The Florida State football program, once again, is at the top of the national polls. It also, once again, is the butt of jokes.

Carrying a Dillard's shopping bag has become the insult of choice for opposing teams' fans. They're mocking Seminoles all-American wide receiver Peter Warrick, whose October arrest and resulting guilty plea to petty theft at the department store may cost him a chance to win the Heisman Trophy.

As the undefeated Seminoles prepare for Saturday's game here against Maryland, the old references to "Free Shoes University" and the Florida State "Criminoles" have resurfaced. Those barbs were first heard in 1993 after nine Florida State players violated NCAA rules by allowing agents to pay for a shopping spree at a Foot Locker store here.

In addition to Warrick, three Florida State players have been arrested this year, raising questions about the leadership and control exerted by the Seminoles' longtime coach, Bobby Bowden, who once was considered nearly immune to criticism.

To the regret of Bowden and Florida State officials, this year's problems have not been a perplexing aberration. There have been at least 11 arrests and several other brushes with the law involving Florida State players since the beginning of 1997.

"It's embarrassing to the athletes and it's embarrassing to the university," Florida State Athletic Director Dave Hart Jr. said during an interview this week. "We have to do better. We have to try to send better messages. We have to continue to work to get positive choices being made."

The recent cases of misconduct, combined with the particularly complex and controversial nature of the Warrick case, have raised familiar questions about whether a win-at-all-costs attitude drives one of the nation's most successful and visible college football programs.

Miami, Nebraska, Virginia Tech and numerous other schools with top-level football programs have faced similar scrutiny after crimes by players or NCAA rules violations.

Warrick and wide receiver Laveranues Coles were arrested Oct. 7; they received $412.38 worth of clothes for $21.40 from a Dillard's clerk they knew and were charged with felony grand theft. Warrick was suspended for two games. Coles was dismissed from the team because he had previous run-ins with the law.

Also in October, starting cornerback Tay Cody was arrested in Georgia and charged with marijuana possession, a misdemeanor. He received a one-game suspension and was cleared to play this week.

Lineman Todd Williams battered an automatic teller machine with a chair when it swallowed his ATM card on Oct. 10. Williams avoided misdemeanor charges when the bank settled for restitution but was suspended for one game.

In July, quarterback Jared Jones was escorted home by police after he walked into the apartment of four female students he did not know and began eating food from their refrigerator. Police arrived to find Jones holding a bag of hot dogs. The women declined to file charges.

"You wonder how I feel about these things? I'm embarrassed," Bowden said this week. "When these things occur, everyone blames the coach. They say, 'Why don't you recruit better boys?' Sometimes it's your better boys that do it. . . .

"Some other schools say, 'It don't happen to us.' You know what their problem is? They don't have any good football players," Bowden said, referring to the intense media scrutiny and potential for NCAA rules violations regarding sports agents that the nation's top programs must face. "That's one of the prices of being number one or number two."

'Let the Poor Kid Play' More than 900 electronic messages sent to Florida State President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte on the Warrick matter--all of which are public record under Florida law--displayed the depth and diversity of public opinion on the subject. D'Alemberte and Bowden were vilified by some alumni for suspending Warrick, but they were chided by others for putting Warrick back on the field.

"Do you have any idea how much money boosters contribute to this university?" read one message from a fan who described himself as a "Loyal Alum." "There has been enough suffering and sorrow."

Another read: "You should be ashamed [of] the way you've handled this situation. . . . Let the poor kid play for the team and fans he so loves."

On the other side, one Florida resident wrote: "The message being sent to athletes everywhere by the leadership at FSU is disgusting. Joe Paterno, Steve Spurrier and all other self-respecting coaches . . . would have thrown the jerks off the team."

Another message read: "I am deeply disappointed at the way it appears [Bowden] allowed and even helped manipulate the system. . . . Shame on you Sandy and shame on you Bobby."

At the storm's center is the genial Bowden, who has won 301 games during his 34-year career.

Bowden, 70, said that he has been disappointed by his players' misdeeds in recent years, and that NCAA rule changes banning football-only dormitories and training tables have reduced his ability to monitor his players' actions, resulting in reduced control over the team. He also said he has adopted a more lenient and compassionate approach with players who misbehave.

Bowden said a coach could not succeed today using disciplinary standards in existence when he took his first head coaching position, at Samford in 1959.

Back then, Bowden said, if a player so much as asked "Why?" when given an instruction, he likely would have been dismissed from the squad. Today, Bowden said, most players merit a second chance--but not a third.

"You have to use more judgment now," he said. "We're dealing with some kids that haven't been disciplined. We're trying to teach them discipline. . . .

"It seems like there are 15 times as many problems. Therefore, you treat each one separately. The environment the boy comes from, the family background, is so difficult for some of them these days.

"I feel sorry for some of these kids, what they've been through. So many turn out good, you hate to cast one out. He might turn out good, too. You get to hoping you can save them all."

Plea Agreement

Warrick had been arrested in July 1998 in Tampa, and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence outside a fast-food restaurant. Because the disorderly conduct charge later was dropped, Florida State officials concluded the arrest probably was unnecessary and therefore should not be considered a strike against him.

Warrick thus qualified for a second chance under Bowden's disciplinary system. That, however, didn't mean he returned to the field immediately after his October arrest. In a move that outraged some alumni, Warrick was suspended because of the requirements of a code of conduct that had been installed at Florida State last year at the behest of Hart, who arrived in 1995 from East Carolina.

The code requires that any player arrested be suspended until information can be gathered and a judgment rendered. It further mandates: A student charged with a felony cannot compete in athletics until the charge is resolved.

D'Alemberte, a former head of the American Bar Association, further angered some Florida State alumni when he announced that he would consider the charge against Warrick unresolved if the player received a jail sentence--even if the sentence were delayed until after the season and the charge reduced to a misdemeanor. D'Alemberte said jail terms carry a particularly negative stigma.

It just so happened that, at the time, Warrick's attorney, Florida State graduate John Kenny, was negotiating a plea agreement that included a postseason jail term. Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs said Kenny suggested the jail term as a compromise plan to get the charge reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Once Kenny realized a jail term was unacceptable to D'Alemberte, he requested 30 days on a sheriff's department work crew instead.

Meggs, also a Florida State alumnus, agreed to the switch, saying it is not uncommon to make such a substitution. With that agreement, Warrick satisfied D'Alemberte and the university's disciplinary code.

Warrick was reinstated Oct. 22 and played the next day against Clemson.

"We understood this was a high-profile case and people around the world were looking at it," Meggs said. "I got our people together and said, 'Look, we want to treat this like any other case.' "

Meggs added: "I did have a degree of frustration about the hysteria created in the community, the athletic director's office and in the media about this issue. It was to the point that no one cared about the facts: What is the fair, right thing to do.

"I heard people saying, 'He's suffered enough already,' when he hadn't even been to the arraignment yet. We hadn't even filed charges yet. I heard people say, 'This is not a felony,' before we even had the police reports."

Warrick had missed an Oct. 9 game against Miami and an Oct. 16 game against Wake Forest. Bowden said the punishment fit Warrick's crime.

"I wanted [Warrick] to pay the price, but to play again," Bowden said. "Here's a kid who gave up a professional contract worth millions of dollars. He came back to get his degree and play football. Most kids wouldn't do that.

"Am I going to kick him out on his ear? I'm not in favor of that. But then I get letters saying: 'How can you condone such a thing?' "

Warrick declined to be interviewed for this story.

Second Chances Why give players, particularly those who run afoul of the law, second chances at all? Why not throw them off the team for first offenses?

D'Alemberte said during a telephone interview: "That's awfully tempting, I must tell you . . . [but] I'm not ready to surrender the university's judgment about discipline entirely to law enforcement."

Said Hart: "You have to be fair. I don't think you can put trespassing in the same category as a violent crime. And, as our policy says, past deportment is a factor."

Said Bowden: "These are people. They belong to somebody. They got a mother, too. When I look back on my life, I'm sure glad some people forgave me for some of the things I did."

Hart and D'Alemberte said the recent problems belie significant efforts by Bowden and the university to educate players about the consequences of their misdeeds. They say the university took immediate action after the Foot Locker incident, creating an associate athletic director in charge of compliance and an office of student development within the athletic department in 1995.

They also cite the relatively new disciplinary policy. Some schools take no action against players who are arrested until matters are resolved through the legal system--a process that can take months, allowing a player to finish a season without penalty.

"We've never had a student-athlete who made a poor choice, and we've been able to verify that he made a poor choice, who wasn't held accountable," Hart said.

Hart and D'Alemberte say Bowden never has abused his position to try to reduce a recommended punishment. They said Bowden has been proactive in suggesting that certain players--such as Coles--be immediately dismissed from the team.

They say Florida State officials have dealt decisively with major offenses or second-time offenders, citing the dismissals of Coles, safety Shawn McCorkle, cornerback Mario Edwards and wide receiver Randy Moss, and the seven-game suspension of defensive lineman Julian Pittman in recent years.

Moss, considered one of the most talented players in the nation, never played for Florida State because of an arrest for marijuana possession. Edwards missed the '97 season because of an arrest for cellular-phone theft, but he returned last year and starts at left cornerback.

"I feel strongly that Coach Bowden runs a clean program, and Dave Hart runs a program that tries to look beyond just athletic ability and to issues of citizenship," D'Alemberte said. "I frequently say that when you have 33,000 students, at any given time, somebody is fouling up."

Players say they relish Bowden's forgiving approach and his willingness to support them. They say Bowden can't be blamed for their mistakes because they are warned about the repercussions of transgressions.

"Everybody sits back and harps on the situation and it totally defeats everything [Bowden] has worked for and believes in, and it brings the program down," defensive lineman Corey Simon said.

"When you're on top, everybody wants to write a story about something bad happening. . . . It's blown totally out of proportion. People think everybody on the team is a thug or a misfit to society."

Why, though, do some players keep making mistakes? Through the athletic department's student development office, Florida State athletes are counseled about sports agents, drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, NCAA rules violations and the consequences of breaking the law. A week before Warrick and Coles were arrested, Bowden warned players they should be suspicious of anyone offering anything for free.

Various prohibitions "get beaten into [players'] heads," lineman Jason Whitaker said. Yet, he added:

"It goes in one ear and out the other for some guys. . . . It's like having class. You get tired of hearing it every year. It does get long. . . . [Players] can't be expected to make every decision perfect."