As coaches, Bobby Bowden and the late Eddie Robinson have more in common than just amazing longevity and tremendous success.
In their last seasons Bowden was 80 and Robinson 78, but neither was ready to quit nor felt he should have had to step aside.
The parallel was highlighted last week when Bowden was interviewed by The Associated Press while he was in New York to kick off a promotional tour for his new book.
"Fired might be a little too strong," the AP reported him saying. "Pushed out ain't bad. I was pushed out, no doubt about it.
"I didn't want but one more year."
Back in 1996, before his next-to-last season, Robinson was quoted in the Grambling campus newspaper, The Gramblinite, saying:
"I don't think I can go on forever, but I think I have the right to decide when I want to go out. Sooner or later I will make a move.
"But I feel I've earned the right to make my own decision."
That, really, is the heart of the debate, whether it's Bobby Bowden, Eddie Robinson or any other coach with decades of service and success at the same school (such as Penn State's Joe Paterno, who survived back-to-back seasons of 3-9 and 4-7 after he turned 77 and is still going strong at almost 84). Should they be allowed to call their own shot when it comes to leaving the sideline for good?
I examine this question in some depth in Eddie Robinson " . . . he was the Martin Luther King of football," the biography I wrote and published earlier this year.
The following excerpt, which draws on interviews with three of Robinson's most famous former players, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner, both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Doug Williams, the MVP of Super Bowl XXII, speaks to Robinson's reluctant retirement. But the differing views apply, in principle, to Bowden or any other coach in a similar situation:
"I would be the first to tell you, in all honesty, that he probably stayed a few years beyond when he should have," Davis said. "I was down at one of the Bayou Classics, and I was in the locker room. I'm hearing the coach, and the kids in the back - you couldn't hear him for their own conversations. I stood up and said, 'Dammit! Shut up. Don't you hear Coach talking?' It was like dropping a bomb or something. It's unfortunate, because if you had to tell them to be quiet and listen to Coach Robinson, that in itself said something."
Not even that scene, however, moved Davis to be part of the faction calling for Eddie to be replaced.
"I said, 'Absolutely, I'm never going to be a part of asking him to step down,' because of all he meant to Grambling. I was hoping we could find some way, maybe rather than asking him to step down, to find another way for him to play a role that he would feel good about - not having any idea what that might be. It would have been better for his legacy."
No one asked Charlie Joiner at the time, but he would have argued for compassion and respect if they had. "I was not involved," he said, "but my opinion is, if a guy of Eddie Robinson's stature wants to coach, you let him coach. You let him coach as long as he wants to . . . You just don't take those things away from a person like him. Let him retire the way he wants to retire . . . Why kill his heart? Don't kill his heart when he's a little vulnerable. Let him play it out."
Doug Williams tried to stay out of it as things unfolded, but later spoke to the other side of the debate . . .
"There comes a time when it still has to be about the university," Williams said. "Even though Coach gave his life to the university, somewhere along the line the university is still going to stand. I'm not a firm believer in the view that a guy who stays that long and gives that much and has contributed as much as he did deserves to go out whenever he wants to go out, even if he isn't doing well at the end. I would hope that when I fade to that point . . ."
Robinson won 408 games and nine black national championships in 57 years at Grambling. Bowden won 389 in 44 seasons, including 316 and two national championships in 34 years at Florida State.
But Robinson's last three teams finished with records of 5-6, 3-8 and 3-8, and three of Bowden's last four teams each went 7-6. Those declines cast the presidents of their respective universities at the time, Raymond Hicks at Grambling and T.K. Wetherell at Florida State, as the villains who forced them out.
As I learned, though, when I interviewed Dr. Hicks and he told his side of the story for the first time, few realize how much a university president agonizes over such a predicament, and how hard he or she tries to find graceful ways to preserve their coach's dignity. "Of course I made the decision. Who else could have?" Wetherell told The Associated Press.
Bowden was interviewed by Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel the night after he was quoted by the AP. During what had to be the softest questioning Hannity has ever conducted, Bowden explained coaching this way:
"Whoever gets the best players is going to win. You can mess it up. But if I've got players as good as your players, if I don't mess it up and you do, I'm going to beat you. The key is going out and getting the best players."
Hannity didn't ask Bowden if those recent 7-6 seasons at Florida State were a reflection of the talent he recruited or the result of messing up better players. Much less if, at 80, it was just time to go.