It's not easy to facilitate an honorable exit strategy for a legendary football coach, as Florida State found out with Bobby Bowden.
Things got pretty messy in Tallahassee, and Bowden deserved a better final chapter than the one he has received. As Bowden steps down as Seminoles coach today, closing the book on one of college football's greatest coaching careers, you can bet folks will be watching in State College, Pa.
They will undoubtedly feel sadness, perhaps some outrage, and maybe just a bit of understandable relief.
Relief not because of the all-time wins record, which Joe Paterno holds and likely will never relinquish. Relief not because the race between Bowden and Paterno, real or perceived, is now over.
No, the relief stems from the knowledge that unlike Florida State, Penn State has avoided a messy sendoff for its legend.
Five years ago, Penn State found itself in a similar spot to FSU. The football team had endured a miserable run from 2000-04, producing just one winning season and a record of 26-33. Paterno faced numerous calls to retire, as critics spouted theories on ways to let the coach go quietly so things didn't get messier and his legacy could be preserved.
But Penn State stuck with Paterno, and the program has not only recovered, but returned to prominence. In the past five seasons, the Lions have won two Big Ten titles and averaged 10 wins. Perhaps more important, they've made major strides in recruiting and currently own by far the Big Ten's top class for 2010.
Penn State just completed a rather ho-hum 10-2 regular season. How much do you think Florida State would like one of those right about now?
So how has Penn State avoided the same fate with Paterno that Florida State could not with Bowden?
It starts with the staff. Like Bowden, Paterno has extremely loyal assistants, but they've done an exemplary job in several areas during the past five seasons.
Penn State boasts the Big Ten's best recruiter in defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who turned down a coordinator job at Illinois last winter to remain with Paterno in State College. Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley also has been tremendous in recruiting, and his defenses have ranked in the top 15 nationally in each of the past five seasons. Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, a former head coach, has revived the Linebacker U. tradition with players like Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman.
Florida State, conversely, has witnessed a major decline on defense the past few years, leading to the recent retirement of longtime coordinator Mickey Andrews.
Then there's the coach-in-waiting thing.
There are many, yours truly included, that have called for Paterno to name a successor before he retires. Well, Bowden did so with Jimbo Fisher, and it hasn't exactly worked out well for the Seminoles staff. Fisher and Chuck Amato spent part of the fall denying rumors of dissension on the staff, but it's hard to believe there wasn't some friction, given Fisher's future role.
Paterno's replacement is unknown, but it doesn't seem to be hurting him or the program at all, especially in recruiting. Winning cures all, and the talk of retirement and the team's off-field problems has dissipated.
Whether JoePa steps down in three days or three years, the Penn State program is positioned well for continued success.
Paterno and Bowden might not be the most plugged-in head coaches in college football right now, but both mean a great deal to their programs, their universities and their states. Penn State found a way to restore its program without forcing its legendary coach out the door.
Unfortunately, Florida State couldn't do the same with Bowden, leading to this sad day.