Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part III: The contenders to replace him (posted 10.27.11)

Ending the JoePa Era in 2011, Part III: The contenders to replace him
From the pool of current NCAA head football coaches likely will come JoePa's successor

  • (In Part I, posted 9.20.11, RFBS asserted the time is now to end the greatest coaching era of all-time. Due primarily to Joe Paterno's declining health, Penn State needs to make a coaching change right after the season. Part I addressed specifically how this should play out for PSU president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley.)
  • (In Part II, posted 10.10.11 in the wake of a report that Urban Meyer met with PSU brass in late September, RFBS addressed the big question: What would PSU football look like under Meyer?)

Who should succeed Joe Paterno has been the proverbial $64,000 question at Penn State since Watergate. In his 46 years as head coach he has long outlasted hundreds of possible candidates.

Finally, however, the time has arrived. RFBS believes PSU president Graham Spanier and AD Tim Curley should, and will, make the move to replace the nearly 85-year-old Paterno after this season.

They could go in several directions for a winner to the "Replacing JoePa Sweepstakes":

  1. Within. The only viable candidate is defensive coordinator Tom Bradley (Jay Paterno and Larry Johnson would be longshots). PSU fans are intimately familiar with the pros and cons of choosing, or not choosing, Bradley.
  2. Former college coach. Urban Meyer is the leading/obvious candidate (Part II of this series examined what PSU football would be like under Meyer). 
  3. Current or former NFL coach. Going from the NFL to Penn State seems unlikely. However, there are legions of former NFL coaches currently working on TV such as Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy and Eric Mangini, or perhaps Jeff Fisher, who could conceivably be interested, and vice versa, along with Tennessee Titans rookie head coach and former PSU All-American Mike Munchak.
  4. Current college coach. The most likely option. 
  5. Current college assistant coach. It takes serious gravitas to succeed Joe Paterno. You'll need legitimate head coaching experience, so even elite assistants likely need not apply. JoePa's successor isn't going to be, say, the Mississippi State Associate Head Coach. Maybe someone like Virginia Tech 17-year DC Bud Foster could get Spanier/Curley's attention, but it's very unlikely they go that route.
If it can't be worked out with Urban Meyer, and it probably won't  - he could command too much money, or PSU might not be convinced he is physically and emotionally up to the task - then getting a current college coach is the most likely option, more likely than anointing Tom Bradley.

Bradley has been on Paterno's staff for 33 years, 12 as DC. If Spanier/Curley thought Bradley was the man to succeed Paterno, or if Paterno wanted Bradley to follow him, we would probably know by now. And Bradley probably would not have interviewed for other head jobs last offseason.

Someone currently coaching at another college right now likely will take the reigns from JoePa after this season.

That's big pool of candidates. Presumably, almost every college coach out there - with the exception of a select few such as Nick Saban - would be interested because PSU is a Top 10 overall football program with a tremendous amount going for it: History/tradition/success, resources, facilities, recruiting base, institutional support, no NCAA sanctions, etc. All factors considered, PSU is in the highest echelon of college football programs.

And unlike insane places such as Alabama, where the head football coach is the state Citizen No. 1 - and his wife is Citizen No. 2, her choice of toilet paper brand scrutinized ad nauseum - the PSU head coach actually can live a reasonably normal life. A remote life, for sure - as much as RFBS and others might love State College, the head coach's wife might find some other, larger locales a little more appealing - but a normal life.

PSU also has an extremely stable conference situation, which suddenly is a big deal. And the fear of being the man who follows The Coaching God actually is less than it was 12-15 years ago. Paterno simply has lasted so long that his replacement will be embraced as a long-awaited change as much as he will be constantly analyzed and compared to JoePa.

Who are the possible contenders among current college coaches? Keep an eye on the following 10 guys, a mix of familiar names and a few surprises, who could be on the Beaver Stadium sideline in 2012:

  • Kirk Ferentz (Iowa, age 56) - Has been considered a possibility for a decade. Western Pennsylvania native (played at UConn) has been successful at another Big Ten program with less going for it, sticking it to PSU 8 of the past 10 meetings and going 89-60 his first 12 seasons in Iowa City despite a 1-10 debut. Has spent a total of 22 years at Iowa and at age 56 he might be difficult to displace - Ferentz might not want another major act in his career. But he has the pedigree, respect and persona.
  • Al Golden (Miami, 42) - Seemingly has followed the blueprint to be the next PSU coach: Is from nearby (New Jersey), played tight end for JoePa (1991 PSU team captain), coached (briefly) at PSU, became noted as a top recruiter/coordinator elsewhere (Virginia) and somehow resurrected in-state, dead-program-walking Temple before landing the big-time gig at Miami. He currently is dealing with the hovering scandal not of his doing in his rookie season in Coral Gables.
  • Greg Schiano (Rutgers, 45) - Former PSU assistant (DB coach 1991-95) also has been considered a JoePa replacement candidate for years. From New Jersey and played at Bucknell, this is his 11th season at Rutgers, and he was 43-21 from 2005-09. Is both experienced and still young, is connected to PSU and has been successful not too far away. But Rutgers has finished the season ranked only once in his tenure.
  • Chris Peterson (Boise St., 47) - Peterson's 61-5 record his first five seasons at Boise is incredible. He must be on any big-time program's short list. He inherited a great situation and has made it even better. Could he take the Boise Blueprint and make it work at a BCS powerhouse? He definitely could if QB savant Kellen Moore had another four years of eligibility. A California native, Peterson always has been out west except for one year at Pitt (1992). The previous two Boise coaches got the call-up to the BCS, and Dirk Koetter (Arizona St.) was mediocre and Dan Hawkins (Colorado) flopped.
  • Bob Stoops (Oklahoma, 51) - Surprised? Stoops is a midwestern guy (Youngstown, Ohio-reared, Iowa-played) still in his coaching prime (age 51) who sometimes seems weary of coaching at OU, though not weary of coaching. There's little left for him to accomplish there. He'd have to take a pay cut to come to PSU, presumably. But don't be surprised if either PSU or Stoops expresses interest in the other through back channels.
  • Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern, 36) - Hard to see him leaving his alma mater, but the former Big Ten defensive player of the year has done well at Northwestern and would relish the opportunity to coach PSU-caliber defensive players, right? Has always displayed tremendous respect for Paterno. The youngest guy on this list, he nonetheless is in is sixth season at Northwestern and has led the Wildcats to three straight bowls. If PSU is looking for a guy for the next 30 years, Fitzgerald might be him. If he's willing to leave Evanston, he should be a contender.
  • Randy Edsall (Maryland, 53) - Did a commendable job lifting Connecticut from I-AA to two Big East titles in 12 years. First year at Maryland has been shaky. Is from Glen Rock in York County, played QB for Syracuse, was an assistant at Syracuse, Boston College and with the Jacksonville Jaguars, spending many years with Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
  • Gary Patterson (TCU, 51) - The easygoing loveable little brother, Patterson has done a lot with a little, going 98-28 his first 10 years at TCU, including seven 10-plus win seasons and a No. 7 ranking or better at the end of each of the past three seasons. Doesn't seem like a great fit but has been extremely successful. Endured a string of terrible jobs (Sonoma State? Cal Lutheran?) before getting a decent head position and maxing out with it. 
  • Ken Niumatalolo (Navy, 46), Troy Calhoun (Air Force, 45). Both service academy coaches have had success: Niumatalolo is 27-13 in three seasons with three bowl appearances, and Calhoun is 34-18 in four seasons with at least eight wins each season. PSU would be a big change in scope, but both would have the "Success with Honor" part of JoePa's legacy down having operated within their respective academy cultures. The option-based offenses likely would have to be scrapped, or significantly modified. Niumatalolo is from Hawaii and played QB at Hawaii after serving a two-year Mormon mission. Calhoun is an AFA graduate who has had stints at Ohio U., Wake Forest and in the NFL.  
Others: Steve Addazio (Temple), Mack Brown (Texas), Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Rich Ellerson (Army), James Franklin (Vanderbilt), Todd Graham (Pitt), Jim Grobe (Wake Forest), Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Skip Holtz (USF), Butch Jones (Cincinnati), Mike London (Virginia), Doug Marrone (Syracuse), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), Paul Rhoads (Iowa St.), Mark Richt (Georgia), Steve Sarkisian (Washington), Frank Spaziani (Boston College), Jeff Tedford (Cal), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Kevin Wilson (Indiana),

What characteristics must the next coach have?

The 408-and-counting wins are only part of Paterno's legacy. His foremost impact has been Success with Honor.

Sure, there have been some hiccups in both the success and the honor part - that's bound to happen with thousands of players passing through the program since 1966. But by and large, it wasn't just talk, wasn't a trumped-up catchphrase. Graduation rates, molding productive citizens, maintaining discipline on and off the field - Paterno has walked the walk like perhaps no one in football history.

Also - and this is very important - Penn State and Stanford are the only two BCS athletic programs never to have incurred NCAA sanctions. The next head coach will have to carry that on.

Paterno's successor will need the confidence and clout to follow a legend. The equanimity to gracefully cope with everything that comes his way. The energy to make a minimum 6-year commitment and to recruit relentlessly. The experience to be at his peak professionally. The persona to deal with the media, boosters, public and student body in an engaging manner. The skill to produce a team that consistently contends for the Big Ten title and puts 100,000-plus in the stands week after week.

That's all. Not much, eh?

The same issues that RFBS addressed in Part II of this series about Urban Meyer of course apply to all candidates. Success with Honor will not be compromised. Around Happy Valley it's "We Are Penn State," not "We Are Ohio State."

Who is up to that challenge? For Spanier and Curley, there's a lot more than $64,000 riding on it.

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