Bobby Bowden announced his retirement yesterday—sort of. He showed up on some kind of video with reporters not allowed to ask questions. No doubt Florida State wanted it that way because the school was afraid that, under questioning, Bowden might break the golden rule of big-time college athletics and tell the truth.
As in this truth: the man who made Florida State football matter got shoved out the door by an impatient president, board of trustees and fan base when all he wanted was to coach one more year. He said just that on Saturday, that he’d like to coach in 2010 and then turn the job over to Jimbo Fisher, who FSU put right up against Bowden’s back a couple of years ago hoping he might take the hint and allow himself to be shoved out the door.
Great coaches are great competitors. They don’t just say ‘thanks for the memories,’ the first time things go wrong and ask someone to shut the lights out in their office for them. Five years ago when the president of Penn State and the chairman of the board of trustees went to Joe Paterno’s house to talk to him about stepping down after going 26-33 over a five year stretch he threw them out of his house. He’s 50-13—that’s not a typo—since then.
The great ones should orchestrate their own exit. Bowden certainly earned that right.
There’s no need to recite his record here; the national titles, 10 win seasons, bowl trips. Or the fact that Florida State was absolutely nowhere in college football before he arrived and grew to be one of the four or five truly elite programs under Bowden. Was his reign perfect? Of course not. Even now, FSU is appealing an NCAA ruling that would take away 14 of Bowden’s 388 victories because of an academic scandal that football players were involved in. He’s had players in trouble—so has Paterno and every other college coach who has coached in the big time for longer than 15 minutes.
That’s the reality of the big time game: the pressure to win and win and win sometimes causes even the best coaches to take great athletes who may not be great people. The ugliest incident I ever saw at a Final Four involved a player recruited by Dean Smith, who coached with more class and dignity for 36 years than anyone I’ve ever met in the college game. Even the best make mistakes.
There’s no doubt Florida State has slipped in recent years. It certainly hasn’t slipped to 3-9 the way Notre Dame did under Charlie Weis or below .500 the way in-state rival Miami—the once vaunted U—did a few years back. Bowden will coach in his 27th straight bowl late this month. But 6-6 is a long way from all those consecutive 10 win, top-five seasons. FSU lost about three games in the ACC in the 90s after it joined the league. I used to say the ACC consisted of Florida State, the seven dwarfs and Duke—which aspired to be a dwarf. Now it’s pretty much 12 dwarfs. THAT Florida State is long gone.
What made Bowden special went beyond winning. He was—is—a good man, a very good man. He was always accessible to the media. Nowadays, getting time alone with a big-time college coach in-season is all but impossible. If you jump through 18 hurdles and promise to be nice or if you bring a cameraman with you there’s a chance you can get 10 minutes.
When Bowden began to build FSU into a power, you could pick up a phone and call him almost any time. I remember years ago when he took his team to play Pittsburgh, which was ranked No. 1 with Dan Marino at quarterback at the time. (Bowden played more tough road games in those days than anyone. Heck, even this year he played—and won—at Brigham Young. How many BCS schools will schedule THAT game?). I was covering the game and arrived in Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon for FSU’s walk-through hoping to grab a few minutes with Bowden. It had been a last minute decision to send me up to the game so I just showed up. No one stopped me. I just walked in.
When I told Bowden what I needed he said, “look, unless you’re in a big rush, why don’t you come back to our hotel and we can talk in my room. It’ll be more relaxed back there.”
Which it was. Bowden wrote my whole story for me. I still remember George Solomon, the Post sports editor back then (a Florida grad) saying after reading the story, “God Bless Bobby Bowden, he makes us all into good reporters.”
Bowden deserved a better ending than this. He deserved the ending HE wanted, not the ending some suit with a title wanted because it will take some pressure from the alumni off him. Serious question: Does anyone think that Jimbo Fisher is going to make THAT big a difference next season? As for the long term—recruiting—Fisher can tell every recruit that he’ll be in charge beginning in 2011, that Coach Bowden has already announced that 2010 will be his last season.
Back in 1980 I was sent to Alabama to do a story on Bear Bryant. Believe it or not, Bryant wasn’t that old—66 at the time I think—but he had lived a hard life and looked more like 100 when I sat in his conference room with him. It was pretty clear to me that he didn’t know the names of too many players and wasn’t terribly involved in planning for that week’s game against Notre Dame.
“My coaches do the coaching,” he said. “I’m pretty much the CEO around here.”
It’s harder to do that when your bosses have told your number one assistant that the minute you are out the door, he’s in charge. I’m not implying that Fisher is disloyal to Bowden, I’m just saying that the term used is ‘coach-in-waiting.’ Is there anyone out there who ENJOYS waiting?
Bobby Bowden deserved a lot better than he got from Florida State. He certainly gave them a lot better than the people in charge deserve.
Different school, different situation: Maryland announced yesterday that Ralph Friedgen would remain as coach even after going 2-10 this season. The reason for Friedgen surviving is simple: Maryland hasn’t got $4 million on hand to buy him out. Governor Martin O’Malley made it clear last week he didn’t want state funds spent on a buyout and there’s no big-time booster who is going to step up to spend that kind of money on football, which just doesn’t matter all that much at Maryland as long as the basketball team is playing well.
Maryland AD Debbie Yow named James Franklin as coach-in-waiting last year—which was a mistake for the same reason it is always a mistake to name a coach-in-waiting. Yow gets all bent out of shape when anyone says she made a mistake (on anything) but she did. She’s tried to paint the picture of Friedgen practically begging her to name Franklin because he is (according to Yow) the greatest recruiter of, oh, the last 100 years. One local columnist here in DC today said Friedgen was Yow’s first big hire, that she went out on a limb to hire him nine years ago. Wrong on two counts: Yow’s first big hire was Ron Vanderlinden who she was pretty much forced to fire after five years. And she hired Friedgen because a group of Maryland football alumni, led by Boomer Esiason, pretty much threatened to withdraw support from the program if she didn’t. She loved taking bows when Friedgen was winning but was more than ready to throw him overboard when things began to slide.
Yow probably would have liked to have pushed Friedgen out the door but couldn’t—not because he’s a big guy but because he has a big contract. Personally, I’m glad. I think Friedgen (and the great James Franklin) have made some recruiting mistakes that have brought about four losing seasons in the last six but he’s a good guy and a good coach and I’m glad he gets another chance with a more experience team next year.
Yow did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Florida State did the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.