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FSU's Bowden can lose the wins, keep the legacy

I believe in Bobby Bowden.

I believe he is a remarkable coach, one of the greatest college football has ever known. I believe he is a kind and decent man. I believe he deserves a world of credit for raising the profile of Florida State University.

And I will believe it forever, no matter how many victories are listed beside his name in the record book.

The possibility the NCAA will strip as many as 14 victories from Bowden's record does not change my opinion in the least. The probability that Joe Paterno will finish ahead of Bowden on the all-time wins list will not convince me that either man was somehow superior to the other.

I care more about Bobby Bowden's legacy than his final coaching resume.

Which is why I do not agree with FSU's decision to appeal penalties imposed on the athletic department. It is why I think school officials are putting the interests of one coach ahead of the greater good of the university.

By now, you are probably aware Florida State was found guilty of committing academic violations in a number of sports in 2006-07. And the NCAA responded by putting the school on probation for four years, taking away scholarships and ordering victories from that era be vacated.

For almost any other university, this would be an acceptable punishment. Considering there were no postseason or TV bans, it may even be a bit of a wrist slap. But, because of Bowden's record, it feels like the work of a hanging judge.

Nobody ever likes the idea of vacating victories but, in truth, it usually means very little. For mediocre teams, it is a nonissue. Even on championship teams, the blow is softened because it's not like the second-place team is retroactively awarded the title. The championship is simply disregarded, although everyone can recall who was the real winner.

This case is different. Vastly different. If Bowden's victories are vacated, Paterno will benefit greatly. He could go from a one-victory lead to a 15-victory lead without coaching a single play. Bowden, 79, has 382 victories, with no retirement party invitations in his drawer. Paterno, 82, has 383 victories, and seemingly plans on coaching from the next dimension.

So is it fair to make Bowden vacate victories in this situation? Probably not.

Just as it was not fair to the 1990 University of Florida football team to find out halfway through the season it was not eligible to win the SEC title because of sins committed by others. Nor was it fair to thousands of other innocent athletes over the years who have paid the price for infractions they did not commit.

This is simply the way the NCAA works. It is not interested in justice as much as deterrents. It wants a head on a stick that it can carry around at conventions and news conferences.

Now it is certainly within FSU's right to appeal the decision, but the university is running the risk of impacting other innocent athletes. For, when the NCAA handed down its punishment, it specifically said the vacating of victories kept the school from suffering even greater scholarship reductions.

Asked Tuesday whether he was concerned that he might be setting the program up for more severe sanctions, FSU president T.K. Wetherell suggested there was no relationship between this appeal and scholarship reductions.

I hope he knows that for a fact. I hope the NCAA has told him that it will not revisit other penalties if the school seeks to have Bowden's record declared off-limits. Because, otherwise, he is gambling with some kid's future.

The saddest thought is the discussion does more to harm Bowden's image than the loss of a handful of victories. His reputation has taken a hit in recent years, and that's a shame for a man who has accomplished so much.

Tell me this:

Do you think less of John Wooden today? Was he considered an inferior coach because he chose to retire with fewer victories than Phog Allen or Henry Iba? Does it matter that two dozen names are ahead of him on the all-time victories list?

Of course not.

Wooden's legacy was titles. It was dignity. It was creating the single greatest college basketball dynasty anyone will ever see. And the same should be true of Bowden. He was never a win-at-all-costs guy. His was a reputation built on grace and humility. And, for more than a decade, FSU dominated college football like few other programs ever have.

And now Florida State is willing to risk the future to protect its past? Now the school is gambling some student-athlete's scholarship against a coach's record?

After all of these years, is that what Bowden really wants?

Because I always believed he cared more about the university than his own glory.

I would still like to believe that.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com

FSU's Bowden can lose the wins, keep the legacy 03/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 18, 2009 6:41am]

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