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Has Larry Blakeney Become Bobby Bowden?

Larry Blakeney is a legend at Troy University. Hired in 1990, Blakeney has led the Trojans from D-II all the way to the FBS and now coaches on a field named in his honor. But the wins have stopped, drawling parallels to another coaching legend.


There are any number of impressive ways to sum up the career of Larry Blakeney. Second-longest tenured coach in FBS. One of two coaches nationally calling plays on a field named after him. One of two coaches to ever lead a team from Division II to the Football Bowl Subdivision. Seven playoff appearances in eight tries as an FCS coach. Three wins over BCS teams. Five straight Sun Belt titles. 175-109-1 overall record.

But different numbers describe recent years. No winning seasons since 2010. An 0-5 start to 2014 including a loss to FCS Abilene Christian. An FPI ranking of 125th in the country.

Fans want to know what's going to happen this weekend, and for better or worse wins from five years ago don't mean much in the college football world.

How do you replace a living legend? I don't know, but Troy might figure it out soon.

At this point it's almost impossible not to draw comparisons between Blakeney and former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. From the long tenure to the big wins, expanding stadiums, the late-career fade to the field name honors, it's all there.

We can even squeeze in ooh-how-eerie coincidences. Blakeney and Bowden both hail from Birmingham. Blakeney played quarterback at Auburn, Bowden played quarterback at Alabama, though both lost the job before their college days were over. Bowden's three sons all entered coaching. Blakeney's three daughters all graduated from Troy.

And sadly, Blakeney might be headed for a final act just as ugly and awkward as the 2009 season in Tallahassee.

"Just as long as I want to"

Bowden's story at FSU is widely-known, and for good reason. Unlike other lifers who coached a big-name school for decades, Bowden built the Florida State program almost by himself. FSU didn't have a football program at all until 1947 (losing to Troy in year one). The team went 19-37 in the five years before he arrived and folk wisdom at the time said Bowden would split town when a better offer came.

Not quite.

From his first year in 1976 to his last in 2009, Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium more than doubled in size. The Seminoles landed in the postseason Top 5 an unprecedented 14 years in a row from 1987 to 2000. There were two Heisman Trophy winners and two national titles.

The program became a powerhouse precisely because of Bowden. Before the end Florida State had played more football seasons (34) with him as coach than it had (29) without him. Thus, the school was put in the most awkward of positions when the wins dried up during the mid-2000s. More than 30 years into the job and nearing his 80th birthday, Bowden didn't want to give it up.

"I've always been told I can coach here just as long as I want to," Bowden often said in between dad-gums in those years. Finally, of course, he was forced out following the 2009 season. It was billed as a retirement, but Bowden made perfectly clear he was fired.

There is a somewhat happy ending. FSU is now back at the top of the college football world. The Seminoles added a third Heisman and third national title in 2013. Bowden spent three years away from the stadium but now attends games as an official university ambassador.

"For that one 60 minutes, Troy was better"

Blakeney, like Bowden, took a protracted path to the job that would make him famous. He coached high school teams after graduating from Auburn and spent more than a decade on the plains as an assistant.

Troy greased the wheels to jump from D-II to FCS before Blakeney's 1990 arrival as the head man. Still, he was an instant success. His Troy teams made the FCS playoffs seven times in eight attempts, including an undefeated regular season in 1995.

In 2000, Blakeney won a Johnny Vaught Lifetime Achievement Award from the All-American Football Foundation. The next year, Troy moved up a second time, joining the "big boys" of FBS in 2001. There was no lag in success as the Trojans knocked off Mississippi State that fall.

Three years later came arguably the pinnacle of Blakeney's career. The #17-ranked Missouri Tigers came to Veterans Memorial Stadium for an ESPN2 Thursday night game in 2004. That night, the little team from southeast Alabama knocked off Missouri 24-14 in front of the largest crowd in Troy history.

Blakeney summed it up perfectly.

"We don't have to beat them 365 days," he told the Associated Press. "We just have to beat them for one 60-minute segment of history. For that one 60 minutes, Troy was better than Missouri."

As incredible as the win was, the idea Troy would even play a team like Missouri at home was the stuff of pipe dreams when Blakeney arrived.

The hits kept coming. Troy won the Sun Belt every year from 2006-2010 and beat Oklahoma State -- again at home -- in 2007. As the team grew, so did Blakeney's coaching. He switched from the triple option to the spread offense at one point, keeping pace with the times. A recruiting master, he lured future NFL stars DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora to his program.

But after the 2010 season things fell off a cliff. There was no gradual decline; the wins simply stopped coming. Troy went 3-9 in 2011 and haven't had a winning season since. With seven conference games left on the schedule, FPI rankings give Troy a .1 percent chance of winning the Sun Belt this year.

"Don't want to forget how it feels to win"

The Blakeney-Bowden comparison could have been made just as easily in 2004 with a much different meaning. Bowden still won big 10 years ago. In fact, 2004 was the year Doak Campbell Stadium's field was named for him. It was the year a Bowden statue landed outside the stadium and a giant stained-glass window became part of its facade, with Bowden forever overlooking the venue.

At Troy, the trajectory from 1990 to 2004 was nearly vertical. From D-II to a home win over Missouri in 14 years. Blakeney didn't have the honors yet, but he put his name on the stadium that year.

While Bowden turned down job offers over the years, including from the Atlanta Falcons and Alabama, Blakeney stayed for a different reason. The Eric Ramsy scandal at Auburn, in which Blakeney played a key role, forever tarnished his reputation. If you ask him, that's why the big offers never came. One final tie-in: the scandal led to the end of the Pat Dye era at Auburn. His replacement? Bobby's son Terry Bowden.

For a school the size of Troy, 24 years with one coach is truly remarkable. Blakeney has coached his Troy teams to 175 wins. The other 10 Sun Belt coaches had a combined 99 wins at their current job before this season.

It's of little solace to fans when their team is 0-5. Add to that pressure from new kids on the block, hot Sun Belt newcomer Georgia Southern and, closer to home, South Alabama, and this could be the end of the Blakeney era. For many this was a make-or-break year, and while there's still time to at least finish .500, that's highly unlikely.

Many Troy fans see Blakeney's exit as an inevitability. The only question for them is how: retirement? resignation? coach emeritus? or straight firing?

Oh, there's one other question: Who's next?

Blakeney apologists might point to Joe Paterno. The Sandusky scandal aside, Paterno turned his Penn State program around after nearly being forced out during a bad run in the early 2000s. At 67 Blakeney is much younger than Bowden was during his last season, and younger than Bill Snyder, Steve Spurrier and a handful of other top-flight bosses.

Like Bowden, Blakeney has much more than earned the benefit of the doubt. But in college football, that only lasts so long for anyone, even a man coaching on his own field.