The first eight months of 1981 were not good ones for Bobby Bowden. Perhaps he should have known on New Year's Day that his biorhythms were on a downswing. On that day, his Florida State football team, ranked second in the nation, lost, 18-17, to Oklahoma in an Orange Bowl game it seemed to have won a half-dozen times.
In March, six of his players were arrested and charged with grand larceny. Bowden vowed such a thing would never happen again. Two months later, his fullback, Michael Whiting, was arrested and charged with assault after a street brawl.
All seven players pleaded no contest and were placed on probation. In July, an FSU recruit was arrested and charged with 25 counts of theft. The case is still pending, but his scholarship was revoked. In August, starting safety Gary Henry was charged with two felony counts of auto theft. That case also is pending.
Bowden, who had stood by the first seven players arrested, kicked Henry off the team. "It was time," he said later, "to draw the line even though it hurt to do it."
By the time Bowden met his 1981 team for preseason drills he felt as though he had just finished an 0-11 season. The Seminoles, coming off 11-1 and 10-2 seasons, had lost players to graduation, anyway. Their schedule was the toughest in the country with five consecutive road games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU.
And some people joked that FSU would go 5-6: five acquittals, six convictions.
Florida Coach Charley Pell, giving a speech this summer, told a story about a holdup in Tallahassee. According to Pell, when police questioned the witnesses they asked them, "Did you get their jersey numbers?"
Pell later apologized for the remark, but those jokes stung Bowden. He had spent six years trying to build a football power, not a reform school.
"The whole thing was disgraceful, degrading and shameful," Bowden said. "I just felt terrible about it. When the team got together for this season I told the players that we had a chance to right a wrong, that now, we had to fight to get our reputation back. We had to do that on the football field."
The Seminoles have done just that. They struggled through two early victories, then lost at Nebraska. "Those first three weeks we were just terrible," Bowden said. "I was beginning to think we weren't a very good football team."
With Ohio State and Notre Dame coming up next, it looked as if Bowden was going to leave 1981 out of his memoirs. "But he never gave up on us when he easily could have," said senior quarterback Rick Stockstill. "When we went into Ohio State and Notre Dame it would be easy for a lot of us to be intimidated. But he just kept telling us we weren't playing tradition, we were playing the opposition."
The Seminoles defeated the previously unbeaten Buckeyes, 36-27. Then came Notre Dame. Bowden varied his speech. "It won't be George Gipp playing or Knute Rockne coaching," he told his team. "It's going to be 11 guys just like you and you're as good as anybody."
FSU upset the Irish, 19-13, and is ranked 10th in the nation going into today's game at third-ranked Pittsburgh. A year ago, the Seminoles beat Pitt, 36-22, almost certainly costing the Panthers the national championship.
"We really don't have any time to enjoy the last two weeks," Bowden said. "What we've accomplished the last two weeks is as gratifying as anything that's happened to me in coaching.
"But now, we're playing a team that isn't just the No. 3 team in the country, it's a team that has every reason to want to beat us badly. But now, we've kind of got an incentive, too, because if we win this one, people are going to start asking questions about us."
The main question is how the Seminoles have come through the offseason to be so competitive.
"They've just got lots and lots of athletes," Notre Dame Coach Gerry Faust said. "They lost people, but they had depth from last year. Some of their second stringers played a lot last year. And Stockstill is as mature a quarterback as you'll find. After all, he's almost 24 years old."
Stockstill, who sat out a year of high school with a broken leg and was red-shirted as a sophomore, will be 24 in December. He is an example of how Bowden has built this program: a mix of stars and players no one wanted. Why did Stockstill go to Florida State? "No one else offered me a scholarship."
Bowden believes a team can have too many stars. "If you got people who were stars and they have to ride the bench a little, they might get upset and just one like that can upset the whole bunch," said Bowden. "It don't take but about three problem kids to ruin an entire team."
But problem kids have not ruined this team. "He was great about sticking by us," said linebacker Tommy Young, one of the players arrested in March. "He told us we had done wrong, that he didn't expect it to ever happen again but everyone could make a mistake. You have to play hard for someone like that."
Bowden's players have always had a reputation for playing hard. In six years at West Virginia he was 42-26, including two bowl bids. He took the FSU job in the 1976 season, taking over a program that had gone 4-29 the three previous seasons. Since then, Bowden is 44-14, including the two Orange Bowl bids.
Before the season, Bowden predicted that if his team went 10-1, it would win the national championship. If it can upset Pitt, that is possible.
"We knew if we got the wins against this schedule, we would get the recognition," Bowden said. "Pitt might just shut all we've done the last two weeks right out. But if not. . ."