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THE LAST time Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno coached against each other was in the 2006 Orange Bowl, a game that deteriorated into a series of mistakes, including three missed field goals in overtime. Penn State won when kicker Kevin Kelly finally made one, but the sloppy, drawn-out finish hardly seemed befitting of the two coaches with the most victories in Division I-A history.
It's a shame that Bowden, now in his 33rd year as Florida State's coach, and Paterno, the Nittany Lions' head man for 43 seasons, are watching their careers come to similarly messy conclusions, but then, they don't care much about tidy endings. That much is clear from the way they have turned this final stage of their tenures (though they're stubborn enough that they might even dispute that description) into not just a long goodbye but also an uncomfortable one. Both men have refused to step down despite mounting evidence—including increasing lawlessness among their players and only sporadic on-field success—that the time has come to embrace the word emeritus. In fact, the louder the calls for Paterno, 81, and Bowden, 78, to retire, the more intractable they become. They've been harder to move than the statue of each man that stands on his respective campus.
Bowden has at least allowed a line of succession to form, with offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher named the head coach-in-waiting. Though there is an obvious heir at Penn State, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, Paterno hasn't been as accommodating, and he rebuffed a quiet attempt by university president Graham Spanier to persuade him to retire after the 2004 season.
It's not hard to understand why such great football minds aren't budging. It's difficult for them to acknowledge that they are no longer the coaches best equipped to return their programs to past glories, even though both are leaning heavily on assistants these days. Paterno admits that for the last several years he has often worked from his home, three blocks away from campus, coming in for practices and some meetings. Bowden talks in such generalities about game plans that it's fair to wonder whether he's even at the meetings. Still, they prefer limited involvement to playing in bridge tournaments or dabbling in watercolors. Paterno has said he has no hobbies, and Bowden's take on retiring is well-known. "After retirement there's only one more big event left," he has said, "and I'm not looking forward to that."
There is also the matter of the career-victories record, which Bowden and Paterno have traded and currently share, with 375 each. If one coach outlasts the other, he's likely to hold the record for many seasons to come. So are Paterno and Bowden playing a game of (not-exactly-a-spring) chicken?
Both coaches say no. They've developed a friendship after years on the recruiting trail and at countless coaching conventions. Paterno says he hopes Bowden coaches long enough to reach 450 wins if he chooses, and Bowden professes to be unconcerned with the record. "You're not going to take it with you when you go," he says.
Besides, Paterno and Bowden are grandfathers-in-arms in the fight against those who consider them too old to oversee an elite program. There is plenty of ammunition for that argument, beginning with the won-lost record. Penn State had four losing seasons from 2000 to '04, and although they rebounded somewhat with a 29--9 record over the past three seasons, the Nittany Lions are no longer the consistent Top 10 program that they once were. (After beating Syracuse last Saturday, Penn State is 3--0 and ranked 16th.) Recruiting has also taken a hit lately, most notably when quarterback Terrelle Pryor, a Pennsylvania product and the nation's top-ranked recruit, eliminated Penn State from consideration before he chose Ohio State over Michigan. Florida State has fallen even further. Though the Seminoles have gone to a bowl every season since 1981, they've been more Music City and Emerald material lately than Sugar and Fiesta. They have had consecutive 7--6 seasons—they're off to a 2--0 start and last week moved into the AP poll for the first time this year, at No. 24—and haven't had a 10-win season since 2003.
Worse, player arrests are piling up in Tallahassee and Happy Valley, perhaps partly because, with some blue-chip prospects spurning them, neither program can afford to be overly selective about players of questionable character. Since April, Paterno has booted at least four players because of legal scrapes, including wide receiver Chris Bell, who pleaded guilty to terroristic threats, a misdemeanor, after pulling an eight-inch knife on teammate Devon Still in the dining hall. On Sept. 5, the same day that he dismissed defensive back Willie Harriott for being arrested for driving with a suspended license, Paterno suspended defensive linemen Maurice Evans and Abe Koroma after a police search of their apartment turned up a small amount of marijuana.
Bowden has been just as busy dealing with his players' legal entanglements, the latest of which involved junior receiver Preston Parker, the Seminoles' offensive MVP last year, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor weapon and drug charges after police found a loaded .45 pistol and marijuana in his car during a traffic stop. Parker was given probation, and Bowden banned him for two games.
Paterno and Bowden aren't the only coaches with wayward athletes, of course, but it's fair to wonder if they still command enough respect from their players to bring their programs under control. It's admirable for them to think they can turn Penn State and Florida State back into the kind of consistent national championship contenders that made their coaches Hall of Famers, but at this point, Paterno and Bowden should be old enough to know better.