Learning from Paterno, Bowden and Osborne

Can any parallels be drawn between three NCAA football coaching legends and Tony La Russa?

Watching the NCAA bowl games this past week, and specifically Penn State coach Joe Paterno taking a defeat while pointing ahead to his 46th year with the Nittany Lions got me thinking about parallels between the collegiate gridiron and Major League Baseball.

Clearly there are substantial differences in that the colleges at least pretend to push amateur athletics, despite the realities of it being a huge business. Further, with the constant turnover of talent, long-term identification of schools and programs are more aligned with their coach than their players.

In three of the games I caught, a trio of long-term national powerhouses took the field, programs defined by their long-time coaches, current and past. Along with Penn State, there were Nebraska and Florida State. While the 84-year-old Paterno is still in the saddle, his former adversaries and peers, Tom Osborne and Bobby Bowden, have moved on to other endeavors.

The Seminoles won their 10th game of the season with a bowl victory last Friday. It was their first season after Bowden was pushed into retirement a year ago at the age of 80. Though Bowden won two national championships in the 1990s, FSU's coach starting in 1976 had fallen upon hard times recently. He hadn't won 10 games in a season since 2003 and three of his last four clubs ended the season outside the AP top 25.

Upon the Cornhuskers delivering his third national championship of the decade, Osborne, now 73, immediately retired from the coaching ranks in 1997. He then served three terms in the US House of Representatives, but after a failed run for governor, returned to the University. The athletic director is guiding a move to the Big Ten next season. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Nittany Lions and Huskers were selected as rivalry opponents, scheduled to meet each fall.

Attending a Penn State game in Happy Valley five years ago, my binoculars were often drawn to the coaching legend Paterno. I came away surprised that the head coach seemed at best a detached CEO and at worst a figurehead. He was not even in the huddles with players and coaches during time outs, instead pacing the sidelines alone.

Like Bowden, JoePa has two national championships to his credit, though the most recent was captured a quarter-century ago. I was a bit sad watching Paterno's post-bowl game interview Friday as he looked and sounded, well, like an 84-year-old man.

What does this have to do with Major League Baseball, you ask?

In an unusual 2010, at least three future Hall of Fame-caliber managers left the game in Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella.

Only one was still with his long-time club, Cox in Atlanta, another had spent three years with a legacy franchise in turbulence in Torre with the Dodgers, while the third was on bumpy ground in a tough place to win, Piniella in Chicago. Only Cox made the 2010 post-season, as a wild card, before quickly exiting with a single win. Torre's final club finished in fourth place while Piniella walked away before the end of the season with his final, underachieving entry lodged in fifth place.

While the three managers have six World Championships among them, led by Torre's four with the Yankees, all six crowns had been earned over a decade ago.

Lou Piniella and Tony La Russa
Arguably the last big-name manager of their era still standing is Tony La Russa. The skipper of the St. Louis Cardinals since 1996 and an MLB field leader since 1979 is currently 126 wins short of second place on the all-time MLB managerial list and seems intent on reaching that mark, a two-year task.

La Russa's team brought him the most recent of his two World Series championships five years ago, but in the four seasons since, three of his clubs missed the playoffs, his longest dry stretch in over a decade. I couldn't help but think of Bowden's last four mostly-unranked years.

An ideal scenario for La Russa would be to follow Osborne's lead by retiring from the game on the heels of his third championship. Though certainly possible, it would be a major challenge. No one knows for sure how good the 2011 Cardinals will be, let alone their level of competitiveness in 2012.

While La Russa has already hinted about his eventual retirement and made vague suggestions of taking another role in the game at that time, others wonder if he could ever be happy in a baseball life that didn't include him being in the dugout in control.

Perhaps it would take a long time before the 66-year-old La Russa could be directly compared to Paterno, yet there is one obvious and indisputable similarity. Both have earned about as close to absolute job security as any team leader enjoys in any sport on the face of this earth.

Only time will tell if La Russa remains indefinitely like Paterno, is eventually pushed out ala Bowden, rides into the sunset on top like Osborne or simply walks away as did his MLB managerial brethren.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Selected TCN content appears at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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