The horse race between Joe Paterno of Penn State and Bobby Bowden of Florida State for the most victories in the history of major college football came to an abrupt halt Friday. Bowden, a game behind Paterno when the 2008 season ended, has pulled up lame due to a case of academic fraud.
Only in the language of the NCAA does the word "vacation" become a pejorative. The NCAA Committee on Infractions announced Friday that Florida State, where Bowden has accumulated 309 of his 382 victories, must "vacate" victories in football and nine other sports played by 61 student-athletes who committed academic fraud in 2006 and 2007.
The Seminoles won 14 football games in those two seasons. The university must comb through its game records and determine how many of those victories are tainted by the participation of players who, led by academic advisors, couldn't bother not to cheat in online classes entitled "Music Cultures of the World" and "Sports Psychology."
Of all the people that Bowden did not beat, you never figured Bach and Beethoven to be on the other sideline.
Vacation is one step up from forfeit. Vacation means that Florida State can't claim the victory. It will go unclaimed in perpetuity, like a piece of luggage that never comes off the airport carousel.
Florida State, in a statement released Friday afternoon, left open the possibility that it will appeal the vacations.
"We just don't understand the sanction to vacate all wins in athletics contests in which ineligible student-athletes competed because we did not allow anyone who we knew was ineligible to compete," university president T.K. Wetherell said in a statement released Friday. "Our position throughout the inquiry was that as soon as we knew of a problem, they didn't play."
The race between Paterno and Bowden has been neck-and-neck for several seasons. Bowden overtook Paterno in 2002, when the Nittany Lions slogged through Season 4 of a five-year slump. By the end of 2004, Bowden led Paterno by eight games, 351 to 343.
But Paterno came back. Penn State has won 40 games in the past four seasons. Florida State has won 31. Paterno nudged ahead last fall, on Sept. 20, when the Nittany Lions defeated Temple 45-3, while the Seminoles lost to Wake Forest, 12-3.
And now, it's all but over. If Bowden has lost his deed to 14 victories, he will be 15 behind Paterno. In January he signed a one-year extension for the 2009 season, and he has an option for a second season. He has not said how much longer he'll coach, only that he has a date in mind when he will retire. But Florida State must pay his designated successor, Jimbo Fisher, $5 million if Fisher isn't the head coach in January 2011.
So let's use that date. That gives Bowden no more than 28 games to make up a deficit that could be as large as 15 games. The only thing that will get Bowden back in that race is if Paterno is caught handing out test answers at the training table. And if you know anything about Paterno's regard for academics, that's less likely than Rush Limbaugh speaking out for gay marriage.
For 14 consecutive years ending in 2000, the Seminoles finished in the top five, winning two national championships. But Florida State did not make the transition to the 21st century. They have been no better than above-average, left behind by in-state rival Florida. Last season, the Seminoles showed a glimpse of their former selves, going 9-4 and finishing tied for first in the ACC Atlantic.
The NCAA didn't hold Bowden culpable. He is a victim, along with Seminoles fans, the Seminoles student-athletes who didn't cheat, and now, all of us who like a good horse race.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.