screaming, foot-stomping sort. "He makes you believe you can be great," says senior linebacker Paul Piurowski, who was recruited as a safety and now leads one of the top defenses (7.2 points-against average) in the nation.

Junior Rick Stockstill, the successful replacement to dual quarterbacks Jimmy Jordan and Wally Woodham, said the players respect Bowden because "he's honest with everybody. You know you can go in and talk about your problems and talk freely."

Bowden defends his recruiting record while admitting he doesn't always get the top athlete.

"We recruit good boys who want to win," he says. "A guy can run a 9.5 100 or high jump 6-8 but maybe he can't play football. A blue-chipper is based on potential, but we don't do that. We go on performance. Maybe that's paying off."

The Seminoles once played second banana to state rival Florida -- with good reason. Before Bowden, the Gators held a 16-2-1 edge. In the last three years, FSU is 3-0. The teams will meet again, on national television on Dec. 6.

Respect has been earned in the state. Now the plan is to go national. "But we can't do it overnight," Bowden says. "Alabama, Southern Cal, Notre Dame spent years establishing a reputation. We're just now getting our foot in the door."