PENSACOLA - As the crowd of doctors and teachers, of retired couples and young professionals made its way into the downtown building by the train station, the large ballroom started to come alive.
Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden was seated at the front of the room, fresh off signing hundreds of autographs - on footballs, hats, helmets, posters and at least one baby comforter - for 37 consecutive minutes during a reception next door.
The Greater Pensacola Seminole Club was the first stop on Bowden's 33rd annual booster tour, and club president Brett Berg had been with Bowden for most of the day, starting with a round of golf at 8 a.m. While Bowden posed for pictures, shook hands and signed autographs on the warm mid-April evening, Berg watched the 78-year-old guest of honor and treasured every moment.
"I cherish the time, because I know it's coming to an end," Berg said. "He is such a great person. To be around somebody who has the character he does, it means a lot to me, it means a lot to Pensacola. Obviously, wins and losses are important, but from our perspective, to have him representing our university, that's invaluable."
Bowden's annual meet-and-greet tour of the state - known this year as the Unconquered Tour - makes a stop in Tampa today. First, Bowden will play golf at Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club. Tonight at Palma Ceia Country Club, he will be joined at a private dinner with boosters by offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, the man appointed to succeed him.
While Bowden plans to continue coaching as long as he is healthy and producing at an acceptable level, this year's popular tour has a more nostalgic feel, primarily because of Fisher's alternate title: head coach-in-waiting.
Today's events are sold out - 120 for golf, 260 for dinner - for the first time in several years, to the knowledge of Tampa Bay Seminole Club president Mike Palios. The increased interest likely can be attributed to the belief among some this could be Bowden's final season.
"We could have probably sold a lot more tickets, but we had to cap it," said Palios, a Tampa native and 1997 FSU graduate. "For a team that has gone 7-6 two years in a row, I think that might be your answer."
A Cultural Concern
As much as Bowden has meant to FSU on the sideline, many say the culture the folksy coach has built around the program off the field is every bit as important, highlighted by his down-to-earth meetings with fans and boosters the past four decades.
As part of their multimillion-dollar contracts, most major Division I coaches are required to speak to booster clubs in the offseason. But with Bowden, it's more personal than in many places.
"He created us and we created him, and when he's gone, [the booster tour] doesn't necessarily have to die, but it's going to take a while for people to get used to having a different guy at the top," said Jim Miller, a former president of the Pensacola Seminole Club. "There is going to be a new Florida State."
When Bowden retires, Fisher will instantly become the most visible leader of Seminole Nation. Based on the chatter among the younger fan base, those familiar with Internet message boards and plugged into their iPods, there seems to be a sense that time has come.
However, for the older portion of the fan base, people such as 82-year-old Claude Locklin, what's the rush?
"We want Bobby to ride off in the sunset as the winningest coach in the business," said Locklin, one of FSU's first major boosters who used to host Bowden at his Milton home when Bowden was a position coach at FSU in the 1960s. "I mean, he's earned that right, whatever time it takes."
The uncertainty over the time of Bowden's departure provides an interesting backdrop to the program's attempt to return to the ranks of the elite. And now Fisher has a starring role next to Bowden.
Miller first met Fisher on a Hawaiian cruise with FSU's coaching staff in the spring of 2007, only a couple of months after Fisher left LSU to replace Jeff Bowden as the Noles' offensive coordinator. When Miller returned home, he was bombarded by questions about the West Virginia kid who grew up around the Bowden family, first as a player for Terry Bowden at Salem College and later as an assistant on Terry's staff at Auburn.
Miller assured the inquiring minds that Fisher seems to have many of the qualities they admire about Bobby Bowden.
"First of all, there is not going to be another Bobby," Miller said. "But I told them, 'If Jimbo can coach as well as he can talk, we're going to have a winner.' He was very personable.
"He's got the dynamic personality that will do well."
In December, when it was announced Fisher would be Bowden's eventual successor, FSU president T.K. Wetherell spoke about the importance of maintaining the culture Bowden has established since taking over the fledgling program in 1976.
"We have high hopes for [Jimbo]," said former FSU player Clay Ingram, a Pensacola native who attended Bowden's speech last month. "This transition period will hopefully help the fans warm up to him more than maybe they would have if it were [not] a cut-and-dried thing."
The more Fisher is exposed to FSU's fan base, the more credibility he gains, which is partly why he is making a half-dozen appearances on Bowden's booster tour.
"He just seems to have a similar demeanor in a whole lot of ways to Coach Bowden," Palios said. "I would say for the longtime Florida State fans, those who have been around since '76 and before, that's got to be a huge relief for those folks who really have some blood, sweat and tears invested in the university."
Fisher understands those concerns and is intent on earning the trust and respect of boosters and fans, using Bowden as his guide.
"Is there a better person to learn how to deal with the press and to deal with boosters and people than him?" Fisher asked recently. "I can only be myself, but I get to learn from the best."
Once Bowden took the podium in Pensacola, he instantly had the crowd of more than 200 in the palm of his hand. And, while wife Ann was not in attendance on this particular night, her presence was felt, as always.
"Some of you have heard this before, or maybe you weren't born, since I've been here so long," Bowden quipped. "Now that all my children are gone, and Ann and I are by ourselves, when I go somewhere, she goes with me and she does all the driving.
"I just sit there and hold the wheel."
The crowd erupted in laughter.
After a few more jokes, Bowden talked about how spring practice went, about the need for an indoor practice facility, and how the revamped coaching staff has a much better grasp than a year ago.
As he began talking about the impressive spring of quarterback Christian Ponder, a train approached outside. As if on cue, each time Bowden started to talk, the train's horn blasted through the humid air, causing him to pause.
"I didn't know Ann was coming," Bowden said.
The room erupted once more.
"You want to take in every word," Ingram said. "You want to soak everything in and not miss a moment."
For now, the show goes on.
"As you can tell from the fan base, they love to see Bobby," Berg said. " Bobby is a big draw. People want to come and see Bobby, they want to hear Bobby, they want to touch Bobby."
How much longer they'll have the chance is the question.