No Country For Old Men

Dec. 14, 2009
Dec. 14, 2009

Table of Contents
Dec. 14, 2009


No Country For Old Men

The legendary college football coach is a thing of the past

When Bobby Bowden retired—read: was put out to pasture—last week after 34 years at Florida State, the word used most often by media types and fans was bittersweet. The bitter part was that Bowden, one of the greatest college football coaches ever, could not write his own ending with sweeping Disney music and one last ride off the field on the shoulders of the Seminoles.

This is an article from the Dec. 14, 2009 issue

The sweet part was that there were so many great memories ... and, yeah, that with the octogenarian Bowden gone, Florida State might start winning games again.

It's like Bowden himself says: That's the nature of college football. This is no country for old men. Time was, coaches were synonymous with their schools and even bigger in their states than the governor. Bear Bryant didn't coach at Alabama, he was Alabama. Bo Schembechler was Michigan. Tom Osborne was Nebraska. Vince Dooley was Georgia.

Well, with Bowden gone, here is the list of Division I coaches who have done even 20 consecutive years at their schools:

1. Joe Paterno, who has been at Penn State since 1966. He will turn 83 this month.

2. Frank Beamer, who has been at Virginia Tech since 1987.

That's all. At some point Paterno will probably step down on his own terms. Beamer, who is 63, may still coach for a few years. But we have arrived at the end of an era. It isn't just that the legendary old coaches are disappearing. It's that there are so few legendary new coaches on the horizon, guys who build programs and then guide them through generations.

The movie The Blind Side is purportedly the compelling story of offensive line prodigy Michael Oher. But when the six coaches who recruited Oher five years ago play themselves in the movie, you see a whole other story. Houston Nutt: then at Arkansas, now at Ole Miss. Ed Orgeron: then at Ole Miss, now an assistant at Tennessee. Phillip Fulmer: then at Tennessee, now a CBS Sports analyst. Lou Holtz: then at South Carolina, now an ESPN analyst. Tommy Tuberville: then at Auburn, now on ESPN. Nick Saban: then at LSU, now at Alabama.

That's right: Six coaches, and not one is where he was in 2004. The wheels of college football spin like they never have before.

Why? There are pressures from all sides. When Notre Dame signed Charlie Weis to a 10-year extension for $30 million in 2005, the idea was to make it difficult for him to leave for the NFL. Then Notre Dame started losing to Navy, and school officials found themselves bound by the enormous buyout (reported to be around $18 million). The Irish canned him anyway. There is no amount of money that can prevent a college from firing a struggling coach.

Or consider Mark Mangino. In 2007 he won eight national coach of the year awards after leading Kansas to an improbable 12--1 record, including an Orange Bowl victory. It is probably the greatest season in Jayhawks history. Two years later, with Mangino in the midst of a losing streak, the school launched an investigation into his coaching methods. One player said Mangino poked him in the chest, others claimed he crossed lines by making cruel threats and instituting sadistic punishments. Five decades ago Bear Bryant made his name in part by making Texas A&M players practice all day and night in the desert without water breaks. In 2009 Mark Mangino was forced to resign.

Of course, the pressure to win has always been there. Coaches have always used one job to get a better one. Schools have always needed the money and goodwill that come with winning football teams. Fans have never had patience for losing seasons. But the pressures have been magnified. Consider that during his first six seasons at Tallahassee, Bowden went 5--6 one year, 6--5 another and had won just one of three bowl games. True, he had some wiggle room because the program was hardly a power before he arrived. But these days that track record might have alumni screaming that he didn't deserve a seventh season.

Yes, there are a handful of coaches who could stay at their school for a decade or two and become legends. Mike Leach seems to have carved out a place for himself the last 10 years as the pass-happy maverick at Texas Tech. Kirk Ferentz is an NFL candidate every year, but he has been at Iowa since 1999. TCU's Gary Patterson arrived in 2000 and guided his team to the brink of the national championship game this year. Randy Edsall has been at UConn since 1999.

All of them will no doubt face tempting offers or menacing job threats over the next few years. (Edsall, for example, is being mentioned for the Notre Dame and Kansas jobs.) Perhaps the two coaches likeliest to become the next Bobby Bowden are Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Pete Carroll at USC. Each has been at his school a while (Stoops since 1999, Carroll since 2001). Both are well-liked, both have been hugely successful, and both seem happy where they are. Still, it is worth pointing out that both had down years in 2009. And that Carroll has not won a national championship since 2004. And that Stoops hasn't won one since 2000.

As always, the clock is ticking.

Now on

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Bowden was one of the last coaches to be SYNONYMOUS WITH HIS SCHOOL.