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Veteran coaches get deserved day in the sun

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 21, 2001

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Let's hear it for the old guys.

Joe Pa, take a bow, finally. Saint Bobby, breathe easier, for now. Their coaching struggles of 2001 had become national pains, but Senior Saturday would mute the suffering.

Medicare at work

At 74, Joe Paterno caught Bear Bryant with his 323rd win. Sometime before Christmas, yes, this Christmas, he'll get No.324. At 71, Bobby Bowden pulled even with Pop Warner at 319. Before long, Joe Pa and B.B. will own history. College football's all-time 1-2 winners, in whatever eventual order.

They could become uncatchable.

But for now, after multiple September and October sputterings, there were rushes of joy at winning just one more, both for Paterno's Penn State against Northwestern and Bowden's Florida State at Virginia.

Paterno, winless until Saturday, said before his Bear-tying moment, "I don't feel old. What am I now, 58?"

Dreamer. Joker. Joe and Bobby both have the zeal of ... well, maybe not youth, but at worst middle age. Especially on game day.

Bobby doesn't look a day over 61. Eyes twinkling. Tummy getting flatter. Upbeat as always, eager for a hearty laugh, even after his 'Noles had been splattered at North Carolina and pancaked by Miami.

"I'm a realist who grew up in the Depression," he said. "Some people were figuring Florida State had become immune to a poor season, where we dropped three or four games. Some folks used to say I had a halo over my head, but I always knew, with just a little slippage, it could become a noose."

With that, a Bowden belly laugh.

"This season, a new kind of challenge is upon us," he said. "Thirteen starters disappeared from last year's squad. Then our injury luck went bad and took seven more kids we were counting on. We're being heavily tested Saturday after Saturday."

Winning routs ... mostly memories.

Bowden was jubilant for Paterno.

"Joe didn't deserve things that were being said," the FSU elder mused. "I could identify with a lot of criticisms he was getting.

"When things are going a little sour for a coach who's 70-plus, it's always about age. With me or Paterno, it can easily become, 'He's too old. He's lost it.' You just have to work through it, hoping the skies get sunny again real soon."

For now, some still are overcast.

A year ago, Chris Weinke was Bowden's hero quarterback. Heisman Trophy winner. FSU went 11-2, making it to the national championship game before losing to Oklahoma. Just another extraordinary season in a magical Bowden series.

There's a new Chris in charge.

"He's got just as much talent," Bowden said of redshirt freshman Chris Rix. "But it's difficult following a Weinke. NFL scouts keep telling me Rix is the full package. I agree, but it's going to take time. Patience can be in short supply in college football."

After a generation of uninterrupted residency in America's top five, it's strange seeing the 'Noles ranked No.21. But a 43-7 pulverizing will help.

Okay, I'll be the impatient one. Rix is gifted but still prone to the mighty mistake. Forces too many passes. Blows too many QB reads. FSU ran and defended better than it passed against Virginia. Contemporary Chris will zip the 'Noles downfield but then muddy the drive with an errant heave and/or horrendous decision.

Needs improvement, in a hurry.

From the moment FSU joined the ACC in 1992, the league has been owned by Bowden. He has yet to finish as low as second. But exams are stiffening. Most notably from a most stunning source, the Maryland Terps.

Until now, against the mighty 'Noles, the Terps have been twerps. Customarily beaten even before they stood for the national anthem. But this morning, Maryland is 7-0 and preparing for next weekend's trip of whopper opportunity to Tallahassee.

"Ralph Friedgen is doing an amazing coaching job," Bowden said. "Our challenges aren't getting any smaller."

Pushing 72, his life keeps changing.

Something else that's new for Bowden is being a diabetic; diagnosed a few weeks ago.

"Never had a hint of it before," he said. "But I'm dealing with it, mostly by changing my diet. Lots of foods I always loved are now off limits, like sweets. But the good news is that I've dropped 10 pounds.

"Luckily, it's diabetes 2, which isn't as bad as diabetes 1. I don't have to take insulin shots."

As usual, there was Bowden humor.

"For once, it's a lot more appealing to be No. 2 than No. 1," he said, again punctuating with that famous Alabaman chuckle.

"We have a far more severe diabetes case on our roster. Our freshman punter, Chris Hall, has diabetes 1 and must give himself four shots a day. Winning football games is nice, but it's pretty insignificant compared to having good health."

Paterno seconds that.

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