There was a time a dozen years ago when two men stood out above all others in the world of college coaching. Bobby Bowden directed the Florida State Seminoles through the 1990's in style, leading a program that finished ranked in the top five every season during that decade. FSU won two national championships (one of them coming over Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl) and won or shared the conference title in every season over that span.
The other program at the top was Nebraska, who joined FSU as the only programs to rack up 100 wins in the decade. The Huskers, led by Tom Osborne, won three national championships in four years to finish Osborne's career, which ended with his retirement after sharing the national championship with Michigan in 1997.
I bring this up because of the current calls for Bowden to step down at Florida State. To think that the man who brought Florida State from the cellars of college football to the pinnacle is being asked to give up the program that he built is one that has stirred heated debate in the world of college football.
Bowden took over Florida State in 1976. The previous three seasons, the Seminoles had gone a combined 4-29. Four years later, the Seminoles lost only one game, the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma, a game that could have awarded them a national championship. For the last 25 years of the 20th century, Bowden was the steward of a juggernaut, and much of the credit for that belongs to him.
Yet, much like his friend Joe Paterno once did at Penn State, he now finds himself confronted with boosters, trustees, and fans who question whether the game has passed him by. And unlike JoePa, who was able to resurrect his program in a highly-suspect Big 10 in the latter half of the current decade, Bowden has not been able to completely right the ship in Tallahassee.
While he hasn't overseen any losing seasons this in this decade as Joe Pa did (Paterno's record during the first five seaons of the 2000's: 26-33), Bowden also doesn't have near as forgiving of supporters as Paterno did. Would Bowden still be the coach at Florida State if he had four losing seasons in five years, as Paterno did? Doubtful, given the run of success that the Seminoles had in the 80's and 90's.
While some of you may say that a run like that would elevate a coach to a status that is beyond firing, I would say otherwise. College football fans are some of the most impatient people in the sporting world: if success becomes so commonplace that it is expected, it doesn't matter what you did to get to that point, you are expected to maintain it.
Why, even Osborne faced calls for his head after he took over for Bob Devaney. Despite the fact he never won less than nine games and his teams finished ranked in the top 15 in 24 of his 25 years at the helm, many fans, spoiled from Devaney's two national championships in his final two years, questioned whether or not Osborne was the right guy for the job.
The criticism was so bad that Osborne actually considered taking the Colorado job in December of 1978, but fortunately for Nebraska, opted to stay put. But what puts Osborne in deity status is that he left at the apex.
Unlike Bowden or Paterno, Osborne left before his program began it's downward spiral. It is impossible to say whether or not Nebraska would have gone as far downhill as it did if he had stayed. Would there have been two 5-7 seasons in four years? Would the bowl streak have ended? I would argue that those disasters would have been averted had Osborne stayed at NU.
But what if Nebraska had started going 7-5 or 8-4 every year? What if the Huskers had two consecutive seasons with six wins? Would Nebraska fans tolerate it for very long, even from a man they consider just behind God and Christ in terms of devotion? I'd like to think that they would. I'd love to think that Nebraska fans would have given him the same leeway that Paterno had in that dark period from 2000 through 2004.
However, with the rise of the Big 12 South and the cyclical nature of college football's hierarchy, it's tough to say just how differently Osborne's career would have played out. Nebraska fans look at nine wins and they shrug. It's probably delusional to have such high expectations, but Husker fans were spoiled for 40 years, and they expect championships.
He'd undoubtedly be either in the lead or neck-and-neck with Bowden and Paterno for the career wins record. He may have tacked a couple of more conference championships, maybe even recruited enough horses to reverse that debacle at the end of the 2001 season and win another national title.
But there's no guarantee that the same slide suffered by FSU and Penn State could have been avoided by NU, even with Osborne at the helm.
For the record, I think Bowden should be able to stay until he decides to leave. While I sympathize with Florida State fans, the man has done enough for your school that he's earned the right to stay, especially given that Jimbo Fisher is supposed to be the man in charge by 2011. That's the rest of this season and next year, and I don't think it's too much to ask that the man be given that time frame to have one last hurrah and turn it around in Tallahassee.
But having watched fans call for Paterno's head a few years back and people calling for Bowden's now, I'm glad that Tom Osborne got out while he was still on top. Paterno and Bowden, as unfair as it is, will always have the "Yeah, but they tailed off at the end there" arguments as part of any debate over their legacy.
Osborne's, on the other hand, will only continue to gain luster as time passes.
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