Major Billy Smith retired from the Florida State Police in 1985, but there is one official duty he has not given up. Smith still puts on his uniform to stand at Florida State football games next to Bobby Bowden, the coach of the Seminoles, who play West Virginia in the Gator Bowl today.
Smith and his colleagues are among the distinctive-looking but usually anonymous people in uniform who are seen on the field at the end of college football games, frequently during bowl week, especially involving universities in the South.
These officers, who typically work in pairs and often wear broad-brimmed Smokey Bear hats, trot alongside opposing coaches as they shake hands after the game. The trooper tradition began more than 40 years ago, some veteran officers recall, although no one seems quite sure where or when.
The job has evolved into a status symbol, for the coaches and the troopers alike, another reminder of the vaunted standing of football coaches in many parts of the country. And at a time of increased concern about security and erratic behavior by some sports fans, the troopers' value to the coaches and the teams has seldom been more obvious.
Sideline officers' responsibilities involve more than witnessing handshakes. They coordinate team transportation and provide security before, during and after games, often in coordination with officers from other jurisdictions.
They also occasionally handle difficult or sensitive matters. Smith, who has guarded Florida State coaches for 41 years, once arranged increased protection for Bowden after a death threat and he has had to hustle the coach away from overly exuberant fans.
But nothing was as difficult as the night last September when an automobile accident on a Florida highway resulted in the deaths of Bowden's grandson and former son-in-law.
Smith was called in to identify the body of Bowden's grandson, 15-year-old Bowden Madden, and then was dispatched to tell Bowden. The boy's father, John Allen Madden, had played for Bowden and had once been married to Bowden's daughter.
Smith, who started working on the highway patrol in 1953, had often informed strangers of the deaths of loved ones. But Bowden is a close friend. "I've worked a lot of wrecks, but this wasn't easy," Smith said. "They felt like I was the logical choice. I owed that to Coach."
Smith said he thought the tradition of troopers accompanying football coaches began with Coach Bear Bryant at Alabama in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Captain Joe Pruitt, who retired from sideline duty with the Maryland team two years ago, said he thought Bryant had borrowed the idea from Georgia Tech Coach Bobby Dodd.
"Maybe it's a little bit of an urban myth," Pruitt said of the tradition's origin.
"Southern football is so big. It is a religion. Everyone is proud of their state. It's ceremonial, usually, but you do have to guard your coach from getting hurt."
On bowl trips, Pruitt said, troopers "act as the eyes and ears for the coach." Pruitt said Maryland began using troopers in 1992 after he volunteered to provide the service, on his comp time, if the university would pay for his meals, hotel and transportation.
His last game with Maryland came when the Terrapins went to the Orange Bowl in 2002 (they were defeated by Florida, 56-23).
"I went out on top," Pruitt said. "My wife got nine days vacation at the Fontainbleu hotel in Miami Beach."