The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines senior citizen as “an elderly person, especially one who has retired”. In sports, media and fans are often vocal about star athletes and when they should retire as their skills decline, but coaches can also feel outside pressure due their ages as well.
During a recent press conference, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno had an interesting comment based on previous reports of the condition of his health. Paterno opened the press conference by saying, “I’ve got one request. Please don’t ask me if I’m going to die today. Believe me, I’ve got a few more days left.” While Paterno’s comment seems witty, it is unclear whether he was responding to a member of the media asked him about his lifespan previously.
Of course, health questions were asked of Paterno due largely because of his advanced age, even for a coach. Joe Paterno is 83 years old and will be entering his 45th year as head coach at Penn State. His age has been a major question earlier in the 2000s, when Penn State struggled as a middle of the pack Big Ten team but since 2005 Penn State has had five straight seasons of winning at least nine games and back to back 11 win seasons in 2008 and 2009. Current Florida Atlantic head coach Howard Schnellenberger was the coach who started the Miami Hurricane dynasty of the 1980s and built Florida Atlantic’s football program from the ground up and guided them to winning records in 2007 and 2008. That Schnellenberger has accomplished his recent success in his mid 70s is remarkable. Paterno’s and Schnellenberger’s revivals shows how older coaches can continue to have success in major sports.
In Major League Baseball, longtime Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox announced he would retire at the end of the 2010 season and has his Atlanta team in first place in his division. Despite being nearly 70 years of age, Cox has had one of his most successful seasons in a terrific managing career. One of the reasons for the team’s success this season is rookie phenom Jason Heyward, who is just 21 years old. Cox has handled the ups and downs of Heyward’s season well, showing he can manage and work with young talent. This past season in the NBA, Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown led the franchise to its first playoff berth and will be turning 70 during next season.
Obviously, not all older coaches have success. The most high profile elder coach to leave coaching recently is former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who had been there since 1976 and ended his last season in 2009 defending his abilities to coach at an advanced age to both the media and members of the Florida State community. Many Bowden fans feel that he was forced into retirement at the age of 80, something that isn’t allowed by employers under the Employment Act, which permits employers from forcing retirement on employees on the basis of age because he or she is 70 or older. However, coaches like Paterno and Cox seem to have heeded the words of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau who said during his Hall of Fame speech that, “Life is for living folks. Don’t let a number be anything other than a number. Don’t let somebody tell you that you’re too old to do this or you’re too old to do that”.