And Then There Was One

With Bowden out of the mix, Penn State's Paterno is likely to hold the major-college victories record forever.

The epic battle for the title of major college football's all-time wins leader ended in not-so-epic fashion Tuesday.

Florida State's Bobby Bowden was behind on all cards in the waning rounds but insistent that he still had a chance to catch Penn State's Joe Paterno. The official count following the 2009 regular season saw Paterno with 393 victories and Bowden with 388.

But with a 28-20 record over the past four seasons, including a 6-6 mark so far this year, and the specter of Bowden losing 14 of those victories due to NCAA violations earlier this decade, the powers that be at FSU decided to throw in the dad gum towel.

According to published reports, Bowden was given the option of staying with the team but in a reduced role or stepping down. He opted for the latter, leaving Paterno, his fellow octogenarian and friend, as the undisputed major-college wins champion.

And with an overall mark of 393-129-3 in 44 years at the helm of the Nittany Lions -- not to mention a contract that runs through the 2011 season -- that record is as safe as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

Consider the following:

• Once Bowden is retired (after a bowl, according to reports), the second-winningest active Football Bowl Subdivision coaches will be Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer (228-115-4) and Ohio State's Jim Tressel (228-78-2).

Beamer is 63. Just to get where Paterno is now, he must average more than 10 wins per season over the next 16 years. Same goes for Tressel, who is about to turn 57. That would mean Beamer will have to coach until he is 79 and Tressel will have to coach until he is 73. And remember, that is if Paterno doesn't win another game.

As an aside, the NCAA allows lower division wins to count toward the FBS victories record total once a coach logs 10 years at an FBS school. Forty-two of Beamer's victories were at Murray State, then a Division I-AA program and now a member of the Football Championship Subdivision. More than half of Tressel's wins came at I-AA Youngstown State (where he went 135-57-2).

If either Beamer or Tressel get remotely close to Paterno, much will be made of the fact that Paterno won all of his games at the major-college level.

• The hottest young coach out there today is Florida's Urban Meyer, who is 95-17 in eight years as a head coach (at Bowling Green, Utah and now with the Gators). He is 45. And he is 296 wins behind Paterno. That means he'll have to average about 10 victories per year over the next three decades to get to where Paterno is now.

• Speaking of Meyer, it seems his name comes up nearly any time an NFL head coaching job opens. Will he make the jump one day? That's anyone's guess. But there are any number of outstanding college coaches who might have had a chance to catch Paterno had they not been lured away to the NFL. Former Gator coach Steve Spurrier was one of them. Miami's Jimmy Johnson was another. LSU's Nick Saban was another. The point is, the NFL is so much more of a spectacle now than it was in the early 1970s, when Paterno was being wooed by pro teams, that many of the coaches who have achieved the ultimate success in the college game (a national title) welcome the challenge of taking it to the next level.

• There was a time when NFL teams could outbid college programs for the best coaches. But not anymore. Earlier this year, Meyer signed a six-year contract extension with Florida for $4 million per year. According to published reports, USC's Pete Carroll makes $4.4 million per season and Saban, now back in the college ranks at Alabama, makes $3.8 million per year.

The initial reaction there is that the high salaries should improve the staying power of college coaches. But do they really?

Because with the extra cash comes even more pressure to win. And if athletic directors and school presidents don't think they are getting their money's worth out of a coach, they will remedy the situation quickly.

Just ask former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who was reportedly making between $3 million and $4 million per year before being canned this week after a season in which the Irish became bowl eligible.

• Barring illness or injury, Paterno, soon to be 83, is not going anywhere. That was set in stone last week, when the university released a plan to re-seat Beaver Stadium by significantly raising donation levels required to purchase season tickets for the best seats in the house.

The thing is, the plan does not kick in until the 2011 season. And the athletic department needs its best ambassador -- Paterno -- to be out in front of the push until then to get fans to open up their pocketbooks in difficult economic times.

Unlike Bowden at FSU, Paterno has been THE power broker at Penn State since the early 1980s. Even after four losing seasons in five years to start this decade, the school president and athletic director were forced to meet Paterno on his terms to discuss the future. And he received exactly what he wanted -- time to turn things around.

No other coach of a top program could have survived the debacle that was Nittany Lion football at the start of this decade. Bowden hasn't had a losing season at FSU since 1976. Weis had one losing season at Notre Dame. Both are out on their ears.

Of course, as far as we know, no other college coach of a top program has an AD who played for him and later worked under him as an administrative assistant.

But Paterno also earned the extra time, not only by his tremendous success on the field, but also by being a central figure in every significant fund-raising effort by the university in recent memory, covering everything from athletic endeavors to library expansions. The AD and president were wise enough to realize that if Paterno were pushed out in a contentious manner, it figured to have a significant impact on the ability of the university and athletic department to raise money.

Now, with the reseating plan having been rolled out in this economic climate, an argument can be made that Paterno is as powerful as he's ever been, because the last thing the athletic department needs is any hint of controversy as it attempts to pry more cash out of the Nittany Nation.

• Paterno is a genetic anomaly, a man able to do things in his 80s that many folks can't do in their 60s. He sustained serious injuries DURING the 2006 (broken leg) and 2008 (hip) campaigns, and both required surgery during those seasons. Yet, even though he spent a lot of time coaching from the press box, he only missed one game (a blowout of Temple in 2006). He returned to the sideline this year and spent every minute of every game there.

• Paterno had Bowden. Even if someone does break away from the pack and gets to, say, 350 wins, they will more than likely be there alone. With the intense pressure on college coaches these days, it is difficult to imagine anyone working into their late 70s, let alone two men doing it.

That Paterno and Bowden happened to come along at the same time made their battle all the more enjoyable for fans and probably for them. I'm sure there was considerable hoopla when Alabama's Bear Bryant passed Pop Warner for the record back in 1982. But considering Warner had been dead for nearly 30 years, it wasn't exactly a competition (at least not on Warner's part).

Likewise, when Paterno passed Bryant earlier this decade, Bryant had been gone for two decades.

But then Bowden caught and passed Paterno. And then Paterno caught and passed Bowden.

And then the FSU administration threw in the towel.

This whole thing reminds me of the great 1975 heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, the “Thrilla in Manilla.”

After 14 spectacular and brutal rounds, Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, knew his man was beaten. As Frazier sat slouched in the corner, Futch called an end to the fight. Frazier pleaded to continue, but the fight was over.

“No one will forget what you did here today,” Futch said. And nobody has. To this day, even though he finished his most memorable fight slumped on a stool in his corner, his face beaten to a swollen, bloody pulp, Frazier is considered one of the most intense warriors in boxing history.

That's Bowden. He wanted to go down swinging, but is not getting the chance to do it. And nobody is going to think any less of him or his school because of it.

As for Paterno, his legacy figures to be that much richer not only because he has the all-time major-college wins record, but also because of the man he beat for the mark.

Not that Paterno will ever do it, but if he wanted to, he could borrow a line Ali used so effectively after the brawl in Manilla all those years ago.

“He is the greatest fighter of all times,” Ali said of Frazier, “next to me.”

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