Perhaps Paul “The Bear” Bryant said it best: “All I know is, I don’t want to stop coaching, and I don’t want to stop winning. So we’re going to break the record, unless I die.”
That was 20 years ago, when the legendary Crimson Tide coach was on the verge of breaking Alonzo Staggs’ record of 314 wins. Bryant would later eclipse Staggs’ mark and become the all-time winningest football coach in Division I-A history. Now in the 21st century, two other legendary coaches are on the brink of pushing the Bear down to third place in the all-time win list.
Penn State’s Joe Paterno and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden need two wins and nine wins respectively to eclipse the mark. And since both have contracts that run through 2004, common sense would dictate that it is inevitable that Bear Bryant’s record of 323 career wins will be knocked to the side … eventually. But it may not happen this season. Both coaches face major obstacles — some of which they have yet to face in their head coaching careers.
Happy Valley dwellers are not used to losing. In fact, the last time Penn State posted losing records in consecutive seasons was in 1931 and 1932. This year will not get any easier with his team’s personnel and the schedule facing the 75-year-old Paterno. Last year, JoePa went through his second losing season in his 35 years as Penn State head coach and the worst record of his career, going 5-7. The raucous year did not come just at the hands of opponents, such as Michigan, Ohio State and USC by a total of 85 points, but also from off-the-field distractions. Assault charges, later dropped, were filed against quarterback Rashard Casey. And, of course, there was Adam Taliaferro’s spinal-cord injury.
Paterno never blames other factors. In fact, his success has stemmed from making changes to improve his club on a yearly basis. The biggest change in the off-season is the addition of three new coaches, none of whom has any sort of Penn State tie. It has been 15 years since the Nittany Lions hired a coach who was not formerly a Penn State player, graduate assistant or even a camp counselor.
“I didn’t say, ‘I lost a couple of coaches,'” Paterno said to reporters. “I’m going to get a couple of outsiders.”
The outsiders will replace defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who has been with JoePa for 33 years. A big change in the coaching philosophy will most definitely ensue with the loss of Sandusky and the addition of the new members to the Penn State program.
Proper coaching will be needed to help out the Penn State aerial attack, which is led by untested quarterback Matt Senneca, who replaces graduate Casey.
“He’s not Peyton Manning,” a blunt Paterno said. “He doesn’t have that kind of touch.”
What makes the road to 323 even harder for JoePa is the Nittany Lions’ brutal schedule. The first five home games are against Miami, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Southern Mississippi.
If the addition of the new coaches does not help immediately, it very well could help out recruiting. Many of Paterno’s competitors have been using age against JoePa when trying to get top-notch recruits to join their programs. Bryant had the same problems, as well as Iowa legendary coach Hayden Fry, who retired after a 3-8 season in 1998.
But what doesn’t scare recruits away is Paterno’s immense impact on Penn State and collegiate football. His transformation of Penn State football is similar to Bear Bryant’s transformation of Alabama. In his half-century with Penn State, Paterno has watched his team grow to a national powerhouse. During his tenure in Happy Valley, Beaver Stadium has expanded in size seven times. This year, 12,500 seats will be added, making Beaver Stadium the second-largest stadium in the country after Michigan Stadium.
With such a fan base, Nittany Lion backers want to see results. Two wins may be harder for JoePa than some may want to believe.
For the first time in recent history, people are telling Florida State to move over in the ACC and make room for contenders such as Georgia Tech. But how could people doubt a program that has been ranked in the top five and posted 10-win seasons for 14 consecutive years?
Bowden, 71, is nine victories shy of Bryant’s mark, but nine victories may be more challenging for Florida State this year than in Bowden’s 25-year career at FSU. Gone are 25 seniors who played for three national titles, as well as three players (Chris Weinke, Travis Minor and Snoop Minnis) who combined for 6,783 yards.
This year, redshirt freshman Chris Rix will anchor the offense. It will be the first time in over a decade that FSU will start a quarterback who has never taken a snap in a collegiate game. But Rix’s receiving corps will be short with the loss of their top returning receiver Anquan Boldin to a torn ACL in his left knee, as well as flanker Robert Morgan, who suffered a similar injury.
Florida State has its usual fill of cupcakes – Duke, Maryland, North Carolina – on its schedule, but does have some tough ones – Georgia Tech, Miami, Clemson and Florida. A four-loss season is quite feasible for the Seminoles, which might make it close for Bowden to get to win No. 323.
Bowden, born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., grew up admiring Crimson Tide football and admiring Bryant. He played quarterback at Alabama during his freshman year and then transferred to Howard College in Birmingham. His first coaching job was with Howard College. Bowden moved on to West Virginia and finally ended up at Florida State.
Florida State was anything but a powerhouse when he arrived in 1976. The Seminoles’ stadium held a meager 41,000 people, and football in the state of Florida was highly centered on the University of Florida.
How times have changed for Bowden, who is creeping up on his idol Bear Bryant to be the winningest football coach in Division I-A history.
But Bowden knows that Paterno deserves his respects as well.
“I really believe that when Joe hangs them up, he might go down as the tops,” Bowden said. “Joe has done everything right.”
Perhaps JoePa and Bowden could share the seat at the top of the list.