Paterno and Bowden: The Old Guard

Jan. 1, 2006

By Peter Finney Jr.
Special to


Anyone with Internet access could have told you before the 2005 college football season that Joe Paterno was a nearly extinct dinosaur fumbling about for a hidden cave in Happy Valley in which to deposit his fossilized remains.


It's funny how four months, a 10-1 season that came within seconds of perfection and Penn State's first Big Ten championship in 11 years have made a 79-year-old with 353 career victories and feeble night vision the flavor of the month.


At 76, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden has recorded more college football victories (359) than any other head coach, including Paterno, and yet a three-game losing streak to end the regular season brought out the barbs and the blogs. Then the Seminoles shocked Virginia Tech in the ACC title game and advanced with an 8-4 record as the nation's No. 22 team into a BCS bowl, the FedEx Orange Bowl on Jan. 3 to face No. 3 Penn State.


But let's face it - the only wrinkles that make this Orange Bowl special are those carved into the weathered faces of college football's twin Mt. Rushmores: Joe Pa and Grandpa Bobby.


The pair of septuagenarians played their roles to the hilt during an early-December joint news conference at the Seminole Hard Rock Café in Miami, near slot machines favored by people of their age. Walking up the five steps to the dais, Bowden paused at the top and said, "That might've been the slowest anyone ever climbed stairs."


"And I'm behind you, so I'm even slower," Joe Pa added.


Although they have been in the game forever, Paterno and Bowden have faced each other as head coaches only seven times. Paterno won the first six meetings when Bowden was head coach at West Virginia in the 1970s, and Bowden won their only post-season matchup, a 24-17 victory over the Nittany Lions in the 1990 Blockbuster Bowl.


Bowden was a fledging head coach at Howard College (now Samford) in Birmingham, Ala., in 1962 when he became intrigued with Penn State's style in a 1961 Gator Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. Paterno then was a long-time assistant under Rip Engle.


Bowden said he scraped together $55 of athletic funds to take a fact-finding trip to State College, Pa., but he wound up running out of money near Lewiston, Pa., and "thumbed the rest of the way. I think I stayed at a fraternity house."


"There were six of us on staff at Penn State then," Paterno said. "The others are all gone. We just buried the last one last week."


Bowden said it's nice to have someone his age to talk to when they get together at an offseason event sponsored by Nike or at a coach's convention.


"I look out there and see all these young guys around and wonder what my wife and I are doing there," Bowden said. "Then I look at Joe and remember."


"We're the only guys that go to bed at 8 o'clock," Paterno said.


"Ain't that the truth," Bowden said.

Paterno Emerges From The Fire

Joe Pa came into the 2005 season under fire from fans who thought the game had passed him by. The Nittany Lions had gone 27-33 in the previous five years - with four losing seasons - and they were coming off 4-7 and 3-9 seasons. The 2004 season included a six-game losing streak, and the Web site was swinging for the fences.


Penn State responded by granting Paterno a four-year contract extension, carrying him through the 2008 season. In early September, Paterno bristled at questions at his weekly news conference.

"I can't trust you guys anymore," he said. "I am just being honest with you. It is no fun. If I have to go and be guarded about everything I do; it is no fun."


In his 40 years at Penn State, Paterno developed a sterling reputation - and drew  criticism from some colleagues who viewed his methods as sanctimonious - for making sure his players attended class and graduated. He charted his players' GPAs alongside their JVPs ("Joseph Vincent Paterno"), which was his projection of the grades they should be getting in school. Anyone who fell short in the JVP category was in danger of being benched.


That explains why since 1966, Penn State's football players have graduated at a rate in excess of 80 percent.


"I liked the way he ran his program," said Jack Ham, an NFL Hall of Fame linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers. "No athletic dorms. He didn't make football bigger than life. With Joe it was always school first and football a high second."


In his 1989 autobiography, "Paterno By The Book," Paterno wrote about the proper relationship between football and education and insisted "college" and "football" were not mutually exclusive terms.

"The purpose of college football is to serve education and not the other way around," Paterno wrote. "I hound my players to get involved. Ten years from now I want them to look back on college life as a wonderful time of expanding themselves - not just four years of football."


Paterno was born Dec. 21, 1926, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and attended the Jesuit-run Brooklyn Prep. His father went to night school until he was 40 to earn a law degree. Paterno majored in English literature at Brown University and played quarterback and defensive back. He still holds the Brown record for most career interceptions.


After graduation Paterno had intended to enter law school, but Engle, his coach at Brown, had just been offered the Penn State job and asked Paterno to come with him as an assistant in 1950. His mother gave him an icy reception, but Paterno took the job because he thought it would help him afford his law studies.


Paterno took over for Engle as head coach in 1966 and lost six of his first 11 games. But his record includes a 31-game unbeaten streak (1967-70) and two undisputed national titles in 1982 (Todd Blackledge was the quarterback in a 27-23 Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia) and 1986 (the Nittany Lions' defense intercepted Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde five times, including a goal-line interception with nine seconds left, in a 14-10 Orange Bowl victory).


Paterno also coached undefeated but uncrowned teams in 1968 (No. 1 was Ohio State); 1969 (No. 1 was Texas); 1973 (No. 1 was Alabama) and 1994 (No. 1 was Nebraska). The 1969 results were galling because President Nixon had declared that the winner of the Texas-Arkansas Cotton Bowl game would be the national champion. That was the year Paterno became decidedly in favor of a national championship playoff.


"How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?" Paterno said during a 1973 Penn State commencement address.


If 1969 was upsetting, 1973 made Paterno apoplectic. The Nittany Lions capped off a 12-0 season by beating LSU in the Orange Bowl but were snubbed for the title for the third time. Paterno decided to give his players and coaches championship rings anyway, telling reporters: "I had my own poll. The Paterno Poll. And the vote was unanimous. Penn State is No. 1. I took the vote a few minutes ago."


That's why when Penn State finally broke through and captured an undisputed championship in 1982, Paterno stayed for a while at the hotel celebration and then retreated to his bedroom.


"I didn't sleep, I wanted to be by myself," he told Bill Lyon of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I had to watch my emotions. Not in terms of gloating, but I was getting nostalgic. I wanted to get off in a corner for awhile and remember all the players, the assistant coaches, who weren't around for this moment."


But the paradox remains: the man who did not believe in winning at any cost placed a major emphasis on the exacting process it took to be the best. In 1981, before his first undisputed title, Brooklyn Prep, his alma mater, presented him with a statue of Don Quixote.


"I think if it's just a question of winning and losing, then football really is a silly game," he said. "I would prefer to be thought of as an educator rather than a coach. People ask me what our best team has been, and I tell them I don't know yet. Our best team will be the one that produces the most people who lead active, productive lives in our society."


He has called his method "The Grand Experiment." Nine years ago, at 70, he said: "If I can go to 75, that will be great."


Twice he was asked to run for Congress. He was offered NFL head coaching jobs, including a flirtation in 1973 with the Patriots, who put a $1.3 million contract on the line. He slept on it and then turned down the proposal the next morning, telling his wife Sue, "You slept with a millionaire, but only for one night."

Paterno actually believes what he once told Reader's Digest: "We try to remember football is part of life - not life itself."


Bowden's Bumper Sticker: Beauty Of Lowered Expectations


Bowden was born Nov. 8, 1929, in Birmingham and starred at quarterback at Woodlawn High. After a brief stint at Alabama, Bowden graduated from Howard College in 1953 and stayed on as assistant coach for two years and then became head coach at South Georgia Junior College in Douglas.


Bowden returned to Howard in 1959 and went 31-6 in four seasons before becoming an assistant at Florida State and then at West Virginia.


Bowden compiled a 42-26 record in six years as head coach at West Virginia, but impatient fans hanged him in effigy after a 4-7 season in 1974. The following year Bowden went 9-3 and took the Mountaineers to a second Peach Bowl. He got a call from Florida State, which one year earlier had gone 0-11, and took the job after he returned to West Virginia from his interview and slipped on a patch of ice. Tallahassee looked warm and inviting.


"When I was at Alabama, all I heard was `Beat Auburn!'" Bowden said. "When I was at Virginia Tech, all I heard was `Beat Pitt!' When I got to FSU, their bumper sticker read, `Beat Anybody!'"


When he arrived in Tallahassee in 1976, the Seminoles had won just four games in the previous three seasons, and there were rumors that the program was about to be terminated. But within two years, Bowden led Florida State to its first 10-win season and its first bowl game in six years. The 1977 team, which went 10-2, started a string of bowl success for Bowden by beating Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl. Bowden's .696 winning percentage in bowl games (19-8-1) includes two national championships (1993 and 1999). The Seminoles won at least 10 games and ranked no lower than fourth for 12 consecutive years, an unprecedented run of success.


In 1999, Bowden beat Clemson, coached by his son Tommy, 17-14 for his 300th career coaching victory. Bowden described that nightmare of emotions for his wife Ann.


"She wants her son to do good, but she know I got the credit cards," Bowden said.


Bowden is not exactly proud of the grief his sons have had to handle, but three of them have followed him into the coaching business. Tommy, 51, has been head coach at Clemson for eight years; Terry, 49, is an analyst for ABC and was national coach of the year at Auburn in 1993; and Jeff, 45, has been offensive coordinator at FSU. Tommy and Terry both played for their father at West Virginia.


Bowden says he'll coach as long as he feels committed and his health permits.


"No one has ever said anything to me about (retiring)," Bowden said. "Of course, if I lose about two more games, they will."

Who Will Be No. 1 When It's All Over?

Both Paterno and Bowden are philosophical about who will eventually end up with more coaching victories. At three years younger than Paterno - and with a six-victory lead - Bowden would appear the have the edge.


"I never talk to him about the record," Paterno said. "What's the difference? I could care less. I couldn't care if Bob got 450 wins. I like Bob. I like what he's done. My wife likes his wife. Come on, what's the matter?"


"It's something we don't talk about," Bowden said. "My religion and faith won't let it matter to me. Sure, winning matters in this job. But some record? You're not going to take it when you go, are you? Whoever wins it, wins it. No. 1, it's either him or me. It's not like there's somebody else ready to step in there. That guy hasn't been born yet."


Just for the record, the Orange Bowl starts a few minutes after 8 p.m.

Whoever snoozes, loses.



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