Is Bobby Bowden Too Old To Coach?

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Over the past few months, I’ve become intermittently aware of the unrest surrounding Florida State’s football team. Apparently, prominent alumni and program boosters are upset at the state of the program, going so far as to call for 80-year-old head coach Bobby Bowden’s resignation. College football isn’t really my thing (unless I’m watching Vanderbilt lose by 20 every week), so I’ve remained mostly agnostic about this controversy. I like I think that I see both sides of the issue. Bowden is an iconic figure in college football, and even more so in the annals of Florida State athletics. But he’s old – let’s call it what it is – and it’s not ridiculous to suggest that his age may adversely affect the football program. I could see either side of the argument, but that was before Bowden went and did this.

If this is true (and no reason to doubt its veracity), then it’s a pretty big blow to Bowden’s credibility. Whether it’s fair or not, the head coach of any team, much less a storied one like Florida State, must be able to remember basic information about the flow of the game. We all have bouts of forgetfulness, and that this bout occurred to Bowden at the age of 80 when questions about his professional legitimacy are being asked is more than a little sad. But two things remain unquestionable: this is an embarrassing development, and it lends at least a small amount of credibility to the idea that Bowden needs to retire.

My opinion on this matter is not clear-cut, primarily because it would be based on the collision of two tightly-held personal tenets. Above all else, I believe in randomness and sample size. It’s possible that Bowden’s brainlock was an example of the sort of forgetfulness that occurs to us in our daily lives. It’s quite likely that a 30-year-old head coach could make the same mistake. We forget things sometimes. Maybe Bowden just had the 1996 Brady Anderson season of post-game comments. I believe that stuff happens, and that you can’t draw a sound conclusion until you have enough of that stuff to sort through. But I also believe that our faculties decline as we get older. Actually, it’s not so much a belief as it is a fact. We decline as we get older. Our eyesight gets worse, our knees and back hurt, our hearing goes, we repeat ourselves, and we forget bits of information with greater frequency. It’s just what happens.

As understanding as I am of this process, it doesn’t exempt the aging from a certain amount of scrutiny or criticism. This is especially true if the individual is holding a prominent, influential, or lucrative position – much like the one Bobby Bowden currently holds. There should be no special treatment of the elderly in the workforce. If they can perform the duties of the job to their fullest extent, then fine, the position is filled based on merit. But if age or factors stemming from aging make this task difficult, then criticism is warranted. Of course, the tough part is figuring out which professional deficiencies are effects of age and which would be there no matter what.

I have no idea whether Bobby Bowden is actually fit to run a football team or not. But I do know that most of the 80-year-olds out there aren’t working; they’re retired. And their overwhelming retirement isn’t some sprawling coincidence. They’re retired because they’ve worked a long time, they’re too tired and/or underqualified to keep doing so, and they deserve to relax. With that being the case, it’s nothing like prepostrous to suggest that Bowden is no longer the optimal choice for his job. Especially if he keeps on forgetting what just happened.

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