Extra MustardSI On CampusFantasyPhoto GalleriesSwimsuitVideoFanNationSI KidsTNT

Race revived

Battle for Ws between Paterno, Bowden has life again

Posted: Thursday November 17, 2005 2:21PM; Updated: Thursday November 17, 2005 5:19PM
Free E-mail AlertsE-mail ThisPrint ThisSave ThisMost PopularRSS Aggregators
Joe Paterno
After all these years, Joe Paterno still has no trouble getting fired up.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

A Penn State win on Saturday at Michigan State would give the school its first Big Ten title since 1994, its first BCS bowl berth of the BCS era, and keep alive the extreme outside shot that an upset or two could land the Nittany Lions in the national championship game.

A win would also preserve the importance of those two seconds added to the clock during the final minute of the Penn State-Michigan game, which gave Wolverines quarterback Chad Henne time to line up his team and find Mario Manningham in the end zone to ruin Penn State's perfect season. If JoePa's team finishes 11-1, that clock adjustment will be a tremendous "if only" for Penn State fans to kick around through the long Central Pennsylvania winter.

This Michigan State game is also important for one other reason -- one that may interest few other people, but it's one of my pet curiosities.

The win would officially revive Paterno versus Bowden.

The battle between Paterno and Bobby Bowden for the Division I wins lead doesn't get much attention because Penn State hasn't been very good lately. Paterno passed Bear Bryant in 2001. Bowden overtook Paterno during the 2003 season. Back then it seemed the two might be trading the title of "winningest coach in Division I history" several times a season. And it would have been a perfect back-and-forth because of the contrast between the two programs: Paterno's no-names-on-the-jerseys student-athletes versus Bowden's tomahawk-chopping, look-at-me pre-professionals. It's not really good versus evil, but it's close enough that if you wanted to pretend it was, you could just go ahead and enjoy yourself.

But the tug-of-war didn't happen because Bowden took his lead and sprinted away with it. Florida State glided through the schedule at its standard clip, winning 10 games in 2003 and nine in 2004. Penn State, meanwhile, stumbled into the deepest crevasses of the "Joe Must Go" era, winning three games in 2003 and four in 2004. Entering this season Bowden had 351 victories and Paterno 343. The eight-game gap appeared insurmountable, not just because Bowden's teams were expected to win more than Paterno's, but also because, as the critics saw it, Paterno's career was basically over, and he just hadn't realized it yet.

But then came Michael Robinson's fourth-and-15 pass that led to a victory at Northwestern, followed by wins against Minnesota and Ohio State. Suddenly, the Penn State program had been revived and boosters reconsidered their position that they needed to get rid of the greatest coach their school will ever have. Meanwhile, the Florida State winning machine gummed up, dropping consecutive games to North Carolina State and Clemson. Heading into this weekend's games, Penn State is 9-1 while Florida State is 7-3. Bowden has 358 wins, Paterno 352.

Both teams have two games left: the regular season finale (Florida State is at Florida on Nov. 26) and a bowl game. If Penn State wins at Michigan State on Saturday, that will guarantee that Paterno gains ground on Bowden this year -- at least by one game, and perhaps by as many as four.

One more season like that and they could be tied.

Of course, the mitigating factor remains Paterno's age -- whether he has time to catch up, or to hold a lead if ever he should get it.

But if the past few years have proven anything, it's that Paterno, who turns 79 in December, will not retire simply because people expect him to. Instead, he finds reasons to stay. After last season he could have argued that he didn't want to leave his program in such sorry shape. After this year he can say that he's having too much fun to go. All roads lead to Rome, and all outcomes tell Paterno he should stay on the sidelines for as long as he is physically able.

Bowden, meanwhile, is 76. That he will be coaching longer than Paterno is not as automatic an assumption as it once was. Perhaps, in some strange way, Paterno is keeping Bowden around by resetting the bar on what the retirement age for coaches is expected to be.

Like a lot of races, this one may be determined by who keeps plugging away the longest. But with a Penn State win over Michigan State, at least it's a race again.