Every sports fan has heard the jokes. “Joe Paterno was a consultant on I Love Lucy.” “Joe Paterno is so old and unsure about the future that he doesn’t even buy green bananas.” Okay, that last one is actually pretty funny.
The Joe Paterno references come, obviously, as a result of what has happened to Bobby Bowden. It was deemed this week, by a bunch of suits, that Bobby Bowden could no longer effectively coach football at Florida State and he was forced out, not allowed to retire with grace. Bowden recently stated that he wanted to coach one more season. Rather than have that wish granted, he was dismissed.
Coaches that have amassed careers like Paterno and Bowden have earned respect like no other. They are legends. Legends are allowed to play by different rules, and with good reason.
For insight into how much respect Bobby Bowden got in Tallahassee on Tuesday, the day of his de facto firing, read this fascinating and troubling account by Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples (a Sports Geek favorite). Bowden was fired. So much for the 388-129-4 record coaching record. So much for the 12 conference championships. So much for the Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward he and his pupil Mark Richt cultivated.
There is no question that the height of Bowden’s success came in 1990s where he recorded double digits in wins every season (back when only 11 regular season games were played, and the bowl game stats did not count). But, Bowden was very successful this decade as well. He kicked the decade off with an appearance in the BCS championship game, and won at least eight games a season until 2006 when the program struggled to two consecutive seven win seasons. Struggled with just seven wins. How many programs would love to struggle like that? Despite the “struggles,” Bowden never wavered, maintaining confidence in the program and its leadership. Sure enough, the Seminoles bounced back with a nine win season in 2008 and a tie for the Atlantic division (though FSU lost the tiebreak to appear in the title game thanks to a loss to Boston College). The point? Never doubt the legend.
Okay, enough of recounting Bobby Bowden’s impressive resume and a history that spans not just the emergence of the Florida State program, but the ascension of college football in general into a top spot in America’s sports conversation.
Consider the case of Joe Paterno as an example of why not to force out a legendary coach. This legend is actually two years Bowden’s senior, and suffered a winning swoon far worse than anything Bowden encountered. Paterno’s program won seven total games from 2003 to 2004. Yikes. Not good. As 2004 came to a close myriad talking faces jawed about how Paterno must be forced out, that the program was dead, that it needed new life and new thinking. Firejopa.com was launched. Paterno asked for patience and was granted patience. What happened next? An 11 win season and a win in the Orange Bowl, a BCS game. Then he had two nine win seasons. Then another 11 win season and this season he has already won 10 games. Oh, and now Firejopa.com is for sale. Never doubt the legend.
A growing problem with college football that wrongly compromises the ability of a legend to coach effectively is the idea of a “coach in waiting.” Hiring a coach in waiting cedes some level of authority to a person that is not the head coach. It creates a locker room dynamic where players and coaches take sides and it opens the door to infighting, a very unhealthy situation that it NEVER seen in great programs. Bowden is a victim of the coach in waiting ideology that has infected major college football programs in the last few years. Putting a name and a public face on the coach in waiting – especially hiring one from the outside – is pointless and it undermines a successful coach for absolutely no valid reason. When just Bobby Bowden was in charge – when the buck stopped at his desk – the program was “pretty daggum good,” as he would say.
The point is that Bobby Bowden, like Joe Paterno, has not become too old to coach or ineffective. Bowden was, for the first time in his career, caught on the business end of a college football trend. He jumped on the idea of a coach in waiting as he did so many other trends in college football that did take off. This one bit him, and ultimately damaged his ability to maintain the respect he both earned and needed to keep Florida State’s program at the top of the heap. He did not suddenly become a bad coach in need of an ouster.
Bowden, like Paterno, did not deserve to get forced out because he earned enough respect throughout his career to be given the opportunity to fulfill his stated wish – coaching one more season. Instead a bunch of suits that believe they know what’s best for the football program made a stupid decision. The collectively doubted the legend.
Bottom line, you can never count a legend out. Ever. When they seem down, they bounce back. That trait is one of many reasons why legends achieve legendary status. No one knows more about a subject than the legend. They have earned the right to step down at a time of their choosing.