Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On Bowden v. Paterno

There's a great quote toward the end of Michael O'Brien's biography of Joe Paterno, No Ordinary Joe. It's from Jim Tarman, the former athletic director at Penn State, one of the hundreds of prominent central Pennyslvania figures that Joe has managed to outlast at the school. Tarman talks about Paterno's vitality, about his seeming inability to age, about how, at sixty-five, he came across as a forty-five year old. "I've never been around anyone who has aged as reluctantly as Joe," Tarman says, and that word--reluctance--just about says it all. The man refuses to resign himself to obsolescence, for better or worse. I kind of think his plan all along was to keep on going until his body or his mind broke down completely (there was never a five-year retirement plan, despite his hundreds of declarations to the contrary), but I also believe there's a factor lurking in the background that has kept him going, and that's this back-and-forth with Bobby Bowden for the all-time Division I-A wins record. In fact, I've got to believe it's kept them both going, no matter what they might say, no matter their declarations of friendship, or their insistence upon the irrelevance of numbers. Among competitive people, it has to matter. To think otherwise would be naive, wouldn't it?

Still, I don't feel particularly good about what's happening to Bowden at the moment. It feels ineluctably familiar: An aging coach under siege, called upon to resign, struggling to survive the season. For all his flaws, Bowden always seemed like a genial (though sometimes discomfiting--witness his half-joking dismissal of the reporter in the linked clip above as acting, "like a woman") human who deserves credit for establishing one of the most iconic programs in college football history. Both men have had suffered through inevitable declines this decade; only Paterno has recovered (at least for now). Maybe Joe just found a more effective way to delegate responsibility. Or maybe Bowden is just aging more severely. Or maybe Bowden is at a competitive disadvantage in a state with so much viable competition for recruits, whereas Paterno has a more established base in the Northeast. It's hard to know, but it just doesn't seem like it's going end well for at least one of them, and I have to imagine the chase for the victories record has far more to do with this than either man would admit--but especially Bowden, who never appeared as obsessive or high-strung or defiant, who almost seems to be clinging rather than coaching at this point.

It's kind of interesting to wonder how it might affect Paterno if Bowden resigns after this season; maybe it would provide both men with a sense of relief, a reason to let go before the end comes. Maybe Bowden's retirement is the best thing that could happen for both of them. You can age as reluctantly as you want, but eventually, gravity is going to catch up with all of us.

(Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images)

No comments: