© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture Penn State coach Joe Paterno and Florida State's Bobby Bowden pacing up and down the sideline.
Can't you see Paterno's large-frame, less-than-chic glasses, loosened tie, white socks and black shoes? You surely see Bowden's FSU cap, Oakley sunglasses and a garnet golf shirt, right?
You should also envision the mountaintop on which they sit.
Paterno enters his 37th year as a head coach with 327 wins, the most in Division I-A history. Bowden, who begins his 37th year Saturday against Iowa State, is tied with his idol, Paul "Bear" Bryant, for second, just four wins behind his good friend, Paterno. Since their teams met in the 1990 Blockbuster Bowl, Bowden has cut 21 wins off Paterno's lead. He could overtake him this season.
"You better call Joe and tell him he better step it up," Bowden said, joking recently.
He then reminds you that regardless of how many Paterno and he win, neither is likely to catch Division I-AA legend Eddie Robinson of Grambling, the all-time leader for any level of college football with 408 wins. Other than that, you won't hear him talk much about the race for immortality. He's genuinely uncomfortable with the inevitable comparisons to the likes of the Bear.
"I don't dare say I should be there with him," said Bowden, a native of Alabama who, as a young coach, frequently visited Bryant in Tuscaloosa to learn from him.
Paterno is no different. A few days before his Nittany Lions beat Ohio State to move him past Bryant, Paterno turned to self-deprecation when asked to assess where he belonged in the annals of coaching.
"I looked in the mirror one day and I said to my wife (Sue), "How many great coaches do you think there are?' " Paterno said. "She said, "One less than you think.' I put myself in that one-less-than-you-think (category)."
Think again, Coach. Anyone plainly can see that when he and Bowden retire, the leader will hold the I-A record for a long, long time. Whoever is second will be almost equally as secure in posterity.
The next closest active coach is South Carolina's Lou Holtz.
He is 90 wins behind Bowden. If he continues to win 67 percent of his games, he would need to coach in another 135 games (more than 11 seasons) to reach Bowden's current number. Holtz is 65.
"I don't think it will ever be broken," said Texas coach Mack Brown, who turns 51 on Aug. 27 and would merely need to win 78.4 percent of his games (his mark the past six years) for another 21 seasons to reach 323. "The other guys who are in the mix, some of us are too old to stay alive to win as many as those guys have. We're going to talk about Coach Bowden and Coach Paterno for football eternity."
Sports history is replete with supposedly unbreakable marks. Babe Ruth's 714 career home runs, Jim Brown's 12,312 yards rushing, jockey Bill Shoemaker's 8,833 trips to the Winner's Circle -- all have been surpassed.
But the bar set by Paterno or Bowden, who each have two national titles, might be more daunting to climb.
For one, neither Paterno, 75, nor Bowden, 72, is booking his farewell tour any time soon. Paterno has three years left on his contract. Bowden's deal runs through the 2003 season.
"I would hate to be sitting home three weeks from today cutting grass," Paterno said. "I haven't done it for 30 years. I don't want to start now."
He said he tells recruits that if he feels this vibrant next year, he might sign another five-year contract. Amos Alonzo Stagg coached until he was 90.
"Getting old is good if you've got good health," said Bowden, who has Type II diabetes that he controls through diet and exercise.
And even though he repeatedly has said he couldn't bear four-loss seasons again, that those are for younger coaches, last year's 8-4 record hasn't diminished his passion.
"Hey, I can go to Italy; there's a lot of good places to retire," Bowden said. "It ain't the worst thing in the world to be in Panama City for a couple of weeks and then take off for Rome or something. That ain't all that bad. I'm not ready to retire yet, but that ain't bad. I hate to nail it down to wins and losses. Did I say 8-4? Didn't I say 4-7? I wouldn't want to go through that again, but I wouldn't dare say I'd quit."
Their brethren see them going on for some time.
"It'll be a sad day when they do decide (to retire), if they ever do decide," said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, 64, who is eighth on the active list with 141 wins in 18 seasons. "They both might die on the field because they love the game so much and they love kids so much."
"They might go till they're 100," Oregon State's Dennis Erickson said.
But how many others will coach even 30 years?
Fewer and fewer, most coaches insist.
"That's another thing that amazes me about Bobby and Joe is that at their age, to have the energy and the interest to continue to coach is just phenomenal," said Brown, who enters his 19th year 11th on the active list with 124 wins. "Those two guys have more energy than I do."
Erickson, 55, the former Miami and Seattle Seahawks coach who is ninth on the active list with 136 wins, sees himself in the business for another 10 years.
But until he's 75?
"Oh, God, I don't know about that," he said. "When you're young, you think you're going to coach forever. But the older you get, the more that becomes a factor. For me, I'll coach as long as I can; as long as I'm healthy and doing a good job. But that's me. I don't know if the young guys around, if that's their attitude."
ESPN analyst Lee Corso, a former coach, agreed that many of the "newer breed" aren't likely to spend 30 or 40 years in the college ranks for one main reason: the big-time lure of the NFL.
Two years ago, Butch Davis left Miami for Cleveland. Steve Spurrier bolted Florida for the Redskins in January. The Bucs talked to Maryland's Ralph Friedgen after he led the Terrapins to a 10-2 record, an Atlantic Coast Conference title and an Orange Bowl berth in just his first year as coach. Every year, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Washington's Rick Neuheisel are mentioned as NFL candidates.
"The pros might be the main reason it's not broken for a long, long time," Corso said.
Yet the hot college prospects don't have to leave for dollars alone. Coaches at the big-time programs are getting rich, so early retirement is always an option.
"It's a whole different world," Erickson said. "Financially, it's almost frightening at some places."
But such pay comes at a price.
Ask Terry Bowden, an ambitious whiz kid who resigned under pressure midway through his sixth season at Auburn and hasn't coached since.
"Today, there's outside pressures that you didn't have 30 years ago; I'm talking about the Internet, I'm talking about talk radio," said Bowden, a college football analyst for ABC. "Every move you make, information gets across the nation before the facts. You get judged before people know all the details. Every day. I'm not sure anybody's going to want to spend 40 years in that limelight. Very few do. I thought I did."
"There's a lot of things you don't have control over, but a lot of people expect you to have control over," DeBerry said. "There's so many things that occupy kids' attention and interfere somewhat with what you're trying to do. It's just a different society."
Even the BCS, which has set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown, might affect a coach's longevity, some suggest. Winning 10 games and getting to a major bowl is no longer enough for some vociferous -- and wealthy -- alumni.
"The need for instant gratification out there is much more than before," Brown said. "With the BCS, there's so much attention on the national championship, and if you don't win all the games, people are looking for the guy who can. We're in a different time in college football than we've been in, and I don't see it changing a lot."