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Friday, October 25, 2002
Once upon a time, FSU used ND to prove itself

By Bob Harig
Special to ESPN.com

TALLHASSEE, Fla. -- So much was different then. Florida State-Notre Dame truly resembled David and Goliath, and the little man with the slingshot was Bobby Bowden, taking his one crack at the big guy and nailing him right between the eyes.

Today, 21 years later, the longtime Florida State coach relishes that 19-13 victory in South Bend., Ind., perhaps as much as any of his 320 wins as a head coach.

Never mind that Notre Dame was in the first year of a disastrous reign under Gerry Faust, or that the Seminoles eventually would pay for their murderous October road schedule in 1981 by losing their last three games to finish 6-5 and without a bowl bid.

Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden has been rather prickly.
That was before annual bowl appearances, top-five rankings and national championships. That was before Bowden would be dodging rocks from week to week as one of the nation's elite programs. That was when a trip to Notre Dame meant the world to Bowden.

"I remember it's a place in your career you hope that some day you'll get to go there and play,'' Bowden said this week, as Notre Dame prepared to make it's first-ever visit to Tallahassee's Doak Campbell Stadium. "It's nearly too good to be true and then to go up there and win, that's doubly good.

"To dress in the locker rooms that you know Rockne was in at one time and Leahy and all those great coaches and players they've had down through the years. . . the All-Americans, the Heisman Trophy winners. It's nearly hallowed.''

The roles are not exactly reversed this time, but it is interesting that Notre Dame, ranked sixth in the country and undefeated, visits two-loss and 13th-ranked Florida State as a 10½-point underdog.

It says something about where Florida State and Notre Dame have gone since that day 21 years ago, when the Seminoles hardly had the reputation of today.

That was the last year FSU did not qualify for a bowl game. Until last season, the Seminoles had gone 14 straight years with at least 10 victories a season and finished among the top five every year. They won two national championships in that span.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame has not won a national title since 1988 and endured three coaching changes since, not including the brief tenure of George O'Leary, who left the program after just one week because of inconsistencies on his résumé. The Irish hired Tyrone Willingham, who have them 7-0 for the first time since 1993, the last time Notre Dame contended for a national championship.

Notre Dame has got the magic name in college football. They always have in my lifetime, since Knute Rockne. If I were to look back, the Notre Dame game would have to be a very big one. It goes back to it was Notre Dame. You're talking about the No. 1 tradition school in America.
FSU coach Bobby Bowden

None of that takes away from Notre Dame's aura, according to Bowden.

"Notre Dame has got the magic name in college football. They always have in my lifetime, since Knute Rockne,'' said Bowden, 72. "If I were to look back, the Notre Dame game would have to be a very big one. It goes back to it was Notre Dame. You're talking about the No. 1 tradition school in America.''

Before Bowden arrived at FSU in 1976, the 1981 schedule was already in place. It included five consecutive road games: Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and LSU. The Seminoles went 3-2 in that stretch and the "King of the Road'' moniker began to stick with Bowden.

As one of the top programs in the country, such scheduling is no longer necessary. But Bowden loves the idea of playing Notre Dame, even if it has come at a steep price. The 1993 meeting in South Bend could have cost him a national championship. In an epic battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2, the Irish prevailed 31-24 -- only to lose the next week, so that FSU could reclaim the No. 1 ranking. The Seminoles won their first national championship that season.

A year later, the two teams met in Florida, but not Tallahassee. The teams played in Orlando's Citrus Bowl, where FSU was guaranteed only as many tickets as Notre Dame. FSU prevailed, and won another meeting in 1995 in the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles will visit South Bend next season.

"It does renew old memories, there's no doubt about it,'' Bowden said. "This is the way you remember Notre Dame. When I was coming up, I think they won three national championships in a row (1946, '47, '49). I used to go to the movie theater and see their games in black and white. Notre Dame has always had that national flavor.''

Bob Harig covers college football for the St. Petersburg Times.