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Stripping wins from Florida State's Bobby Bowden too steep a punishment

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden might pay a price in his chase for the college football victories record.

Getty Images (2008)

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden might pay a price in his chase for the college football victories record.

The man who will write history wears a clip-on tie.

At least, in my mind's eye, he does.

He works in an office where big books have small type, and there is a toy of Capt. James T. Kirk on his desk. He owns the latest calculator, the one that plays the theme from the X-Files whenever he hits the button to make it multiply. He went to a football game once, but he didn't care for it.

Tell me: Is that the guy who will determine the winner in the Joe Paterno-Bobby Bowden race?

Really?

Let me get this straight. In a typically ham-fisted decision, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions has decided to trim an unspecified number of victories off Bobby Bowden's coaching record because players cheated in a course that — let's be honest here — Bowden probably didn't know existed.

For the record, the course was called "Cultures of World Music." Ha. The only thing that Bowden knows about music is that the 1812 Overture sounded better back in 1812.

As for the NCAA, it admits Bowden didn't know about the cheating. For that matter, the NCAA admits that no one in the FSU administration knew about the cheating. Nevertheless, barring appeal, they are going to take a chain saw to Bowden's record.

Yeah, that makes sense.

Look, cheating is a horrible thing, and with 61 athletes from 10 sports involved, no one should suggest FSU shouldn't pay heavily. If you remember, I was the guy who wrote FSU should offer to withdraw from the 2007 Music City Bowl because of the academic fraud. And if the NCAA wanted to decrease scholarships even more, or keep the Seminoles off television for a year or two, you wouldn't hear a peep from me.

On the other hand, when you're talking about vacating victories, you have reached the point where the punishment no longer fits the crime.

When it comes to the NCAA, shouldn't that be the point?

(Of course, it is often difficult to say what the point is when it comes to the NCAA. For instance, it remains a mystery why the NCAA hasn't taken bloodhounds and magnifying glasses and the cast of CSI: Miami to look into the Reggie Bush case, but I am sure there is an explanation.)

It is understandable why critics want to lay this at Bowden's feet. After all, he makes a lot of money, and he is in charge of his program. But the NCAA seems to be suggesting that FSU should have acted before it knew anything, which is frankly kind of silly.

On the grander scale, this isn't just about Bowden. It's about all coaches and all colleges. And it's about not running up the score when it comes to punishment.

For instance, what if it were to come out next month that, unbeknownst to Urban Meyer or Jeremy Foley or anyone else, some University of Florida players cheated on a test last fall? Should the Gators be forced to vacate the games in which they played? And if so, how would their national title be viewed?

The truth is that it shouldn't have any effect. Not unless the NCAA could prove the cheating was directly aided by the coaching staff. Not unless the college was unwilling to act on its own.

That is true if we're talking about Oklahoma (which had its vacated victories from the 2005 season reinstated), or about New Mexico (which lost its appeal), and it's true of Abilene Christian (which is preparing for its appeal). Yes, it's true of FSU.

Again, cheating is terrible, but if you are talking about gaining a competitive edge, this isn't the same as a coach buying cars for his quarterbacks. What? Do you think FSU won games because the band would play a song and a defensive end would taunt the tackle in front of him by saying: "That's ABBA! They're from Sweden!" No, me neither.

As punishments go, vacating victories is a lousy idea. It's as if the NCAA is telling its customers: "Remember that game you saw two years ago? The one with all the touchdowns and the great finish? It didn't happen. You never saw it." And since a vacated game isn't the same as a forfeit, nobody gets the win.

Besides, in most places, where is the sting to having the NCAA erase a victory from the season before last? In most places, the coach's lifetime record is just another line on his resume.

At FSU, and at Penn State, it's a little different. Bowden and Paterno have earned that.

In a lot of ways, of course, this race is just for show. Bowden can finish second to Paterno, or vice versa, and it isn't going to affect the legacy of either. Still, the winner shouldn't be determined by a committee, should it?

Think about this: Barry Switzer once won a national title while Oklahoma was on probation. Ron Meyer and Bobby Collins led SMU to a death penalty, and they never had wins vacated. Bowden might.

Which way will the appeal go? Who knows?

Here's an idea. Suspend the cheaters. Take away scholarships. Remove television appearances. And as for everyone else in a supervisory position? Make them take the stupid course themselves.

When it comes to punishment, that's how to make sure a university faces the music.

Stripping wins from Florida State's Bobby Bowden too steep a punishment 03/09/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 10:42am]
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