Joe Paterno Retirement Latest in Long Line of Unfitting Coaching Exits


Joe Paterno’s announcement he would step down after nearly five decades as Penn State’s head football coach was expected. It’s been expected for nearly a decade. The unexpected elements of the winningest Division I football coach’s retirement are the tragic circumstances surrounding it. An unprecedented career in terms of longevity, success and overall impact ends in the most unprecedented fashion. But while the why of Paterno’s retirement is so vastly different and sad from others, the what is further proof that legendary coaches rarely take a hero’s ride off into the sunset.

A parallel that has been used to Paterno is Woody Hayes, perhaps the biggest birth from Miami’s Cradle of Coaches and 27-year Ohio State coach. While comparisons between the two coaches’ exits are vastly misguided, both were revolutionary in their field and left under clouds. The Paterno-Hayes comparison exists largely because Hayes’ ouster from OSU previously set the benchmark for a revered coach leaving the game under bizarre circumstances.

The above punch of Clemson’s Charlie Bauman in the Gator Bowl ended Hayes’ career and forever remains a moment as synonymous with the coach as his 238 career wins and eight Rose Bowl appearances — if not more so. Hayes allowed his anger to cloud his better judgment. Such was the rap critics leveled against longtime Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight. Coach Knight’s outbursts included the pictured chair throwing incident, but the altercation with Neil Reed that led to his dismissal from IU is more discussed than his many accomplishments.

Knight won three national championships at IU and in his two-plus decades there, established it as a basketball power to the point that 24 years after its last title and myriad struggles, still feels like it should be a powerhouse. His great mind for the game was evident at Texas Tech, where he notched some level of redemption in leading the Red Raiders to the 2005 Sweet Sixteen. I covered Tech in its two wins that NCAA Tournament, and the feared Knight was one of the most gracious and funny athletic figures I have ever interviewed. Radio and television folks made their best efforts to poke the bear as it were, asking ridiculous questions in efforts to manufacture one of those oh-so-famous Knight soundbytes. Said efforts were in vain.

The ’05 run was something of a last hurrah for the legend, who coached Tech to the 2007 Tournament but was bounced unceremoniously, and shockingly retired midway through the following season. Knight left Lubbock in mid-February, not in April after a last Final Four, not carried off the floor by his players.

Bobby Bowden did get a hero’s farewell. A contemporary of Paterno whose successes at West Virginia and Florida State match much of what JoePa accomplished in Happy Valley, Bowden was still coaching championship contenders in the last decade of his tenure.

But even with a postseason victory over his former program to cap an illustrious career, there are those who remember Bowden more for the tumultuous run in his latter seasons than the myriad successes he had prior. Some point between the Seminoles’ appearance in the 2001 Orange Bowl and Bowden’s Gator Bowl defeat of West Virginia, people regarded his tenure with the same foot-tapping, watch-gazing anxiety Paterno had been perceived with prior to the horrifying revelations at Penn State.

Instances of overstayed welcome from impatient media and unappreciative fan bases are far more common than the Hayes or Paterno controversial departures. But that coaches like Bowden, Lute Olson, Lou Piniella are unable to retire on top is unfortunate. It’s also the norm. Rare is the Dean Smith who goes out on top.