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That 70s Coaching Show

Paterno and Bowden, proving that time hasn't passed them by, take teams into the Orange Bowl

January 01, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The gimpy old men of college football, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, have been alive for 155 years and won 712 games between them.

"I'm Exhibit B. Joe is Exhibit A," said Bowden, 76, as he prepared his 8-4 Florida State team to play a once-beaten Penn State team coached by 79-year-old Paterno in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday.

They are relics in a way, men whose conversations are dotted with mentions of friends and contemporaries who have passed away.

They are also relevant. No other major college coach has won more games than Bowden's 359 or Paterno's 353.

Bowden is the gabby one, all Birmingham old-boy charm.

The Brooklyn-born Paterno is more the curmudgeon, fussing about media obligations and dismissing sentimental talk to discuss the game instead.

Yet the old friends share this: They have coached so long and so well at one place -- Paterno for 40 years at Penn State and Bowden for 30 at Florida State -- that they have outlived their own iconic status.

The calls for Paterno to be nudged aside were widespread after 3-9 and 4-7 seasons the last two years. Now he is back with a team that is only seconds from being undefeated, after losing to Michigan on the final play of an October game.

It has been Bowden's turn this season, with a three-game losing streak -- Florida State's first since 1981 -- that was halted only by the victory over Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game that landed the Seminoles in the Orange Bowl.

They are out of touch in their way, perhaps especially Paterno, whose success this season came in part because he opened up a staid offense.

In an age when coaches recruit by instant message and BlackBerry, Paterno is blissfully unwired.

"I got a call from the president's office one day. He was getting all these complaints I wasn't answering my e-mail," Paterno said. "I didn't know I had an e-mail."

One of them, Bowden or Paterno, will go out as the coach who has won more games than any other.

But far from being rivals in that nip-and-tuck race, they revel when the other comes back from the brink.

"We have both reached the age where when things go bad, the first thing is you're too old, you're over the hill," Bowden said. "I think Penn State did a smart thing staying with him."

Bowden took his share of criticism in Tallahassee this season, enough to make him recall the days he was hung in effigy early in his career at West Virginia.

"Once you get over the rope burns, it's not bad," he said. "We had so many good years back to back to back, but nobody cares about that.

"It's kind of like you are on the verge. I think Joe felt that way last year, that they were on the verge of doing something good. He was correct. They did."

Paterno is not crowing. He is years beyond that. But he is pleased to have persisted, to have kept his coaching staff together and to have shown that he was indeed right, the Nittany Lions were not far away.

"The only thing I feel good about, as far as records and things like that are concerned, is that I've been able to coach as long as I've been able to coach," Paterno said. "How many guys can coach as long as I've been coaching? Be healthy enough to be able to get it done and still enjoy it?

"No, all the wins have never meant anything to me. That's for other people. If Bobby Bowden wins 50 more games than I do, I wouldn't care. He's a great guy, a great coach."

Neither has an exit plan, but they have reached the point where the end of their careers is a constant question.

"I probably would think about that if my grandkids would leave me alone," Paterno said. "Every time I start to sit on my sofa and start to think when I'm going to die, some 9-year-old kid comes in and starts to ask me 'Why don't you do this?'

"In fact, the other night we were watching a game and one of my 6-year-old grandkids came over, watched the game with me and he critiqued the game for me.

"I have never really given thought to it, to be honest. I'm healthy. I feel good. I'm not looking to retire. I like coaching. I'm having a lot of fun and hopefully I can do it for a while."

He does not envision dying on the sidelines. He sees another chapter.

"Somehow, and I'm not sure how I would do it, I would really like to take over a group of kids in an inner-city school, kind of mentor them and create a different atmosphere than what I see in inner-city schools," Paterno said.

"I think that is what I would like to do because I would hate to get out of the people business."

Nor is Bowden weary of the coaching grind, not even the recruiting trail that burns out so many.

"If I have a seven-hour flight, I just sleep the whole dad-gum time," he said. "I get rested traveling. A two-hour flight, I sleep an hour and a half. It's relaxing."

He has his own vision of retirement.

"I wouldn't mind working around a golf course," Bowden said. "Hoeing some weeds or sitting on one of them lawnmowers. Maybe they'd let me play twice a week. After a week, you pick up your $40 check."

Behind the jocularity, there is a kind of fear.

Bear Bryant was one of Bowden's idols, and Bowden never forgets that Bryant died a month after retiring as Alabama's coach.

"I've seen it happen so much," Bowden said. "My father died right after he retired. It made me feel conscious that a man needs a motive to live. You've got your family, but ... .

"If I get out I'd go find another job somewhere. I'm afraid I'd die on the vine."

For Paterno and Bowden, the vine still bears fruit.

This year, it's oranges.

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