- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2000

NEW ORLEANS The Top Tomahawk looked more like a foam toy than a formidable fox yesterday.

No active coach has made more appearances in the national title game over the last six seasons than Florida State's Bobby Bowden, who has reached college football's finale four times during that span. Few coaches seem to glide through the regular-season grind with such an easy air. And nobody should be more accustomed to the hype and hoopla surrounding tonight's Sugar Bowl matchup between the top-ranked Seminoles (11-0) and second-ranked Virginia Tech (11-0).

But Bowden lacked his customary countrified invulnerability yesterday. Addressing the media for the last time before kickoff, his one-liners seemed forced, his blotchy face somewhat sweaty. By all appearances, Bowden is finding his trip to New Orleans more like the Big Uneasy.

Maybe it's his age few 70-year-olds are forced to confront such pressure. Perhaps it's the constant battery of disciplinary questions he's had to field about the three Seminoles who missed curfew on New Year's Eve kicker Sebastian Janikowski, starting defensive end Roland Seymour and backup cornerback Reggie Durden. But more than likely Bowden's primary problem is the stress of expected success.

Despite the incomparable talent Bowden has drawn to Tallahassee over the last 24 years, he's won only one national title. Despite 12 consecutive top-four finishes in the final Associated Press poll and more victories than any coach in the '90s, Bowden has but one ring. And in his last two title game appearances (against Florida in 1997 and last season against Tennessee), Bowden has left the title game a loser.

"When we won the national championship in 1993, that was seven years in a row that we had come close and never won it," Bowden said. "When we finally won it, it was a big relief. It was a bigger relief than it was an accomplishment. Now here we are seven years later, and everybody's saying, 'Aw, he's never won number two. He's always here. It's a shame a guy that old can't get another one. How much longer will he live?'

"No, really, that's what I hear. I've made everybody else a national champion. I made [Tennessee coach Philip] Fulmer one [last season]. I made [Florida coach Steve] Spurrier one [in 1997]. It's time I got another one."

Though Bowden's words brought a roar of laughter to those in attendance, they lacked his typical comical conviction. There's a certain desperate truth behind the humor a strain recognized by both the Seminoles and the Hokies.

"Hey man, all the pressure's on them," Corey Moore said three weeks ago. "They went down there [to New Orleans] three years ago and lost. They went out to the Fiesta Bowl last year, and they couldn't get it done. There's a hole forming in their aura of invincibility. They know it, and we know it."

All 103 Seminoles do indeed know it. In fact, it's almost all they've talked about since they arrived in New Orleans.

"We need this one real bad," senior receiver Ron Dugans said. "People in Tallahassee are getting frustrated. My friends back home are giving me a hard time, saying we can't win the big one. You come to Florida State for one reason to play for that ring. And nobody on this team has one.

"After we lost last year to Tennessee, the juniors all got together and made a pact that we would be back to get one this year. Now we're here, and it's time to silence the critics."

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer has been careful not to join the growing group of Florida State skeptics. Beamer, who has never led his team to a top-five finish, much less a national championship game, seemed totally relaxed amid yesterday's pregame mayhem. The Hokies' 53-year-old coach has spent his time in New Orleans reveling in his team's underdog status, lavishing praise on the Seminoles while preaching a nothing-to-lose mentality to his team.

"We're the underdog," Beamer said with an ingratiating grin. "Florida State is for real. They are the team of the '90s. Florida State started the season No. 1, and they never slipped… . We're playing a great football team, which plays its best against the best competition. We understand the chore we've got. We want to be where they are. We're working to be in the top five and to be in the national championship games on a regular basis. They've already done that."

But one thing Florida State hasn't done recently is take home the Sears Trophy. When the teams take the field tonight at the Superdome, everybody on hand will be aware of that. If appearances are any indication, Bowden is already starting to crack under that pressure. If the Hokies can put a few early points on the board, Bowden's boys might begin to follow suit.

"I think if we score early, they might start thinking about it," Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick said recently. "We're just going to have fun. For them, I think it might be pure business. Sometimes if you approach things that way, you start pressing a little and that works against you."

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