This is the third in a seven-part series on story lines to look for during the upcoming college football season:
OK, which guy jumps first, Butch Cassidy or the Sunshine (State) Kid?
Joe Paterno, entering his 43rd season as Penn State coach, turns 82 in December.
Bobby Bowden, embarking on season No. 33 at Florida State, turns 79 in November.
Both coaches are already in the Hall of Fame, their legends secure.
Bowden has 373 wins to Paterno’s 372, meaning this could be an amazing race to a bitter end.
Ego is a curious, intoxicating thing. Letting go is never easy. As Bowden has noted, there is only one big event left after he leaves. So why leave?
Paterno has no outside hobbies, other than fending off ESPN allegations that his program has skidded off course.
A Big Ten “Joe” is retiring after this season -- Purdue Coach Joe Tiller. Paterno thinks Tiller is nuts, wanting to cast poles into water for fish that all look alike.
Asked when he might quit, Paterno recently huffed, “I don’t know. How many times can I say it?”
There will be a year when one, or the other, or both, finally calls it quits.
For the first time, we can honestly say this might be that year.
Florida State already has a succession plan in place, with offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher set to take over when Bowden retires.
The Seminoles are coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons and have to play their first three games without 20 or more suspended players. Dispatching Western Carolina and Chattanooga in Tallahassee should be no problem, but the key in determining Bowden’s future might be a Sept. 20 home game against Wake Forest. Two years ago, the Demon Deacons shocked Bowden’s team, 30-0, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Avenging that defeat could be pivotal to Bowden’s scripting his own end.
Bowden said at the Atlantic Coast Conference media day that he is not yet ready to get out, but events may dictate.
Paterno’s situation is more complicated. Penn State does not have a succession plan. Paterno’s contract expires at the end of the season and there are already rumblings about Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano leaving Piscataway for Penn State.
Paterno’s future after 2008 will be moment to moment. Even he has to know an exit strategy is now necessary,
“I’d like to retire when I feel as if I cannot make a contribution to Penn State,” Paterno said.
Some would ask: Hasn’t he contributed enough?
Penn State’s season could swing either way in a Big Ten Conference that appears pretty balanced after you get past Ohio State.
Maybe a great year hastens Paterno’s plans, or maybe a bad year does.
Or maybe Bowden and Paterno will stand, metaphorically, on the edge of the cliff, with gun-toting boosters on the chase.
“You jump first, Bobby.”
“No, Joe, you go right ahead.”
Maybe one, or both, will make the leap.
Or maybe neither will.