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Finding Bowden's, Paterno's place among all-time coaching legends

Last week, I fielded a question about Bobby Bowden's 14 soon-to-be vacated wins, pending Florida State's appeal. I expressed my belief that whatever the final result of the Bowden-Joe Paterno all-time victory chase may be, it will have little effect on either coach's lasting legacy. This elicited an intriguing question from Mark Mills of Las Vegas.

Don't you think that regardless of whether Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden ends up with the most wins, neither will eclipse Bear Bryant as the biggest coaching legend of all time? If not the Bear, who do you think is the biggest name college football has seen?

The fact that this is even a viable conversation topic shows exactly why college football is so unique. In nearly every other sport, it seems like whatever happened most recently automatically trumps all previous history. Commentators instantaneously deemed each of the past two Super Bowls the greatest ever. Every time Roger Federer plays a Wimbledon final, it becomes the "greatest match ever played." And it's only a matter of time before basketball's talking heads decree either Kobe Bryant or LeBron James has usurped Michael Jordan on the all-time greats list.

In college football, however, history isn't rewritten so easily. If anything, the greats of the '20s, '40s, '60s and so on grow more mythical with each generation. Paterno's 44 seasons at Penn State and Bowden's 34 at FSU far eclipse Bryant's 25 at Alabama. More importantly, both Paterno (383 wins) and Bowden (382) have long since passed Bryant (323) when it comes to the single most important achievement any coach can boast, and they've done it during a far more competitive era.

And yet, I can't help but agree with Mark. While it's hard to truly judge contemporaries without the benefit of distance, my guess is 20 years from now, the Bear will remain the most iconic coach in history. Perhaps it's the hat (though Paterno's specs are just as distinctive). Perhaps it's the drawl (though Bowden's accent is equally unmistakable). Or perhaps it's the fact Bryant's tough-guy aura was synonymous with the sport's overall identity for so much of its history.

Forget about championships, winning percentages and bowl games. These, to me, are the sport's five most legendary coaches from a purely subjective standpoint:

1. Bryant: For a quarter-century (1958-82), his teams dominated the sport and his persona dominated the profession. We may never see that again.

2. Knute Rockne: Though he coached just 13 years, he singlehandedly created the Notre Dame dynasty, delivered the most famous locker-room speech in history and had a movie made about him. An estimated 300,000 people witnessed his funeral procession. He was kind of a big deal.

3. Paterno: It's impossible to truly comprehend that Penn State has had the same head football coach since 1966 -- and that he led the Nittany Lions to the Rose Bowl last year at 81. For much of his career, he also was the sport's most prominent voice on myriad moral and ethical issues.

4. Woody Hayes: He was the Bryant of the Midwest, a coach whose program's consistent dominance ceased only when Bo Schemebechler, a worthy rival, emerged during Hayes' latter years. Obviously, his legacy was to a degree forever tainted by that ghastly, final image.

5. Bud Wilkinson: His Sooners of the late '40s and '50s were arguably the sport's greatest dynasty, capturing 13 straight conference titles and three national titles and achieving an NCAA-record 47-game winning streak. Only his early retirement at age 47 precluded further greatness.

A few notable exclusions:

Tom Osborne: On paper, one could argue he was every bit as accomplished (.836 winning percentage, three national titles, 24 top 15 finishes) as the five names above, but unfortunately, his more bland personality made it harder to leave a lasting impression on most non-Nebraskans.

Bowden: He probably would have been on here had he retired in, say, 2002. His run of 14 straight top 4 finishes from 1987-2000 was Wilkinson-esque, but FSU's near-decade of mediocrity since has clearly dampened his legacy.

Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg: As the sport's unofficial founding fathers, they're unquestionably legends, but having coached in an era pre-radio/television, only hardcore historians possess any lasting image of these gentlemen.

Eddie Robinson, John Gagliardi and Tubby Raymond: It's hard enough comparing coaches from different eras, much less different levels. These guys deserve a list of their own.

That's my two cents. I'm sure many of you have your own, differing opinions -- and I'm sure I'm about to receive a whole bushel full of them.

Everyone knows Virginia Tech is returning almost everyone. Everyone also knows Virginia Tech has one of the best coaching staffs in college football. But probably, the most famous thing associated with Hokie football is their famous late-season blunders. Do you think a) Virginia Tech has shed that image? and b) is Virginia Tech getting any serious national title consideration?-- Zach, Woodlawn, Va.

Well Zach, those may well be the prevailing perceptions in Woodlawn, Va., but I'm not sure they jibe with the rest of the country. Yes, the Hokies have had a couple late-season collapses over the years (though last season played out in almost exactly opposite fashion), but my guess is the single most "famous" thing right now about Virginia Tech football is its perpetual failure to produce even a semi-decent offense.

There's no question the Hokies have established themselves as the perennial favorites in the ACC, and "everyone knows" Frank Beamer's teams can be counted on to produce some of the stingiest defenses and best special teams play in the country. But over the past three seasons, Virginia Tech has ranked 99th, 100th and 103rd nationally in total offense. In its three games before "exploding" for 30 points in last year's ACC title game, Tech scored 14, 14 and 17 points respectively against mediocre Miami (7-6), Virginia (5-7) and Duke (4-8).

To take that next step from ACC champion to legit national title contender, the Hokies need a more productive offense, period. QB Tyrod Taylor is entering his third season and finally has the job to himself, sophomore RB Darren Evans emerged as a bona fide star late last year while rushing for 1,265 yards, last year's freshman receivers are a year older and a pair of seniors man the left side of the offensive line. No more excuses.

Do the Michigan Wolverines have a real shot at a Big Ten title in the next year or two? Do you see them closing the gap with OSU?-- Joe, Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Not this year. While I expected the Wolverines to struggle last year, I never would have predicted they'd slip all the way to 3-9. Meanwhile, Rich Rodriguez's first full recruiting class this year was decent, but not the blockbuster haul many anticipated, particularly at quarterback. As he's shown at his previous stops, Rodriguez's spread offense depends entirely on his quarterback's abilities, and right now there's a lot of pressure for one of his two signees, early-enrollee Tate Forcier or incoming Denard Robinson, to emerge as a star right off the bat.

The most realistic goal for Michigan this season is simply to get back on the right side of .500. Once we see what these quarterbacks are capable of, we'll have a better sense of whether they can return to conference title contention in 2010. But keep in mind: The four-time league champion Buckeyes aren't going anywhere. Terrelle Pryor will be in Columbus for at least the next two years, and Tressel just brought in another top-five recruiting class. Michigan isn't going to catch up with that overnight.

Stewart, last week you mentioned Big 12 players Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford and Dez Bryant in a Heisman discussion. No mention of QB Todd Reesing and WR Dezmon Briscoe of the Kansas Jayhawks. If these two played for a team with a greater football tradition, would they be more hyped on the national level?-- Chris Mergen, Lawrence, Kan.

I would agree Kansas, and Reesing in particular, are getting overlooked right now. To me, it's a toss-up between Kansas and Nebraska for Big 12 North favorite largely because of all the weapons the Jayhawks return on offense. Reesing, who threw for 3,888 yards, 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last season, has been an elite-level quarterback for two seasons now, and Briscoe very quietly emerged as the nation's fourth-leading receiver last year (1,407 yards, 15 TDs).

But the Heisman and BCS races have become almost completely and unavoidably intertwined. Reesing received plenty of attention two years ago when the Jayhawks won their first 11 games and nearly rose to No. 1 in the country, but even then his rival, Chase Daniel, largely overshadowed him. Reesing arguably put together a better season last year but largely fell off the map when Kansas returned to the middle of the pack. He didn't reemerge until the regular-season finale against Missouri, when his dramatic last-second touchdown pass to Kerry Meier lifted the then 6-5 Jayhawks to a much-needed upset.

If Kansas can get back to a BCS bowl as it did in 2007, Reesing and/or Briscoe would garner Heisman attention; but that would likely mean winning 10 regular-season games, which will be a tall order with games against both Texas and Oklahoma and a road trip to Texas Tech. Remember, the Jayhawks played none of those three during their 12-1 '07 season.

Stopping the Mailbag Crush would be like Letterman stopping the Top Ten List.-- George, Orlando

Wow -- I had no idea readers held the Crush in such lofty esteem.

I've been an avid reader of the Mailbag for years, and I implore you, please get rid of the Mailbag Crush. It couldn't be more embarrassing.--Stats, Atlanta

Wow -- I had no idea they loathed it so much, either.

What makes 2009 Ole Miss different than 2008 Clemson?-- James Doker, Gainesville, Fla.

My first response would be: What exactly do they have in common?

I assume you're suggesting the much-hyped Rebels are primed for a choke job on par with last year's much-hyped Tigers, and you may well be right. Teams not normally accustomed to high expectations rarely handle them well. But Ole Miss provided no shortage of tangible evidence last season to support its legitimacy, beating the eventual national champion (Florida), the defending national champion (LSU) and an 11-1 team (Texas Tech). Clemson's high ranking heading into '08 was a much bigger leap of faith. As I recall, the general sentiment was "They have James Davis, C.J. Spiller, Cullen Harper and Aaron Kelly -- they have to be good, right?" The problem, of course, was that they also had Tommy Bowden.

And there's the other major difference between the two. Clemson has a long history of failing to live up to high preseason expectations. We should have known better. It's hard to predict exactly how Ole Miss will react because this is largely unchartered territory for the Rebels.

Will the Pac-10 be better or worse overall this season than last year? Do all the QBs graduating/leaving put it at the bottom of the BCS conferences?-- Tyler, Seattle

Normally, when there's a high percentage of inexperienced quarterbacks in a conference, that's a pretty strong predictor the league is in for a down year. At least four Pac-10 schools (Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA, USC) will have just such a guy under center. So I may be going against common sense here, but I believe the Pac-10 will be better than it was last year. If you recall, many of the league's better teams last year -- Oregon, Oregon State and Cal -- didn't really find their groove until later in the season. I expect at least a couple of those teams to carry that momentum into this season.

Furthermore, you can't get much worse than the bottom half of that conference was last season. Washington (which will get a significant boost from QB Jake Locker's return), UCLA and Washington State can only get better, which should give the league more depth. The Trojans remain the runaway favorite until proven otherwise, but it will be interesting to see whether someone else can step up and finally earn the league a second BCS berth for the first time since 2002. The biggest potential stumbling block is so many teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks against what is always the toughest non-conference schedule of any league.

Fellow newfound Lost fanatic here. Here's my HUGE question for next season: What did The Others want with Walt? Remember, they needed him for something, but when they let him go, Ben said they "got more than they thought they would" out of him.

And who was Walt's BFF on the island? John Locke. Think about it.-- Justin, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

See, that's what I love about this show. I literally read tens of thousands of words of Doc Jensen recaps and message-board theories throughout last season, yet this is the first time I've seen someone make this particular connection. And remember: When Locke went back and visited Walt as Jeremy Bentham, the kid told him he'd "been having dreams of Locke in a suit on the Island, surrounded by people who wanted to hurt him." (Thanks, Lostpedia.) Did Walt perhaps warn The Others unintentionally of the impending "war" on the island (much like he warned Locke the dangers of opening The Hatch)? Is that why Ben thought it necessary to kill Locke (not realizing he was actually playing into "fake Locke's" hands)?

For those of you who didn't understand a single word of the previous two paragraphs, I apologize. It truly is an addiction.

How important do you think it is for a coaching staff to remain stable? For instance, Georgia's defense was quite porous in its three losses last year. Mark Richt came out at season's end and placed the blame on himself and the entire coaching staff, citing that practices for the defense were relatively soft because they wanted to keep kids from getting injured. Richt seems to take the approach that coaches can learn from their mistakes without being canned. Do you think teams should try to hold out on their coaches a little longer?-- Will Starkel, Pullman, Wash.

Georgia's coaching continuity is both rare and admirable. I'm sure many Dawgs fans were disappointed last year that their team fell short of its lofty preseason expectations, but in general, they've had it pretty good this decade, enjoying two SEC titles, three BCS berths and double-digit victories six of the past seven seasons. Richt's staff continuity during that period is no coincidence.

While there are a few elite programs -- USC, Oklahoma, Texas -- that have managed to keep trucking despite frequent staff churn, more often that's a deterrent, and many programs exacerbate the problem by panicking at the first sign of trouble. Case in point: Tommy Tuberville's demise at Auburn last season began with the hiring of ill-fated offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. It's to Richt and Georgia's credit that they didn't make any short-sighted staff changes based solely on a couple of bad losses last year. However, Richt's track record gives him the luxury of patience. Were his program to suddenly hit a downturn, you better believe he'd face pressure to make changes.

If you retire the Mailbag Crush piece, I will retire from reading the mailbag. That is all. Good day sir.-- Bill, West Lafayette, Ind.

Duly noted.

Please drop the Mailbag Crush. I skip it every time it appears in your column. The Internet already has plenty of photos of beautiful young women.-- Danny, Fort Worth, Texas

Well, based on my informal survey, it seems whichever way I go with the Crush, half the audience will be happy and half will be ticked.

Meanwhile, there was some pretty significant Crush-related news this week. Jenna Fischergot engaged. If you recall, Kaitlin Olson got hitched last fall. That means two of our three beloved ladies have gotten engaged or married since earning their distinction. (There's still hope for you, Jordana Spiro fans.)

If I had to guess, half of you will view this as a sign it's time to move on ... and half of you will view it as the perfect excuse why we should find a new one.

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