NEW YORK -- There will be other landmark days in the history of the College Football Hall of Fame. There are scores of great players who have not been elected to membership. It is no knock against the 13 candidates named Tuesday to the 2006 class to say that you could take the list of nominees not elected and create another class equally as deserving.
But the next time the Hall inducts a pair of coaches the equal of Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno? You should live so long.
It is difficult to overshadow a class that includes Mike Rozier of Nebraska, Bruce Smith of Virginia Tech, Emmitt Smith of Florida, and Bowden's first Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Charlie Ward. But all 13 players combined are the fringes of the fabric of the game weaved by Bowden of Florida State and Paterno of Penn State.
They may be honored by their election, but the Hall of Fame is the greater beneficiary. Perhaps that's why the National Football Foundation, which runs the hall, changed its rules to elect them. From this moment, the 2006 class of the Hall of Fame belongs to Bowden and Paterno.
What began as a selling point to the 2006 Orange Bowl -- hey, let's match up the top two winningest coaches in Division I-A history! -- has become so much more. They will go into history together. One, a 79-year-old from Brooklyn with a searing intellect and a fierce desire to win; the other, a 76-year-old from Birmingham with a folksy charm and, yes, a fierce desire to win.
"It's interesting because Joe and I are kind of the last two of this generation," Bowden said Tuesday on a teleconference from the Atlantic Coast Conference meetings in Amelia Island, Ga. "It excites me to go in with Joe, it really does."
"I look forward to being in New York with my good friend Bobby Bowden and am delighted that we are going into the Hall of Fame together," Paterno said in a statement released by the university. "I want to thank the Honors Court for selecting me. Hopefully, I deserve it."
"I wasn't expecting it because I thought you had to die first -- and I didn't want to volunteer for that. They might have changed the rules to get me and Joe [Paterno] in. But I'm very excited about it."
Hopefully? Please. Bowden has won 359 games at Samford, West Virginia, and for the last 30 seasons, Florida State. Paterno has won 354 games in 40 seasons at Penn State, including that 26-23 triple-overtime Orange Bowl. (That means that, like Barry Bonds, the two of them together will be stuck on 713 for several months.) Both men have won two national championships. Both have coached Heisman winners.
But electing them just because of their numbers is a soulless exercise, which brings up the real reason that this class belongs to them. College football is a coach's game. Even the best players have only four seasons in which to leave their mark. Coaches, the great ones, anyway, are the constant. The clay that steps on campus as freshmen has not begun to set. College coaches are molders. They create and develop players, yes, but they also create and develop character.
"A coach can shape a young man's life in a positive or negative impact," said Bruce Smith, a two-time All-American and the 1984 Outland Trophy winner at Virginia Tech who had become the NFL's all-time sack leader when he retired in 2003. "Coach Bill Dooley did it for me, as well as my high school coaches, Cal Davidson and Zeke Avery. They did a phenomenal job of teaching the morals and values of playing the sport: sportsmanship, not being late to practices, not being late to meetings, attending class ? He [Dooley] would place expectations on me. I could see how proud he was when I was able to reach the goals and become the player I was able to become."
Ward, as soft-spoken and quiet now as the day he stepped onto the Tallahassee campus, said it took him a couple of years to figure out Bowden. He remembered staring at Bowden -- "a big amazement," Ward recalled -- when Bowden came 30 minutes north to Thomasville, Ga., to recruit him.
"Once you get to talking to him, he starts going off all his one-liners, his stories. He has great stories, his accent," Ward said. "We weren't used to big-time people coming into our home ? It was an honor to have Coach Bowden actually come in and teach me a lot about being a true leader and a man of God, which he was, and it was very encouraging for me as a leader to have a Christian man running 100 student-athletes."
Ward enjoyed an 11-year career in the NBA and just finished his first year as an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets. He has thought, too, about coaching football, "if the right situation comes up," in no small part because of what he learned from Bowden.
"My whole goal now in life is to help develop young talent, or young people," Ward said. "Not just as football players or basketball players, but as men who have values and want to make an impact on society. That's where a lot of homes are messed up, because the men aren't there to be effective leaders."
The National Football Foundation bent its own rules to induct Paterno and Bowden. The old rule for coaches stated a candidate must have coached 10 seasons, won at least 60 percent of his games, and have been retired for three years. Suddenly, this spring, a new rule appeared: if you're 75 years old and still coaching, you qualify.
The reason the foundation installed the rule is simple. It wanted to honor both men when they could be brought in together. If one retired before the other, that wouldn't be as easy to do. And the foundation also wanted to honor both men when they could enjoy it. Tomorrow is guaranteed for no one, even vibrant coaches in their late 70s.
As Bowden said of his election, "I wasn't expecting it because I thought you had to die first -- and I didn't want to volunteer for that. They might have changed the rules to get me and Joe in. But I'm very excited about it."
Not nearly as much as the rest of us. In the glow of their presence, college football looks much better today.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org