And then, there was one.
College football's extremely exclusive fraternity of coaching dinosaurs became even more so last week when Florida State icon Bobby Bowden, 80, decided to retire rather than accept a farewell season in 2010, in which he would be largely a figurehead, with offensive coordinator and successor-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher doing most of the coaching.
Bowden will coach the last of his 417 games over 34 seasons at Florida State in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, when the Seminoles (6-6) take on West Virginia, where Bowden coached from 1970 through '75.
With Bowden's imminent departure, Penn State's Joe Paterno becomes the last of his kind, a coach who remains on the same campus for decades, a nearly extinct practice in a profession whose most successful and much-younger practitioners are now widely seen as migratory opportunists.
Although the 11th-ranked Nittany Lions (10-2) take on No. 13 LSU (9-3) on Jan. 1 in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., yesterday's media day in State College tilted heavily toward how Penn State's legendary octogenarian feels about Bowden's under-pressure resignation rather than the upcoming game against a very good LSU team.
Paterno, who turns 83 on Dec. 21, has been on the coaching staff in Happy Valley since 1950, and the head coach since 1966. He has walked a mile in Bowden's shoes, having been visited by Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley following the 2004 season, when the Lions went 4-7, the school's fourth losing season in 5 years. Spanier and Curley went to JoePa's home with the idea of convincing him that maybe the time was right for him to step away gracefully, before disgruntled fans and alumni howled too loudly.
That suggestion was rebuffed, and Paterno was fortunate he retained enough clout to return in 2005, a season in which his team went 11-1 and finished third in the national polls. Penn State is 50-13 over the past five seasons and any "Joe Must Go" talk has been largely silenced, although Bowden's 36-27 mark since from 2005 to now apparently wasn't enough to gain him a similar reprieve.
"I talked to Bobby the day before he decided he was going to give it up," Paterno said of his good friend. "He sounded upbeat. He wasn't bitter or anything like that."
Somebody asked Paterno whether he had thoughts about the end of an era in Tallahassee, where Bowden became as much the face of Florida State's program as JoePa's has been for Penn State.
"Everybody has thoughts about it," he said. "Bobby's done a fantastic job for Florida State. What happened there, I don't have all the ins and outs. I think it's disappointing to see a colleague that you respect and admire to be in the middle of all this turmoil.
"Bobby's a great guy. If he wants to get out, fine. If he didn't want to get out and he was forced out, I wouldn't be happy about that."
Paterno recalled a time when he and Bowden discussed scheduling one or more games between their teams, an arrangement that never came to pass other than three bowl games in which they went 1-1-1.
"He said, 'Well, you know, home-and-home's a little tough for us to go that far,' " Paterno recalled. "I said, 'So what do you think?' And he said, 'Maybe we can play at a neutral site.' I said, 'What site are you thinking about?'
"He said, 'Jacksonville's a great place.' "
Pending the outcome of the Gator Bowl, Bowden now stands with a record of 388-129-4 to Paterno's 393-129-3, the most wins ever by a Football Bowl Subdivision coach. The gap could grow much wider if the university loses an appeal of a March 6 NCAA decision that 14 Florida State victories in 2006 and 2007 be vacated because of the use of ineligible players.
Some have theorized that Bowden and Paterno stuck around as long as they did because each wanted the record of most wins for himself, something Paterno emphatically denies.
"I've never been interested in those kinds of things," said Paterno, who moved to cut off any further discussion about the matter.
"I know where you're coming from, and I just want to cut it off," he told a reporter persistent in his questions about Bowden.
"We're playing LSU. It's going to be a great game against a really fine team, all right?" *