Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who spent nearly a decade battling former Penn State coach Joe Paterno for the most victories in NCAA Division I history, said he was saddened by Paterno’s death on Sunday morning.
Bowden said he learned of Paterno’s death from lung cancer after returning to his home in Tallahassee, Fla. Bowden, 82, coached in the Battle of Florida All-Star Game in Boca Raton, Fla., on Saturday night.
“I hated to hear it,” Bowden said. “It is really sad. The guy had the most illustrious career in the history of college football, probably all of football. To put the years together and have the success he had and then have it all end like this, it’s just tragic. I’m just going to remember the good things because he did so many good things at Penn State.”
Paterno, who spent his last two months battling lung cancer, won 409 games and two national championships in 46 seasons at Penn State. Bowden was ahead of Paterno in all-time victories for a time, but Paterno passed him before Bowden was forced to retire as FSU’s coach near the end of the 2009 season. On Oct. 29, Paterno won his 409th game, moving him past legendary Grambling State coach Eddie Robinson for the most victories among Division I coaches.
Bowden won 389 games in 44 seasons as a coach, including 34 at Florida State. FSU was ordered to vacate 12 victories as part of NCAA sanctions in January 2010, leaving Bowden with a career record of 377-129-4.
“I thought I could outlast him,” Bowden said. “That was kind of my goal in my last years of coaching, but my record wouldn’t allow it. I enjoyed [the battle with Paterno] and kind of fessed up to it. Joe would always say, ‘Oh, I’m not interested in it.’ At one time, I was ahead of him. He was the best.”
Bowden said he first met Paterno in 1962, when Bowden was coaching at Howard College in Birmingham, Ala. After watching the Nittany Lions defeat Georgia Tech 30-15 in the 1961 Gator Bowl, Bowden called Penn State coach Rip Engle to ask if he could observe spring practice in 1962. Paterno was Engle’s 35-year-old offensive coordinator at the time. Bowden later coached against Penn State when he was coach at West Virginia from 1970-1975.
Bowden and Paterno faced each other in two bowl games while Bowden was at Florida State. FSU defeated Penn State 24-17 in the 1990 Blockbuster Bowl, and the Nittany Lions beat the Seminoles 26-23 in three overtimes in the 2006 Orange Bowl.
In 2007, Bowden and Paterno were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame together. At the time, the National Football Foundation waived its rule which said coaches had to be retired to be inducted.
Bowden and Paterno became close friends during their trips together to Nike conventions.
“Joe and I would spend a lot of time together because we were older than everyone else,” Bowden said.
Bowden said he hopes Paterno will be remembered as a great leader and coach, and not for his role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked Penn State last year. Sandusky, a longtime Paterno assistant, is accused of molesting children over a 15-year period.
“It’s amazing,” Bowden said. “You can do so many good things in your life and then have one mistake. You can’t ignore the great years he had at Penn State and the great things he did for Penn State. That university is known for Joe Paterno and [his wife] Sue. It’s just a great tragedy.”