Florida State had just made a potentially game-changing play in its Sept. 5 opener against Miami, and there was confusion among the Seminoles' coaches.

During the third quarter, Florida State had blocked a punt and recovered at the Miami 1. The Seminoles ran fullback James Coleman up the middle twice and lost one yard each time. Facing third and goal from the 3, and needing a touchdown to go ahead 17-7, Coach Bobby Bowden wanted to run up the middle one more time.

"Let's run the belly," Bowden told his coaches in the press box.

"No, Coach. Let's run the toss. We've got a better chance going outside," an assistant told him through the headset.

Like each of the games during the past 30 seasons at Florida State, Bowden made the final decision. So tailback Leon Washington took a handoff from quarterback Drew Weatherford and ran off guard and was stopped for a one-yard loss. After a false start penalty against the Seminoles on fourth down, they were forced to try a 26-yard field goal and missed.

"Dadgumit!" Bowden yelled with his classic Southern drawl.

Bowden was upset the play didn't work, but was even more displeased that he hadn't listened to his coaches. The Seminoles held on to win, 10-7, and Bowden hasn't overruled his coaches again this season.

"I suppose I'm like most coaches now, standing on the sideline hoping somebody asks them a question," Bowden said.

Bowden, who turns 76 on Nov. 8, is actually doing more than that, but he has delegated responsibilities to his assistants more than ever before.

So far this season, the system is working for the Seminoles, who will go for their first 6-0 start since their 1999 national championship season when they play Virginia at Scott Stadium on Saturday night.

Florida State, which wasn't expected to do much this season because of its freshman quarterback and depleted secondary and offensive line, is ranked No. 4 in the country, its highest ranking since it was No. 3 after nine games in 2003.

"We haven't been there in a while," Bowden said this week of the top-five ranking, as he sat behind his desk, chomping an unlit cigar. "I'm surprised we've gone as far as we've gone."

Many college football observers thought Bowden might be gone by now, especially after Florida State lost 15 games during the past four seasons, as many it had lost in the previous 11 seasons combined.

Bowden, Division I-A's winningest coach with 356 victories, wasn't ready to call it quits, though, and certainly didn't want to turn over a struggling program. But instead of trying to fix the problems himself, he decided to let his assistants do more.

Instead of retirement, Bowden chose to be more of a chief executive officer, coaching his coaches while they coached the players.

"There will be a day when I don't want to walk out on that field anymore," Bowden said. "It all depends on if I'm healthy and if we're winning."

Bowden said he still watches film of opponents, but "only in case something happens to one of the coordinators and I have to call the plays." He watches his team practice from a tower and rarely gets involved in the hands-on coaching of players anymore.

But Florida State's players still hear from their head coach frequently. Whenever Bowden sees Weatherford, the coach always tells his quarterback to throw the football "a foot in front of the numbers" -- a reminder to put air under his passes so his receivers can run under them.

Bowden tells center David Castillo that the "low man always wins," a cue for the lineman to keep his pad level low for better leverage. Linebacker Ernie Sims said Bowden tells him, "I want to see some knock-backs."

"He loves knock-backs," Sims said. "He loves us to step on toes and make big hits. That's what he loves to see a defense do."

Relinquishing some of his responsibilities was tough for Bowden, who waited more than 20 years to hand off the offensive play calling to one of his assistants. First, he gave those duties to offensive coordinator Brad Scott and then to Mark Richt when Scott left to become coach at South Carolina.

"Once he gave up the play calling, he stayed in the game planning," said Richt, now head coach at the University of Georgia. "But as time went on, he became less involved, but would still offer suggestions. But he's still the boss, there's no doubt about it. I don't think anybody can question that."

Bowden seems to be easing his way into retirement, but with the Seminoles winning again, he doesn't know if it will happen anytime soon.

"Winning makes you a lot happier," Bowden said. "It's no fun to lose, no matter how old you are."

Bowden has always resisted change -- he and his wife, Ann, still live in the same house they bought in Tallahassee when he took the Florida State job in 1976, although they made multiple additions to it after their family grew to include four sons and two daughters.

Three of Bowden's sons became coaches -- Jeff is the Seminoles' offensive coordinator; Tommy is the head coach at Clemson; and Terry coached at Division I-AA Samford and Auburn.

"I nearly feel like if I retired, I'd have to get another job," Bowden said. "I don't like sitting around, and I don't know what else I would do."

But Bowden knows he can't coach forever, and he already is lobbying for a hand-picked successor: Seminoles defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews, who has worked under Bowden since 1984. Bowden said his support for Andrews is more than a reward for being loyal (Andrews has lobbied for only one head coaching job, at Alabama, his alma mater) during his tenure at Florida State.

"I've always supported Mickey because he's been here for 20 years," Bowden said. "You get all the publicity with the offense, but his defenses are why we've been so good. He's been here the longest, and I always felt like he deserved it."

At one point, each of Bowden's three sons seemed like a possible successor. Terry Bowden led Auburn to an undefeated season in his first season there, but his tenure ended suddenly and he hasn't coached since, working as a college football television analyst instead.

Tommy Bowden produced record-setting offenses at Tulane and was a hot coaching commodity, but his teams have found only lukewarm success at Clemson. Jeff Bowden, his youngest son, has worked the past 13 seasons at Florida State. But while working as the Seminoles' offensive coordinator in each of the past five seasons, he received a lot of the blame for the teams' failures. When raises were doled out to the coaching staff after last season, none of the offensive aides received one.

"I'll be honest, I wouldn't want them following me," Bobby Bowden said of his sons. "When a coach is at a school for a long time and he has had success, you don't want to be the next guy. The next guy usually isn't there for very long."

For now, though, Bowden isn't going anywhere and said he might still be sitting behind his desk overlooking Doak Campbell Stadium five years from now. He doesn't seem ready to retire anytime soon, not with the Seminoles competing for the national championship and not with Penn State Coach Joe Paterno on his heels.

Bowden surpassed Paterno as the winningest coach in Division I-A history nearly two years ago. But with the Nittany Lions undefeated at 6-0 and ranked in the top 10 again, Paterno is only seven victories behind Bowden.

"Dad is really happy," Terry Bowden said. "He's having a lot of fun this year. Joe Paterno is three years older than dad, so surely my dad can coach three more years."

"There will be a day when I don't want to walk out on that field anymore. It all depends on if I'm healthy and if we're winning," says Bobby Bowden, right.