Florence, Ala.—Bobby Bowden has been a college football coach for 55 years. In that time his various football programs have never been hauled before the NCAA for cheating. Sure, some of his players have gotten into trouble with the law and that’s not good. Yes, there have been various violations that every program goes through. That has happened to a lot of coaches. It comes with the territory.
But everybody involved in college football knows there is a difference between breaking the rules and cheating to gain a competitive advantage. No one has ever said publicly that Bowden bought players or gave them something of value to come to Tallahassee or Morgantown, or Howard College (now Samford) or South Georgia Junior College, where it all started for him.
That is why Bowden is troubled by the possibility that an NCAA Appeals Committee may eventually rule that 14 of his 382 career victories, second only to Penn State’s Joe Paterno at 383, will be “vacated” as punishment for an academic cheating scandal that involved 61 athletes (25 of them football players) at Florida State. The penalty as been appealed but if it stands, Paterno will win the race by default.
I had a chance to spend a couple of hours with Bobby Bowden and his sons Terry, Tommy, and Jeff on Tuesday. They had all come to Florence to help Terry, the new head coach at North Alabama, with his fund raising efforts for the football program.
Until now, Bobby Bowden has been low key about this whole thing. His attitude has been “what happens, happens.” But now, as his Hall of Fame career draws to a close, this matter has clearly disturbed his sense of what is right and wrong and, ultimately, fair to him and to Florida State.
“I’ve been coaching for 55 years and never been accused of cheating,” said Bowden. “And now we’re going to get punished like this for something we knew nothing about? And when we did find out about it we turned ourselves in. We did everything we were supposed to do. But somehow this just does not seem fair.”
The NCAA Committee on Infractions admits that there is no evidence that Bowden or any of his coaches were involved, had knowledge of, or condoned the process that allowed these students to cheat on an on-line course. Florida State discovered the problem, turned itself in, and immediately suspended all athletes involved. Those suspensions in football were for as many as four games.
The infractions committee, thinking it was giving a lesser punishment than scholarship reductions, called for the games involving the athletes to be vacated, which means that they will be stricken from the record as if they were never played. But what the committee has done, perhaps unknowingly, is inject itself into the race to determine Division I-A football’s all-time winner.
Here is my advice to the NCAA: Find another way on this case.
What happened at Florida State should have never happened. It was sloppy. Florida State should be punished in some fashion. No argument here. But dock the school some scholarships. Fine them. Ban them from TV (fat chance).
The fact is you have no evidence that Bowden or his coaches were involved or had knowledge of it. If you did, I’ve got no problem with this punishment. So find another way to punish the school without getting into the Bowden-Paterno race and putting a permanent asterisk by Bowden’s name.
Just the other day Paterno said that he hopes the NCAA would reconsider its position and allow Bowden to keep the wins. Paterno is a competitor. He doesn’t want to win like that. He wants to beat Bowden fair and square.
“All of Bobby Bowden’s players and all of Joe Paterno’s players want the same thing,” said Terry Bowden. “They want to tell their children and their grandchildren that they played for the guy who won more games than anybody. And that race should be decided on the field.”
Bobby Bowden told me that he hopes the issue will be resolved in Florida State favor “but I won’t slit my wrists if it doesn’t.” He also insisted to me that this decision will not have an impact on when he eventually retires. He said he has an idea when that will be but won’t discuss it “because then people will start counting down the days. I don’t want that.”
Here is my bottom line: The NCAA, however well-intentioned, is inserting itself into a piece of college football history. That is not a proper place for them to be. Punish Florida State appropriately. Just find another way to do it.
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