November, 13 2023
Bobby Bowden was curious just what type of “re” season his Florida State Seminoles were facing in 1981. The Seminoles lost eight starters on defense and four from the offensive line of a team that went 21-3 the previous two seasons, with two of the losses coming to Oklahoma in the 1980 and 1981 Orange Bowls.
“The question is whether we are rebuilding, regrouping, or reloading,” Bowden told Tallahassee Democrat sports columnist Bill McGrotha. The answer would go a long way towards predicting the future at Florida State.
Bowden took over the Seminoles in 1976, inheriting a program with little money and an ambitious schedule. Like most struggling independent teams in the 1970s, the Florida State schedule was an amalgamation of road trips to some of the most prestigious football addresses in the sport: Norman, OK, Auburn, AL, Boston, MA, Stillwater, OK, Pittsburgh, PA, Baton Rouge, LA, and Lincoln, NE. Teams such as Florida State were usually invited with no expectation of their hosts making a return trip to Tallahassee. LSU scheduled FSU for five straight seasons in Baton Rouge (1979-1983). Nebraska (1980-1981) and Ohio State (1981-1982) required back-to-back visits.
Add in annual visits with in-state rivals Florida and Miami (FL), and the success Bowden achieved in his first five seasons in Tallahassee with his own young recruits and the remnants of a team that went 4-29 in the three seasons prior to his arrival was nothing short of miraculous: a record of 44-14 and three bowl appearances. Included in those wins were road victories over Top 20 teams Boston College (1976), Oklahoma State (1977), and Nebraska (1980).
The degree of difficulty increased exponentially in 1981. From September 19 through October 24, Florida State had to play five consecutive road games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt, and LSU. This is not a typo. Five consecutive road games against the bluest of bluebloods with just a one-week bye during the streak. And, by the way, with an inexperienced roster heavily populated with freshmen and sophomores. Some journalists jokingly referred to the stretch as “Octoberfest.”
Even the most ardent Seminole backer seeing the world through garnet and gold glasses could comprehend the enormity of the task at Bowden’s hand: maintain the rate of success of the previous two seasons while taking a group of youngsters on a multi-week, multi-state quest into the belly of the college football beast. The initial stop did not bode well.
After back-to-back home victories over Louisville and Memphis State, the Seminoles landed in Lincoln to take on a Nebraska team still angry about losing to Florida State the previous season, 18-14. The Cornhuskers took out their frustrations by rushing for 464 yards in a 34-14 victory that left Bowden beaten but unbowed. “They whipped us up front,” Bowden said. “We’re not the team we were a year ago. These young kids will learn.”
Following a bye, the young Seminoles seemed to have benefitted from a two-week tutorial under Bowden. The seventh-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes were blitzed by the Seminoles, 36-27. Future Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill threw for 299 yards and led an epic 99-yard touchdown drive the series after a dramatic goal-line stand by the defense. Bowden credited the win to an improvement in team attitude, saying against the Cornhuskers some players “played like they were supposed to lose to Nebraska. Today they played like they were supposed to win.”
The following week, the Octoberfest gained a distinctly Irish flavor as it travelled to South Bend for Florida State’s first ever game with Notre Dame. The running attack was the offensive star of the week, with Ricky Williams rushing for 135 yards to help the Seminoles maintain possession during a 19-13 win. The defense held Notre Dame to just one successful third down conversion the entire game. “To me personally, it is the biggest win I’ll ever have,” Bowden said of winning in South Bend. “Having wanted to coach all my life, you can imagine what respect I have for a place that produced the likes of Knute Rockne.”
While not as prestigious a program as Notre Dame, the third-ranked Pitt Panthers had been a dominant force in the game for almost a decade. National champions in 1976, the Panthers had produced stars such as Tony Dorsett and Hugh Green. Now the team boasted Jimbo Covert and Bill Fralic on an offensive line whose primary job was to protect record-setting quarterback Dan Marino. They did just that against Florida State, as Marino passed for 251 yards and three touchdowns in a 42-14 rout. “The big difference in the game was…we couldn’t pressure (Marino),” Bowden said. “I felt like he couldn’t throw long. Boy, was I wrong about that!”
The huge loss left the Seminoles 2-2 on Octoberfest, but they still had a shot to win the road trip in the finale at LSU. Death Valley was anything but for FSU. It was their Happy Valley as they beat the Tigers in Baton Rouge in 1979 and 1980. They made it three in a row with a 38-14 laugher. Freshman running back Greg Allen ran for 202 yards in his first start, showing just how far he and many of his young teammates had come in five games. “I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough stuff left to beat LSU at Baton Rouge,” Bowden said. “We played our best ball game of the season tonight.”
Unfortunately for the Seminoles and their fans, Bowden’s words were prophetic. The Seminoles did run out of gas over the rest of the season. They won their first home game in more than six weeks the following Saturday against Western Carolina but then dropped their final three games of the season to finish 6-5 and out of the bowl picture.
The lessons learned and the experience gained, however, were the rocks upon which the foundation of Florida State’s historic fourteen-year run (1982-1996) in which they did not lose a bowl and won the first of Bowden’s two national championships. The 1981 season also provided new additions to the Sod Cemetery, a way to celebrate historic road victories started in 1962.
Bowden now had his answer. The Seminoles didn’t need to rebuild or regroup. They now had reached the point where they reloaded.