Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Bowden vs. Paterno: The Final Verdict

I will submit my usual disclaimer up front: I have a deep and inherent bias on this issue.

So this is how it ends for Bobby Bowden. It's a bit protracted, a bit painful, as these things tend to be, though it's not quite as bad as it could have been--at least it's not a Woody Hayes ending. And let me say this: I'll miss the guy, even if I never had any real affinity for his football teams. I'll miss his dadgums, and I'll miss his charm, and I'll miss that squinty look of his, which always made him appear as if he'd left his bifocals in the locker room. As a football coach, it felt like Bowden was perpetually underestimated, perhaps because he was so charming, skillful at deflecting credit in the wake of victory and shouldering blame in the face of defeat--and no one suffered more painful defeats than Bowden's teams in the 1990's. He was one of the game's most earnest ambassadors, and he was an epically successful football coach, and even when he was angry he was charming.

But he is nowhere near the coach Joe Paterno is.

Now, I doubt these men ever meant to set themselves up for a direct comparison. It just kind of happened, as they both refused to succumb to age, as their victory totals soared past three hundred, past three fifty, past Warner and Stagg and the Bear. In Paterno's autobiography, written in 1989, there is not a single mention of Bowden in the index. (There are ten mentions of Bear Bryant.) They were always friendly, but they had separate objectives. Bowden never seemed interested in being much more than a successful football coach. This was his prerogative; this was what mattered to him, and there is no shame in that, but Paterno never framed his occupation that way. Call him self-righteous, call him self-aggrandizing, but--with the exception of Bear Bryant, who happened to come along at a moment of radical change in the American south, and perhaps Eddie Robinson--Paterno did more to change the perception of an entire university than any coach in the history of the game. Penn State is a completely different college than it was when my father arrived there as a professor in 1978--it's far better than it was when I graduated fifteen (gulp) years ago--and while it's still not Yale (or even Swarthmore), you have to give some of this credit to Paterno, who, for all his faults, has always focused on the reputation of the university as a whole. Because of Paterno, Penn State has elevated its stature as an academic institution, and this is a unique legacy, and this is something that cannot be duplicated, and this is why the victory numbers don't matter. This is why they never mattered.

In terms of one's ability to recruit/coach winning football teams, you may argue all you like. But in terms of legacy, it's not even close.  

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