Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Must-Do List for Search Committee: Expeditiousness and Vetting

Newly named PSU football coach search committee must be both swift and sure. Don't let the search drag on for weeks, and make sure the background checks are as thorough as possible

The one thing that can cause the impending announcement of Penn State's new football coach to blow up in PSU's face is if something unsavory about the new coach comes out though the media.

Vetting, that popular word come election time - it's frequently used to describe presidential candidates searching for a VP - is of the utmost importance. PSU is scrambling to its feet right now and can't afford another knockdown.

After the concussive blows to the school's image absorbed during the Jerry Sandusky scandal - the staggering sexual abuse charges, the initially inept response from the school, the barrage of negative media coverage, etc. - PSU is beginning to get its footing again.

To take the next step, Penn State has to find the right successor to Joe Paterno. And the six-member search committee, formed this week by PSU president Rodney Erickson and headed by acting athletic director Dave Joyner, has to make sure the committee knows more about the finalists than the candidates themselves.

Anything less will make it seem like PSU didn't do its homework, didn't fully perform its duty. Anything less will leave PSU open to possible embarrassment it simply can't afford right now.

For example, a few years back Notre Dame had to fire George O'Leary just a few days after he had been named head football coach because it was discovered he had embellished his resume.

If a PSU coach candidate got a DUI in college, the committee needs to know about it. If he was tossed out of study hall in high school, the committee needs to know. If he kissed Suzie McGillicuddy behind the bleachers in middle school ...

You get the point. Which is why Tom Bradley, deserving as though he may be, can't be the next coach. It's not necessarily because he is so connected to Paterno or Sandusky. Because Bradley was immersed in PSU football for the past three-plus decades, as the investigation moves forward Bradley's name might turn up in some context. For example, completely hypothetically speaking, maybe video surveillance will reveal Bradley was the last person to leave the Lasch Building on that fateful night in 2002 when Mike McQueary stumbled upon Sandusky assaulting a boy.

Regardless of whether Bradley is absolved of any wrongdoing whatsoever, it's too late: the damage will have been done by simply having his name mentioned in any way in relation to the scandal.

So the vetting process is paramount, as important as finding the right guy.

It's also important to be expeditious. It shouldn't take more than 15-20 days to identify a few excellent candidates, evaluate and background check each of them, choose one, and make an announcement.

If this drags on past Christmas, something is wrong. It will look like Penn State doesn't know what it is doing. The PSU community, media, public and those associated with the football team - such as the players and recruits who need to know who the next coach will be - all are eager to get the new head coach on board.

This isn't to suggest that the committee should rush through such an important task. But this is their task, and they need to be working on it all day, every day. And as such, it simply shouldn't take more than three weeks.

Hopefully PSU is ready to make the financial commitment necessary. Urban Meyer just cost Ohio State $4 million annually. Penn State should be willing to part with at least half that.

Who is that best candidate? As has been written here before, the new coach must have a lot of positive characteristics:

The equanimity to gracefully cope with everything that comes his way. The perspective to always do the right thing. The patience to deal with the perpetual scandal lurking in the background, possibly for years. The focus to not let it impede success. The energy to make a full commitment and to recruit relentlessly. The connections and pull to compile a stellar coaching staff. The confidence and clout to follow a legend (albeit a suddenly greatly diminished one). The experience to be at his peak professionally. The persona to deal with the media, boosters, public, former players 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.

Someone like the Joe Paterno we knew for 46 years.

The long-awaited next era in Penn State football begins now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

It's open season on Joe Paterno. Take aim. (posted 11.28.11)

It's open season on JoePa, and the media is encouraging anyone/everyone to fire away
The former icon with an incredibly long track record of high character is now the target of widespread attempts to demean him in the wake of the horrific Jerry Sandusky scandal

It's open season on Joe Paterno:
  • A graduate assistant for a season or two in the mid-late 1980s goes on a prominent New York radio show and says Joe Paterno knew everything about everything at PSU and thus had to know about Sandusky. And JoePa was racist and didn't want a black quarterback (despite having no fewer than five black starting QBs at PSU). And Paterno got upset when his players' class schedules conflicted with practice (as does every coach; student-athlete class schedules always are arranged around practices as much as is possible). And on and on. And Sports Illustrated now is using this ex-graduate assistant as a primary source of insight into the "true" Joe Paterno. (A modest estimate: about 20,000 people know Paterno better than this guy - were none of them available?)
  • A former Penn State VP says she and JoePa clashed in matters relating to discipline/punishment for football players in the mid-2000s (as does every major college football coach with student discipline administrators), and that ultimately she lost her job a few years ago because of it (this story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal!). She characterized Paterno as desiring to be extra lenient on players (despite 46 years of much-documented evidence primarily to the contrary).
  • A former Daily Collegian writer says Paterno was not accommodating to the media when he was at PSU and basically doesn't like Paterno because of that, and for a few other reasons, and you shouldn't either. Oh, and the former student writer is not sure if Penn State did anything special to help a troubled ex-PSU football player who committed a murder in State College in 2005. (But he doesn't seem to know that they didn't help, either. Or that they had any indication of the depths of his troubles when he no longer was with the program.)
Yes, this is what the scandal has wrought for Paterno: Decades of mostly excellent deeds flushed down the toilet seemingly overnight. And anyone who didn't like him for whatever reason is now, through the eager media, providing the new narrative of the "real" Paterno.

Who could have imagined before this month someone such as longtime Syracuse basketball coach Jim Freakin' Boeheim high-roading Joe Paterno, and hardly anyone flinching? (At least not until a week later, when Boeheim started backpedaling at warp speed when the emerging scandal about Boeheim's longtime assistant Bernie Fine metastasized.)

Never mind that the factual evidence against Paterno at this point, relating to the mind-numbing matter involving the sexual abuse charges against Sandusky, is mainly contained in one sentence. Specifically a few powerful words in that sentence, from the grand jury presentment, a presentment that brought 40 counts of child sex abuse charges against Sandusky, and perjury charges against PSU AD Tim Curley and PSU VP Gary Schultz.

Paterno's total involvement is five sentences on pages 6-7 of the 23-page report. The most pertinent: "Paterno called Tim Curley, Penn State's Athletic Director and Paterno's immediate superior, to his home the very next day, a Sunday, and reported to him that the graduate assistant had seen Jerry Sandusky in the Lasch Building showers fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy."

Anything else relating to Paterno's role, or possible role, in enabling Sandusky or covering up Sandusky's horrifying alleged acts is not based on known facts. It is conjecture, extrapolation, assumption, conspiracy and the like. It is based on what else everyone thinks he should have done with that information, even though no one knows what else he might have done, or might have known, or might have been told.

It is based on one piece of information about a situation in which a staggering amount still is unknown.

This isn't meant to be naive or defensive about Paterno: This looks really, really bad for JoePa. When the investigation is complete - and hopefully that will be sooner rather than later, and hopefully the true facts will emerge, and the guilty and not guilty and somewhat guilty will be discernible - there seems to be a good chance Paterno will have played a central role in, at the least, enabling Sandusky's acts of pedophilia. There's a heck of a lot of smoke here - in addition to the fact he knew at least something - to be in denial about that.

As Paterno has said, obviously he should have done more. In time, we'll know how much more. Was Paterno orchestrating a cover-up? Or encouraging one behind the scenes? Or did he merely know enough that he clearly should have done much more? Or was he kept in the dark by others?

Somewhere in there are the bigger truths, and other important facts. But we don't know. Not now, not yet.

Nonetheless, a great many reasonable persons have, in their minds, 99.9 percent convicted Paterno of at least enabling Sandusky's acts, of moral culpability. Most have convicted him of far worse. Which is highly disappointing, considering the country in which we live, the small percentage of information we have, and the public scandals that have emerged in our lifetime that months or years years later turned out to have a very different truths than first thought (Exhibit A being the Duke lacrosse scandal).

But that is how powerful the emotions are when it comes to crimes against humanity, crimes against children, like those alleged against Sandusky.

And the media is feeding right into the whole thing. Because it's the way the wind blows right now. Instead of true examinations of how Sandusky could have perpetrated such repulsive acts for so long, we get random individuals with axes to grind against Paterno, as if what they say suddenly will make this entire situation all make sense. (So Paterno wanted control over punishment of his players? Well then, that perfectly explains how Sandusky's behavior could have happened.)

Never mind that it all runs diametrically opposite of Paterno's reputation for six decades. Think about that: Paterno has lived in the public eye for 62 years, in the center of that eye for the last 46 - forty-six years as head coach of Penn State football! Yet his reputation was - while definitely not impeccable as he had some strong detractors - pretty exceptional, all things considered.

One serial sicko (Sandusky) and one sentence with turbocharged words ("fondling" and "of a sexual nature to a young boy") and that's all been slaughtered. Like the tsunami that annihilated the Japanese coast earlier this year.

Paterno has been fired (instead of placed on leave pending the investigation), publicly universally scorned, presumed guilty by extrapolation - by the power of being Joe Paterno - of enabling Sandusky's horrific crimes, and now is on the business end of a mass rewriting-of-Paterno-history campaign through the media.

Based on what we know right now, that's all over the top. Too much, too soon. There will be plenty of time to do all of those things - and worse, if he is deserving of worse - to Paterno later, after the investigation, and/or after Sandusky's trial.

Again, we're not reflexively defending of Almighty JoePa. When all the facts come out there is a good chance Paterno played some sort of a role. Did he think think he was protecting the school, or his legacy, or the football program, or Sandusky? Who knows. We'll see. Let's wait.

Or perhaps he really didn't know much at all. Maybe others were leading a cover-up and keeping it away from Paterno. For all of his alleged dictatorial presiding over State College, Paterno has spent the past decade growing old, going from his mid-70s to his mid-80s. He has dialed back his activity severely. No booster tours, no off-campus recruiting, less time at work and in the office, etc. He's not the overlord of Happy Valley he might have been 20-30 years ago. He's no longer the guy who knows everything about everything. How could he be? He turns 85 in a few weeks.

So why is this all happening? Many reasons.
  • First and foremost, everyone naturally is absolutely mortified by the allegations against Sandusky.
  • Second, people don't understand how it possibly could have happened, and happened so many times for so long, so they are looking to assess blame.
  • Third, Paterno, with his direct connection to Sandusky and longtime status as the King of State College, had to have known more and must be guilty of not doing anything about it.
  • Fourth, after such a lengthy career in such a powerful position, Paterno accumulated numerous detractors and some enemies. 
  • Fifth, he's the obvious target, as his enormous name recognition makes for an easy connection between the media and readers/viewers/listeners, and between people discussing the matter at the water cooler or barstool. Or at the Thanksgiving family gathering.
For example, how much interest would you take in a news story with a headline "Schultz clashed with fellow administrator over student-athlete discipline?'' Or how engaged would you be in a discussion of Schultz's possible culpability in the Sandusky scandal - how long would that conversation last?

But change the word "Schultz" to "Paterno," and you've multiplied interest a thousandfold.

Maybe Schultz  - the only person at PSU known to have knowledge of both the 1998 and 2002 allegations against Sandusky at the time - and perhaps a small group of others conspired to keep it under wraps, thinking they were protecting the university at the expense of the lives of some children.

It's a possibility.

But the tsunami has engulfed Paterno because he is Paterno. And the media has declared open season on JoePa. Have a gripe? Air it here - we'll put you on the front page! People such as obscure, part-time, short-term coaches from 24 years ago are being propped up as insightful, true sources of information and character assessment (assassination?) about Paterno.

Of course, it is perfectly fine to dislike Paterno for reasons entirely unrelated to the Sandusky scandal. Many anti-Paternoites surely have very valid reasons. As has been written in this space before, Paterno is a flawed person, like everyone. But it seems awfully sketchy for the media to be voicing these feelings now. Many of the comments they're trumping seem specious and misleading - stabs at Paterno that somehow are convoluted into reasons why the Sandusky scandal happened.

Anything negative about Paterno is hot news, so JoePa's carcass keeps getting kicked around. Soon it will be unrecognizable. Eventually, almost everyone will move on.

Then, at some point, the investigation will be completed, and/or the trial will commence, and this will all be big news again, at least for a time.

By then, will it still matter to the masses, and the media, what conclusions are drawn about Paterno? And what if they're decidedly different than those that already have been made? Will anybody care then?

Because that's when people should care the most. When we know all the facts. Right?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Penn State checklist for upset win at Wisconsin (posted 11.25.11)

Penn State's checklist for an upset win at Wisconsin
It'll take a complete effort from the Lions to win in Madison in the season finale and earn a berth in the Big Ten title game

It's rare that two teams with the same record entering the final game of the season have a point spread of more than two touchdowns.

But that's a testament to how awesome Wisconsin has been at home this season: Six games, six wins, closest win by 31 points (over Nebraska).

Holy cow.

The Badgers' QB, one-year rental Russell Wilson, leads the NCAA in pass efficiency. Their top RB, Montee Ball, less the NCAA in rushing touchdowns.

So yes, the Wisconsin offense is amazing. Almost 53 points a game at home amazing.

On defense, the Badgers have been stout at home, allowing 11 points a game. Their pass efficiency defense is among the best in the nation.

So how can Penn State win? How can a team that has had consistently poor QB play and play-calling, and hasn't scored more than 23 points against anyone not named Indiana State, Eastern Michigan or Northwestern (and including Indiana - INDIANA!), defeat the Badgers tomorrow?

Here's how -  the checklist of things PSU must do to win:

  • Keep Wilson in the pocket. He's an adept scrambler who makes big plays - many big plays - and stresses out the secondary when he escapes the pocket, which he does frequently. Defensive ends Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley, and OLBs Nate Stupar and Gerald Hodges, are charged with this critical task. 
  • Get the defense off the field/keep the offense on the field. The Wisconsin offensive line has bulldozed opponents in the second half, smeared them into the turf by pounding the running game play after play. The PSU defense must stay fresh.
  • Aggressive, confident play-calling. If you've paid any attention to this blog, you know all about this issue and the pleas to play-callers Galen Hall and Jay Paterno. For the first 20-25 minutes of the 20-14 win at Ohio State last week, they did it, they called plays with confidence in their players. They must do it for 60 minutes against Wisconsin.
  • And as a corollary to confident play-calling, improved red zone offense. Please-please-please-please-please, when in the red zone, use play-action rollouts to the TE or FB; high passes and/or lobs to tall receivers Derek Moye and Justin Brown; and quick-hit running plays up the middle. In that order. Please. NOTE: Better red zone defense wouldn't hurt either. As good as the PSU defense has been this season, it has been average in the red zone, against both the run and the pass.
  • Beware the gadget play. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, bristling at the two beatdowns Penn State has administered the last two meetings (by a combined 86-14 in 2007/2008), would love nothing more than to break PSU's back with a well-timed trick play on offense or special teams. The Lions must always be alert for it.
  • Big plays by big-time playmakers. Silas Redd, Derek Moye, Devon Still, Gerald Hodges - that quartet must be difference-makers on Saturday. The best players must come up big in the biggest games at the biggest moments.
  • Consistent little plays by everyone else. For the defensive line, stay in your lane, occupy blockers, create turnover opportunities and contain Wilson. Linebackers, get Ball (and the other RB James White) and Wilson on the ground and create turnover opportunities. Secondary, keep everything in front of you, look for turnover opportunities and tackle aggressively. O-line, keep grinding it out, pound-pound-pound, and pick up any stunts or blitzes. QBs, RBs, WRs, TEs, make the plays that are there to be made, and protect the ball at all times.
  • PSU's special teams must outplay Wisconsin. That means no big plays allowed (no long returns, no blocked kicks, etc.), good directional punting and make all FGs inside 48 yards. This might be a relatively short bullet point on this long checklist, but it is as essential as any.
  • Stay the course, be who you are. Penn State has won this season with stellar defense and a good running game. Keep doing all of those things - and then do a little bit more, specifically with the play-calling and special teams.
  • Aggressively utilize, but don't force, the Wildcat/option offense. After unveiling it last week with much success, the sporadic use of Curtis Drake and Bill Belton at QB surely must be tried again by PSU. If it's not working (Wisconsin will be ready for it), don't continue to force it. But be sure to have a few new wrinkles to help it succeed. It should be effective again.
  • Do whatever it takes to keep it close. Michigan State and Ohio State kept it close vs. Wisconsin, and both won in the final minute (albeit both were road games for the Badgers). If it's less than a 7-point game entering the fourth quarter, advantage PSU. The Lions have played close games many times this season, and the only one they didn't win was Nebraska, which was the first post-Sandusky tsunami game when the team was in the midst of an extraordinarily emotionally draining experience.
  • Turnovers. Force them, and don't commit them. Simple as that. In PSU's two losses this season, Alabama and Nebraska played virtually flawless games, as close as possible to perfect execution. The only flub by either came when Still busted through the line to disrupt a Nebraska handoff and force a turnover. If Wisconsin happens to be having one of those nights when it is locked in on offense, then the big-play makers - Still, Hodges, or anyone who has the opportunity - must make it happen. Strip the ball from behind, tip a pass to a teammate - whatever it takes.  

So there you have it. Follow that checklist, and Penn State will pull off the upset tomorrow at Wisconsin.

Of course, it's not that simple. But everything on the checklist is attainable, and accomplishing most of the items could be enough to win.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Penn State gives itself a puncher's chance (posted 11.20.11)

Penn State gives itself a puncher's chance at Big Ten title with 20-14 win at Ohio State
The Nittany Lions now have to win on the road against the league's best team, Wisconsin, to reach the inaugural Big Ten title game

Jay Paterno had a clever response when asked what he thought of the Big Ten removing his father's name from the league championship trophy.

We'll just have to put it back on there, JayPa said. Win the title, grab the trophy and affix a Post-it note with Joe Paterno's name on it.

The Lions have a chance to do that.

Technically, Penn State (9-2, 6-1) didn't need to win Saturday at Ohio State (6-5, 3-4) to achieve that goal. Because Wisconsin had defeated Illinois earlier in the day, it meant that win or lose in the Horseshoe, PSU still needed a win next week in Madison to capture the Leaders Division.

But psychologically the Lions absolutely, positively had to win.

Their world had spiraled into the deepest depths of despair: The emotional wringer of the Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The confusion and shock of Joe Paterno's firing. The surreal Senior Day scene and wrenching narrow loss to Nebraska. And the news late last week that the 84-year-old Paterno has lung cancer. All while the Sandusky saga continues to be front-page news nationally.

Another loss, to Ohio State, and the Lions would have caved. For good.

Instead they summoned a steely resolve to salvage the season.

Behind interim coach Tom Bradley, Penn State defeated the Buckeyes 20-14 with a combination of first-half offensive gumption (not second half, more on that later) and a typically awesome second-half defensive effort - a shutout - to give themselves the tempering necessary to have a chance at Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2).

Feeling good about themselves again - though OSU had struggled the season, their lone home loss was 10-7 to Michigan State - a hardened Lions squad now has a puncher's chance against the Badgers, who have been absolutely spectacular at home this season.

Wisconsin's closest home game thus far is a 31-point thrashing of Nebraska. Yikes. The line opened with PSU a 15-point underdog.


There's also this huge booster shot: With the upset win - the Lions were a 7-point underdog and had won only once in nine Big Ten trips to Columbus - Penn State played its way out of the 8th and final Big Ten bowl affiliation, the bottom-of-the-barrel Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, and opened up much better possibilities.

By getting their ninth win, the Lions ensured that all of the seven-win teams in the Big Ten won't be able to leapfrog them in the Big Ten's bowl selection process.

(Due to PSU's post-Sandusky scandal stature, any bowl that can bypass selecting Penn State is likely to do so, because almighty sponsors want nothing to do with the toxic school.)

As it stands right now, any conference teams with eight wins or more could be selected ahead of PSU for a bowl, and there will be only five such teams at most, and possibly four.

So if PSU loses to Wisconsin, the Lions likely could end up playing a Big 12 team in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (Houston, Big Ten bowl No. 6), or an SEC team in the Gator Bowl (Jacksonville, Big Ten No. 5)

Beats the heck out of the pizza bowl in Detroit vs. a Mid-American Conference opponent.

If PSU defeats Wisconsin (to get to 10 wins) but loses to Michigan State, then the Insight Bowl (Tempe, Big Ten No. 4) also is in play, vs. a Big 12 team. And if the Big Ten squeezes a second team into a BCS bowl - college football savant Phil Steele is projecting Michigan to get an at-large BCS bid -  then PSU moves up another notch.

UPDATE: Oops, RFBS was relying on outdated information re: the aforementioned bowl scenarios. The rule about a team needing to be within one win of another eligible team in order to be selected for a given bowl only applies to the Capital One and Outback Bowls. The remaining Big Ten affiliated bowls - Insight, Gator, Meineke Care Care, Ticket City and Little Caesers Pizza Bowl - all can select any bowl-eligible Big Ten team. Which means that if Penn State doesn't reach the Big Ten title game, it very well could get shuffled well down the pecking order, below 7-5 and even 6-6 teams, despite a 9-3 record. Remember, it's not about who deserves what, it's about sponsors, revenue (ticket sales and TV ratings) and perception.

Of course if the Lions defeat Wisconsin and Michigan State to win the Big Ten crown they would receive the coveted Rose Bowl bid.


How did Penn State beat Ohio State?
  • Excellent special teams, specifically much-improved field-position punting, which had been atrocious this season. 
  • Typical stellar second-half defense. Senior DE Jack Crawford, who has gone from overrated to underrated in the past year-plus, was superb.
  • And by attacking on offense, calling plays with confidence in the skill players, unlike at any time this season, for almost the entire first half.
Yes, they actually did it. As per an open-letter plea from RFBS before the game, Jay Paterno and Galen Hall attacked the Ohio State defense with confident play-calling, the first time against a BCS foe for an extended period that PSU has not played ultra-conservatively and predictably.

They mixed up the play calls. They used quick-set passes and play-action rollouts to minimize QB Matt McGloin's weaknesses. They went up-tempo. They incorporated a new twist with the Wildcat/option featuring Curtis Drake and Bill Belton, and used it liberally throughout the game. They mixed up the running plays and the running backs.

They actually tried to maximize their chances of moving the ball, which PSU hasn't done all season. And the results were stunning: A Penn State team that averaged less than 9 points in its previous nine trips to Columbus, and scored 16 or fewer points five times in 2011 (think about those factoids for a minute, let them simmer in the juices of ineptitude) rang up 20 points and 254 yards in the first half alone.

At Ohio State. It was unprecedented.

Then, pffft - the air came out of the ball. In the middle of the second quarter, McGloin threw a bad pass that ricocheted off a receiver and/or fast-closing defender and was picked off. Ohio State then scored a touchdown to cut it to 17-14.

And that was it: JayPa and Hall packed up the offense and went home. They completely stopped attacking. And the results were stunning in the opposite direction - zero points and 73 yards after intermission.

The classic OSU goal-line stand in the third quarter was a case study in lack of imagination and vintage 2011 PSU football. It kept the score at 20-14, and kept things hairy the rest of the game against a Buckeyes squad uplifted by star WR DeVier Posey playing for the first time this season.

But as usual, the PSU defense came through.

That won't happen next week. Wisconsin's offense is much, much better than Ohio State's. It won't falter if given so many opportunities.

QB Russell Wilson leads the nation in pass efficiency. RB Montee Ball leads the nation in touchdowns. That's an incredible 1-2 offensive punch. Enough said.


Let your hands go.

That's what boxing trainer's say when their fighter is being too cautious, not punching enough. Or when things are getting desperate, when their fighter needs to get his opponent to back off, needs to make his opponent respect him.

Let your hands go! Throw punches, throw combinations, take the offensive.

Let your hands go. Let your hands go!

It's exactly what PSU needs to do on offense against Wisconsin. And not for 25 minutes, as the Lions did so well against Ohio State. But for all 60 minutes.

Wisconsin's offense is far too good, far too balanced, far too powerful late in the game, to ask the PSU defense to thwart them time and again in the second half, as the Lions D has done all season.

The way to win is to make them respect what you can do on offense. Score some points, and keep your defense off the field.

Make them uncertain. Put them on their heels. Make them reconsider their defensive calls. Their personnel, their formations.

Give them pause.

Wisconsin's defense is good, not great. On Senior Day in Madison with the Big Ten title game berth on the line, the Badgers defense will crank it up to very good. But it's not great, just good.

If Penn State does exactly what it did against Ohio State, but does it for the entire game, the Lions can win.

The onus is on JayPa and Hall. They must call plays with confidence. They can't sit on a lead, or feel comfortable if PSU is within seven. They can't take their foot off the throttle, or momentum will be lost, possibly for good.

They need to let their hands go. And keep firing away, with lefts and rights, over and over.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An Open Letter to the Penn State Play-Callers (posted 11.18.11)

An Open Letter (Plea?) to Penn State Play-Callers Jay Paterno and Galen Hall
Please give your players a chance to succeed, and win

Jay, you were here in 2001 so of course you remember. Perhaps you can share this with Galen, who was busy earning XFL coach of the year honors that season.

Early in that 2001 season, in the midst of Year 2 of the five-year Dark Era in Penn State football (2002 excepted), the Lions were playing terrible football.

After decades of excellence, PSU suddenly looked soft on defense and discombobulated on offense. The Lions started 0-4 in 2001. And three of the four losses were beat downs.

After one of the disastrous early 2001 games, an 18-6 home loss to a Wisconsin team that would finish 5-7, your father, Joe Paterno, declared the PSU offense had "played like a bunch of scared rabbits.''

Fast forward a decade to 2011: This season, the Penn State offensive play-calling has felt like the product of a bunch of scared rabbits.

The play-calling - the shared domain of you two - shows no confidence in the quarterback(s), who in turn play with even less confidence, and in turn cause the play-calling to have even less confidence ... and before you know it, it looks like PSU is playing 11-on-15, and all 15 defenders are either Darrelle Revis or Ray Lewis.

Fear and confidence. Call plays with confidence. It's the key to success.

The opposite is the key to failure. And Penn State ranks ahead of only putrid Minnesota in scoring in the Big Ten.

Against Illinois before the bye week, and last week for 2.5 quarters against Nebraska, PSU reached new lows. The offense was staggeringly inept. This despite the individual brilliance of RB Silas Redd (before apparently injuring his shoulder vs. Nebraska) and an improved offensive line.

Why? Play-calling. Specifically, no confidence play-calling.

Fortunately for Penn State, the inept offense still has been good enough to win 8 of 10 games because PSU has committed few turnovers and has a superlative defense.

But the Lions will lose at Ohio State on Saturday and at Wisconsin next week if the offensive mindset and play-calling approach doesn't change.

Change to what?
  • First and foremost, more play-action passes and more moving pockets.
  • Which means fewer straight dropbacks - QB Matt McGloin is too small and feeble-armed to regularly succeed on straight dropback passes. Work around McGloin's limitations.
  • More even distribution of passes to all four levels - behind the line, short, medium and long.
  • More aggressive and varied calls on 2nd-and-long. Routine running plays on 2nd-and-10 have become so routine that everyone knows they are coming. EVERYONE. How about play-action with short (FB), medium (TE) and long (WR) options?
  • More variety in the running game and running plays. Bring back barreling Curtis Dukes and again use Stephfon Green for a few carries each, to provide a change of pace and rest for the nicked-up Redd. More of FB Joe Suhey's pass catching and running, and FB Mike Zordich's blocking and short-yardage.
  • Utilize WRs Shawney Kersey and Curtis Drake more, in addition to big targets Derek Moye and Justin Brown.
  • Try two or three open-field plays a game for miniature blur Devon Smith (crossing routes, deep routes) - and no more.
  • Use at least one well-rehearsed, well-timed gadget play, such as the pass from Drake to McGloin against Nebraska, which led to a touchdown. Maybe a hook-and-lateral to Smith or Kersey. Maybe a RB pass to a TE. Time it right, execute it right, and it will succeed.
  • Perhaps runs a few plays with Drake, a high school QB, in the Wildcat formation. And if you run such plays at least three times, be sure to throw a pass at least once.
  • Lobs to Moye and Brown, play-action to TEs and runs up the middle in the red zone. Please.
  • We repeat: In the red zone, high passes to Moye and Brown, play-action to TEs (or FBs, or anyone), and runs between the tackles with a FB blocking. Please.
  • Screens only after the offense has had success in other areas. Defenses are sniffing them out.

Remember the rhythm, balance and energy the offense had after it fell behind 17-0 to Nebraska? That it had on the final drive vs. Illinois? That's the mindset that must be captured and maintained from the outset.

Why wait until you must score points to try to score points?

This isn't suggesting PSU get reckless, or not play relatively conservatively. An offense can incorporate all of the aforementioned suggestions and improve significantly while not appreciably improving its turnover rate.

It starts with the play-calling. Give the players a chance. Show them your confidence. Because the status quo will fail.

It's amazing what Penn State's play-callers have done for the offense when acting with confidence, when playing like poker pro raising pre-flop from the big blind.
  • In 2005, when they developed confidence in Michael Robinson, PSU was consistently good all season.
  • In 2008, with Darryl Clark at the helm, PSU was sensational almost all season.
Which came first, the confidence in Robinson, or Robinson's confidence? Clark's confidence, or confidence in Clark?

Words only do so much. Action resonates, and play-calling is the action of the offensive coaches.

Back to 2001 for a moment, to the awful 0-4 start, the offensive misery. (Not to mention the nation was reeling from the tragic events of 9/11.)

What happened? Penn State won five of its next six games. Why? Zack Mills took over full-time at QB, and the play-calling dramatically improved. It suddenly had confidence.

PSU had averaged 8 points in its first four games; it averaged 34 in its next six.

Jay and Galen, in the spirit of 2001, please give your players a chance.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Penn State's most important game of 2011 (posted 11.17.11)

This week's game at Ohio State is the most important of 2011 for the Nittany Lions
It technically might not matter a lick in the Big Ten title chase, but that doesn't mean the Ohio State game isn't vital to Penn State's season

This week's game at Ohio State is the most important of the season for Penn State.

Woah, Nellie! More important than last week's the-nation-is-watching emotional spectacle vs. Nebraska? Yes, from a football perspective, because that was more about the Sandusky Albatross.

More important than next week at Wisconsin, even though PSU, at 5-1 in Big Ten play, can lose this week and still be guaranteed a Big Ten title game berth if it beats the Badgers in the season finale?


Please allow an explanation. It's all about psychology.

At this juncture, Penn State is not going to win at Wisconsin if it doesn't win first at Ohio State.

In simple terms, the Lions would be mentally and emotionally shot by that point, while Wisconsin will be skyrocketing.

Look at what's happened to each team: Two weeks ago, Penn State (8-2, 5-1) was 2.5 games up in the Leaders Division with three to play. The Big Ten title game was in its grasp.

Then came the Sandusky horror show, the loss of icon Joe Paterno and assistant coach Mike McQueary, and losses to Nebraska and (if it happens) Ohio State. Which means that heading to Madison, the Lions collectively will be frazzled, disillusioned, angry, despondent and anxious.

That's no way to approach a vital football game. On the road. Against a superior foe.

They'll be ripe to get pounded. Which Wisconsin (8-2, 4-2) happens to specialize in, by an average score of 52-11 in home games this season.

The Badgers, meanwhile, were devastated a few weeks ago by consecutive narrow losses to Michigan State and Ohio State to conclude October. At that point Wisconsin was the frazzled, despondent bunch. In an eight-day span its national title hopes and, seemingly, conference title hopes had been dashed by last-second and last-minute defeats, respectively.

Just a few weeks later, the Badgers find themselves hosting PSU needing just one win to reach the Big Ten title game, on Senior Day, riding a three-game win streak? How do you think they will play?

PSU has no chance to beat Wisconsin unless it plays its best game. And there is no way the Lions will play their best following the 1-2-3-4 knockout punches of Sandusky-Paterno/McQueary-Nebraska-Ohio State.

Which is why PSU must make its stand right now, Saturday afternoon, in the Horseshoe. It is a must-win.

Then, the Lions can ride an uplifting victory, a much-needed confidence blast and an us-against-the-world swagger into Madison, and give themselves a puncher's chance.

Penn State is just 1-8 at OSU since joining the Big Ten, but this is one of the worst Ohio State teams it will have faced. The Lions can win if they do anything on offense.

There is one more very important reason why PSU needs to win this week: Because Wisconsin could lose Saturday at Illinois and gift the Leaders Division title to PSU (if PSU beats OSU)..

The Badgers are just 1-2 on the road, the lone win coming last week vs. Minnesota.

Illinois is slumping, for sure. But they've likely bottomed out after four straight losses, and they did open the season with six wins, so they are capable. Head coach Ron Zook walked out of a press conference this week when a reporter asked a question relating to his job security after Zook specifically requested no such questions. Teams sometimes rally around silly things like that.

Teams also rally around things like this: 27-year-old Illinois defensive back Trulon Henry was shot in the hand in a late-night incident earlier this week. Henry, the older brother of former Illinois star Arrelious Benn, served four years in jail for armed robbery before turning his life around, and allegedly was attempting to be a peacemaker when he was shot.

Illinois is either going to cave in Saturday, or bow up. And Wisconsin just might be peeking ahead to the PSU game. Also, it's expected to be very windy Saturday in Champaign, and bad weather almost always favors the inferior team.

While everyone is looking ahead to next week's game against Wisconsin to determine the Leaders Division champion, the winner really will be determined this Saturday.

If Penn State can't get it done this week, it almost certainly won't next week.

The Big Ten, ESPN and bowls are rooting against Penn State (posted 11.17.11)

The Big Ten, ESPN, FOX and bowl games all are rooting against Penn State
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal the Nittany Lions, a longtime darling of college football, suddenly are avoid-at-all-costs for sponsor-driven bowls and TV networks.


That's Penn State, and Penn State football in particular, in the world of public perception. PSU is the mortgage crisis of college football.

So don't expect the Lions to get the calls from the officials the rest of the season. Don't expect PSU to make the Big Ten title game, or to win it if they somehow get there. Don't expect Penn State to be chosen by a bowl until it's the only eligible league school remaining and there's only one bowl still picking.

Just imagine what would happen if the Lions win the Big Ten Leaders Division and play in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title: That's a full week of promotions that will have to include Penn State football, and a full week of the league and television network (FOX) having to put the Penn State name out front, as a featured part of the Big Ten's grand, signature, inaugural championship game.

High-ranking executives are having night terrors at the thought.

If PSU takes an early lead against Wisconsin on Nov. 26 with the Leaders Division title at stake, those execs might start breaking out in hives like Chris Elliott's character in There's Something About Mary.

The Big Ten title game with PSU would have its own sideshow, a referendum on whether Penn State should even be playing, discussion about how Joe Paterno's name was removed from the trophy, more uncomfortable talk about child sex abuse and less about Big Ten football.

It would be another opportunity for sponsors to gutlessly boycott (instead of taking a meaningful stand and using their airtime to promote abuse awareness, etc.) and take shots at Penn State, as one major sponsor of ESPN college football has done. Another chance for the media and the public to make stinging comments and associate Penn State with the Big Ten. It would keep the scandal on the front page, affixed to the holy Big Ten name.

Even worse would be if PSU won the league title, earning the automatic BCS bowl berth.

How will the Rose Bowl like it with the Enron of college football coming to town? What will ESPN think if the Bernie Madoff of programs infects its cash cow BCS bowl game, the beloved "Grandaddy of Them All" Rose Bowl with a child sex abuse scandal and alleged cover-up?

What bowl game wants to get stuck with such a poisonous asset? None, of course.

In other words, PSU fans, you can soon book your tickets for Detroit and the Dec. 27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and that enticing matchup with Ohio, Northern Illinois or Toledo. Plenty of seats will be available. Scalping will be your best bet, less than face value should be available, all sections.

This is what PSU football has been reduced to by the Sandusky scandal.

An AP story Thursday quoted a Rose Bowl representative saying the game would "welcome with open arms" whoever is the Big Ten champion. Yeah, right.

New PSU president Rodney Erickson was non-committal about the Lions participating in a bowl when asked last week, though he seemed to be leaning toward letting the team play.

With two weeks to go, there still are a lot of permutations for bowl eligibility in the Big Ten. Of the 12 schools, only Indiana and Minnesota are bowl ineligible. Ten teams are jockeying for bowl position.

In order to leapfrog PSU in the eight-bowl Big Ten pecking order, a school must be within one game of the Lions.

(UPDATE: Oops, RFBS was relying on outdated information re: the aforementioned bowl scenarios. The rule about a team needing to be within one win of another eligible team in order to be selected for a given bowl only applies to the Capital One and Outback Bowls. The remaining Big Ten affiliated bowls - Insight, Gator, Meineke Care Care, Ticket City and Little Caesers Pizza Bowl - all can select any bowl-eligible Big Ten team. Which means that if Penn State doesn't reach the Big Ten title game, it very well could get shuffled well down the pecking order, below 7-5 and even 6-6 teams, despite a 9-3 record. Remember, it's not about who deserves what, it's about sponsors, revenue (ticket sales and TV ratings) and perception.)

So if PSU loses at Ohio State and at Wisconsin and finishes 8-4, then any 7-5 schools can be chosen ahead of PSU by the bowls.

Playing Nostradamus, projecting point spreads and picking the favored team to win each game, here's how this likely could play out:
  1. Wisconsin (11-2, Big Ten champion) - Rose Bowl (Pasedena)
  2. Michigan State (10-3, runner-up) - Capital One Bowl (Orlando)
  3. Michigan (10-2) - Outback Bowl (Tampa)
  4. Nebraska (9-3) - Insight Bowl (Tempe)
  5. Ohio State (7-5) - Gator Bowl (Jacksonville)
  6. Iowa (7-5) - Meineke Car Care Bowl (Houston)
  7. Illinois (7-5) - Ticket City Bowl (Dallas)
  8. Penn State (8-4) - Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (Detroit)
That's seven warm-weather destinations, and the Motor City. Yikes.

Also still in the bowl picture are Northwestern (5-5) and Purdue (5-5). And, it's possible the Big Ten could have two teams chosen to play in a BCS bowl, but it seems unlikely right now.

Regardless, PSU will get ignored by any bowl that can ignore it.

ESPN's experts are projecting PSU to the Meineke Car Care or Gator Bowl. But those bowls won't take PSU if they don't have to. And unless they win as a significant road underdog in one of their final two games, those bowls can skip PSU.

A little smarter is BCS expert Jerry Palm. He has PSU-Toledo pegged for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

That all might sound overly skeptical and hyper-cynical, but think about it: This is all about money and perception. And there's a LOT of money at stake, a lot of sponsorship dollars on the line and TV ratings in need of maximization, and PSU's public perception right now is as low as any college football program ever.

You can do the math from there.

Yes, the odds are PSU would not win the Leaders Division anyway. But the odds are a little better now that all of the biggest power brokers in the Big Ten, FOX and ABC/ESPN are pulling against the Lions.

This isn't to suggest foul play. But consider this: If you were told last week that there would be a child sex abuse scandal at Penn State of an astronomical, incalculable magnitude that would bring down Joe Paterno within days, or that surreptitious arrangements might be made to help ensure the outcome of a Big Ten football game, which would you think is more possible?

The Big Ten wants Penn State to lose; Indianapolis, which is hosting the Big Ten title game, wants Penn State to lose; the Rose Bowl and the other Big Ten bowls want Penn State to lose; America wants Penn State to lose; FOX and ESPN want Penn State to lose - this week at Ohio State, but especially next week at Wisconsin with the title game berth likely at stake.

Deal with it, Penn State faithful. That's your new paradigm.

In this new world, any team in the Big Ten with a winning record would be much more desirable for a bowl ahead of Penn State, except perhaps Northwestern due to its small alumni base and lack of football brand recognition. But this year, even the pipsqueak Wildcats would bump PSU, if the Lions have eight wins and Northwestern can win its last two games and get to 7-5 .

Bowls are based only partly on merit. They're also based on potential revenue and many other factors. In past years PSU was a winning bet for bowls, with its national appeal and huge fan base that traveled to the game, filled hotels and bought tickets.

Not anymore, not this season at least. As long as PSU doesn't shock the world and make the Rose Bowl, expect fewer Penn State fans to attend the bowl game than in perhaps 35-40 years. And any national PSU appeal - which was largely due to Paterno - has been turned inside-out, all negative.

Unless PSU overcomes all the anti-vibes the Big Ten (and everyone else) can hurl its way and somehow wins the conference title to grab the league's automatic BCS berth - and how interesting would it be to see the Lions hoist the trophy that bore Paterno's name until it was removed this week to avoid being "controversial" - it will plummet to the bottom of the Big Ten bowl line.

Big Ten champions, or bust.

Pizza! Pizza! anyone?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Who will be the next head coach at Penn State? (posted 11.16.11)

Who will be the next head coach at Penn State?
New acting athletic director Dave Joyner presumably will be conducting the search for a PSU football coach. It probably won't lead him to Tom Bradley, or Kirk Ferentz, or Urban Meyer

Media reports late last week said PSU football recruits were told via conference call with then-interim AD Mark Sherburne and interim head coach Tom Bradley that a national search was under way for the next Penn State football coach.

Things are changing fast: Sherburne, appointed last week for deposed AD Tim Curley, today returned to his associate AD position. Longtime Board of Trustees member Dave Joyner was named acting athletic director.

(For those keeping score, that's three ADs in a little more than a week.)

Joyner, presumably, will lead that national search.

Who is Joyner? He is a former wrestler and football player for PSU. He is a distinguished orthopedic physician who has both his undergraduate (1972) and medical (1976) degrees from Penn State. He has worked with the U.S. Olympic Committee and is a Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame member. He has been on the BOT since 2000.

Apparently, he's also considered safely disconnected from the Sandusky tsunami.

Joyner is charged with two vital tasks: hiring the next AD and football coach. The football coach will come first, since it probably needs to be done by mid-December. Joyner likely will work closely with new PSU president Rodney Erickson. Presumably the Board of Trustees will exert its influence on the decision more than it might have previously.

With all that has transpired, the search for Paterno's successor seems much less predictable now. Curley and ousted president Graham Spanier had been preparing for this moment for years. Surely they were working from a short list that was modified after every season for, oh, probably the past 10 years.

Now, Joyner is the point man. Who are his contacts in the collegiate sports landscape? Who are his connections, who will he consult, who does he trust? What specifically is he looking for? What is his timetable? What is most important to him in a candidate? Will he be seeking his own vision of the next PSU head coach, or trying to please the most influential Board members?

Most importantly, is Joyner looking for a steady hand to guide PSU through the storm in the short term, for maybe 3-5 years, a veteran who the media will associate with integrity? Then perhaps he will hire someone such as Jim Caldwell. Or, is he looking for the coach for the next 20-30 years? Then perhaps it will be someone such as Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald.

Things have changed in a snap. A month ago, the odds on bundled wager of Tom Bradley, Kirk Ferentz or Urban Meyer as the next Penn State head coach would have been pretty short. Perhaps better than even money on one of them being Joe Paterno's successor.

Not anymore. Each of those three seems less likely than ever in the wake of the Sandusky tsunami.
  • Bradley (who technically is JoePa's successor, right now, albeit as interim coach) will be the victim of the impending clean sweep of the coaching staff in an attempt to disinfect PSU football from anything connected in any way to Jerry Sandusky and the mortifying child sex abuse scandal. Some might lobby hard for Bradley, but it just won't happen. Most thought he wasn't going to get the job previously because he was pursuing other head jobs in recent years. However, if the longtime PSU defensive coordinator continues to comport himself well in trying circumstances, and the Lions play well under him, he could be a head coach candidate at places such as Boston College. Or become a defensive coordinator at an elite school - Bradley is a verified Grade A coordinator, and a good recruiter.
  • Ferentz, at 56, probably is too far along in his career to want to undertake the process of shepherding PSU through its darkest hours. The longtime Iowa head coach with the Keystone State connections might not have wanted to leave Iowa before Sandusky happened. Now, it'd take a Billy Mays-esque sales pitch to get him on board.
  • Meyer, who reportedly turned down an offer from Arizona this week, hasn't been shy about taking on teams that needed a little work in the past, but his mental and emotional dedication already is in question considering the circumstances about his resignation from Florida after the 2010 season. Plus, Meyer is Mr. Coveted, a two-time national champion seemingly able to pick from whatever jobs are available. He's now likely to find another post more appealing than PSU. On the flip side, Meyer's reputation isn't squeaky clean, and PSU will want to present a new head coach with a top-shelf image, moreso than one with a top-shelf coaching record.
So, with that big-name trio shuffled off the front burner due to the most unforeseeable of circumstances, who are the primary candidates?

The first name to leak last week - reportedly contacted by the Chair of the Penn State BOT, Steve Garban, shortly before JoePa was fired - was Virginia head coach Mike London, which sounded like something London's agent concocted to help London get a contract extension from UVa. The Washington Post reported it, using an anonymous source. Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn't. But if it happened, it was pretty clumsy, dumb and tactless on the part of Garban. PSU didn't need to know at that moment if London was interested. London wasn't going to pack up and come to State College the next day.

Then again, maybe Joyner, as a fellow Board member, was somehow connected to Garban's inquisition. So perhaps PSU is interested in London.

London, 51, has an impressive assistant coaching resume, was very successful in two seasons at FCS Richmond and has shown improvement in his almost-two seasons at a place of perceived high integrity, Virginia. (Though in 2004 UVa endured some embarrassing revelations about a past felony narcotics charge against a high-ranking athletic department administrator.) Interestingly in the post-Sandusky era, London is a father of seven and a former police detective.

Caldwell, in his third season as Indianapolis Colts head coach after taking over for Tony Dungy, had his name recently floated for this position by the New York Daily News. Caldwell, 56, coached quarterbacks at PSU from 1986-1992, and was head coach at Wake Forest for eight seasons after that, going 26-63 from 1993-2000. He has a clean reputation and certainly might be available considering his Colts are winless this season. Like London, he seems a viable candidate.

Before the Sandusky tsunami hit, RFBS believed the next PSU coach would be a current college coach. The following still seem like possible candidates:
  • Al Golden (Miami, age 42) - The Penn State alum might be the betting favorite. He 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, and the 'Canes have been underwhelming on the field.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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" thing down pat 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), Randy Edsall (Maryland), Rich Ellerson (Army), James Franklin (Vanderbilt), Todd Graham (Pitt), Jim Grobe (Wake Forest), Skip Holtz (USF), Butch Jones (Cincinnati), Doug Marrone (Syracuse), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), Gary Patterson (TCU), Gary Pinkel (Missouri), Paul Rhoads (Iowa St.), Mark Richt (Georgia), Steve Sarkisian (Washington), Frank Spaziani (Boston College), Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Jeff Tedford (Cal), Kyle Whittingham (Utah), Kevin Wilson (Indiana).

From the NFL ranks, Caldwell is among several possible candidates. It's hard to see former PSU All-American Mike Munchak leaving the Tennessee Titans after one season as head coach, but it's also not hard to see PSU reaching out to him. There is a line of former NFL coaches with high profiles who conceivably could be interested such as Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden, Eric Mangini and Bill Cowher, but unless Joyner already has developed a relationship with one of them, it seems unlikely.

Someone with the gravitas of Tony Dungy could be pursued by Penn State at a time like this, though it's hard to see him coaching a college team at this stage of his life. Dungy is so well respected and has so many connections, PSU could use him as a consultant.

One big question: How much is PSU willing to pay? Spanier was on record as saying the Lions would not break the bank for their next coach. A $2 million annual salary was the absolute maximum Spanier would consider for a proven, veteran coach. Which is of course a boatload of money but well below what someone like Meyer can command. (PSU has saved tens of millions through the years on Paterno, perhaps the most underpaid coach of all time.)

If such a relatively modest pay scale holds, that would eliminate almost all of the big names, as most probably would be unwilling to take less than market value.

Despite the scandal, the desired characteristics of the next coach haven't really changed. Remember "Success with Honor?" Well, 46 years weren't entirely wiped out in the grand jury presentment. The scandal will put the next coach under the microscope, but the fact is he would have been under the microscope anyway.

Before last week, PSU was 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 was in the highest echelon of college football programs.

To that has been added the Scandal Of All Scandals. So the desirability of the head coach position has been downgraded: It's tough enough coaching a major college football team without having to deal with the ongoing Sandusky tsunami.

The upside, if you will, is that no longer will the next Penn State football coach be following a sacrosanct deity, as Paterno's reputation has endured a mighty wallop.

Now, as a few big-name candidates seem less likely, and as Joyner suddenly jumps into the fray, there is a much better chance that the next coach is someone not previously mentioned. Someone off the radar screen.

What characteristics must the next coach have?

The equanimity to gracefully cope with everything that comes his way. The perspective to always do the right thing. The patience to deal with the perpetual scandal lurking in the background, and the focus to not let it impede success. The energy to make a full commitment and to recruit relentlessly. The connections and pull to compile a stellar coaching staff. The confidence and clout to follow a legend (albeit a greatly diminished one). 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.

Someone like the Joe Paterno we all knew before last week.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Saturday like no other at Penn State (posted 11.12.11)

A Saturday like no other at Penn State
This one will be remembered as much as any regular season game in school history

There were superstar performances everywhere about Beaver Stadium on a gorgeous mid-November Saturday afternoon.

They had nothing to do with the action on the field between Nebraska and Penn State.

The most tumultuous week in Penn State annals concluded with an apparently flawlessly executed event that provided a brief respite from the most extreme distress imaginable for the Nittany Lion community.

Planning, security, fan comportment, proactive student involvement, reverence, fellowship, respect - it all came shining through like a beacon of hope in the darkness.

Fears of unrest were unfounded, surely in part due to the extraordinary efforts of the event staff, and police and student organizers, as well as the fact that a Wednesday night, post-horrifying child abuse charges, post-JoePa firing, impromptu student gathering on College Ave is different than a Saturday at Noon at Beaver Stadium.

Instead of disturbances, we will remember a procession of searing moments:
  • The honoring of the seniors; the captains entering arm-in-arm; the enormous midfield pregame prayer with every member of both teams plus perhaps 300 PSU football alums; the moment of silence; the grace of interim coach Tom Bradley and equanimity of new PSU president Rodney Erickson - both thrust into the most difficult of circumstances, no warning, go! - the Blue-Out crowd to raise awareness of child abuse and for the alleged victims of Jerry Sandusky; the singing of the alma mater; a clean, competitive, hard-fought game; emotions released with cheers; and ... 
Sandusky. Afterward, now, it is back to reality. The Sandusky child sex abuse scandal will reach far, far beyond this week. His name will haunt PSU for decades.

And of course there was the elephant not in the room: Joe Paterno. Never has the absence of one been so obvious in a gathering of 110,000.

Not since 1949 had Penn State played a game without Paterno on the coaching staff. He had been the PSU head coach for three seasons when man landed on the moon. He was a genuine, living, breathing American icon, for all the right reasons.

Was? Sigh.

There's little to add here, now, about Paterno. It is profoundly, monumentally sad. Fired Wednesday by the Board of Trustees along with president Graham Spanier, casualties of the scandal, their actions or lack thereof in question. Paterno's exalted reputation in tatters for the moment, perhaps permanently destroyed, pending the results of PSU's investigation and the Sandusky trial. Time will tell.

(UPDATE: Apparently it wasn't all good outside Beaver Stadium. One man holding signs saying things such as "Don't be fooled, they all knew. Tom Bradley, everyone must go,'' reportedly was subjected to verbal abuse, threats and beer dousings.)

Another vigil was held after the game, just as there had been on Friday night, when thousands upon thousands of candles glowed upon Old Main.

We will all remember. How could we ever forget?

Thankfully, one memory of this week won't be entirely awful. Penn State rose to the occasion. Of course it did.

But there are no illusions. Penn State football will never be the same. Not with so many victims of such horrific crimes.

Friday, November 11, 2011

If the world went back to being normal: PSU vs. Nebraska preview (posted 11.11.11)

Penn State football 2011: Game 9 - PSU vs. Nebraska 
Pretending for a moment that we're talking about Penn State football again

Going into the bye week, before Penn State was hit with a figurative nuclear bomb - the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse charges that have rocked the university and shook the nation - there was excitement about upcoming football games.

Penn State was 8-1 and on a seven-game winning streak. The Lions also were 5-0 in Big Ten play and if they could win two of their final three games would clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game, and depending on other results, one of three might possibly be enough.

Of course the final three games were daunting: vs. Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin.

Clearly, in the opinion of RFBS, Nebraska looked like the most likely win for PSU of the final three: It is at home, it is Senior Day, PSU is coming off a bye, and RFBS thought Nebraska was a good matchup for the Lions and a little overrated.

Then Nebraska went out and proved it was a little overrated by losing to Northwestern at home last week.

Of course, the Cornhuskers will rebound and play better. Even before the scandal had truly set in, oddsmakers made Nebraska a slight favorite.

How will PSU play, given the extraordinary mental and emotional strain of this week? Who knows. There's simply no way to predict that. There's nothing to compare this situation to.

Here's what RFBS would have forecasted had the tragic scandal never happened:

Rested and with extra prep time, the mighty PSU defense would play one of its best games of the season. The Nebraska offense seems to play right into Penn State's hands. PSU, in general, plays the run very well and prevents deep passes with soft zone CBs and deep LB drops. Nebraska likes to run the ball as its first, second and third options, and chuck it deep as the fourth option due to the sublime running skills but very limited passing ability of QB Taylor Martinez. PSU would have been able to stymie Nebraska's predictable, one-and-a-half trick offense (they don't hit those deep balls enough for it to warrant full-trick status).

Likewise, Nebraska's D would have fairly easily limited the tepid PSU offense. But with the extra week to prepare and a healthy WR Derek Moye, the Lions would have added a couple wrinkles to help get an early score. Late in the game, with Nebraska tiring and frustrated by its own offensive struggles, the PSU offensive line and RB Silas Redd would have led another touchdown drive.

PSU 19, Nebraska 13. That was the prediction prior to the madness. Now, who knows? Anything seems possible. Hopefully it's a good game, hopefully after the first few plays it just settles in to being a regular football game. But really, the final outcome has never seemed to matter less. Hopefully the game is without incident, on and off the field. Hopefully, in some small way, the game is a little uplifting. Clean, pure college competition.

Also, PSU is without two coaches. Mike McQueary, who seemed to do everything related to the offense on the sideline during games, was placed on administrative leave Friday. And you might have heard about the other missing coach and what happened to him.

This is the first game since 1949 that Joe Paterno will not be on the Penn State sideline.

Glum Valley: So many questions, so much angst, so few answers (posted 11.11.11)

Glum Valley: So many questions, so much angst, so few answers
Penn Staters everywhere are trying to process the incomprehensible and grasping desperately for answers - and hope

To those who have been reporting that Joe Paterno took Penn State from a small cow college to a major university, know that Penn State has the largest dues-paying alumni association in the world, and they didn't all graduate after the 1970s, when Paterno was taking PSU from a good football program to a great one.

And for those who characterize Penn State as a university built around a football team, know that Penn State is an extraordinarily comprehensive institution highly regarded within the collegiate community and by those who rank and evaluate universities and their programs.

For those who are now characterizing PSU students by an alleged "riot" Wednesday night and the reckless acts of an extremely small percentage of incited imbeciles that evening, know that PSU has the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, THON, which raised $9.56 million this year for children with cancer and their families. Know that there was a tremendous student-driven outpouring of support at PSU for Virginia Tech when that campus was victimized by a crazed gunman. And know that about 85-90 percent of the student body did not participate Wednesday night in any way, while the vast majority of those who participated did so peacefully without incident.

Those facts of course are pretty much irrelevant right now. They do nothing for the alleged victims, they don't mitigate this disaster in any way, they don't help us understand how this possibly could have happened.

The relevant facts:
  • Jerry Sandusky, who was a football coach at Penn State for decades, is alleged to have perpetrated dozens of sex crimes against at least eight boys from 1994-2008.
  • A tragic line of individuals over more than a decade who were, or may have been, aware of Sandusky's acts were either negligently culpable; did not feel empowered; cowardly; complicit; or grossly and maliciously covered up his acts. In RFBS' opinion, the only person at this point who clearly seems guilty is PSU VP Gary Schultz, who oversaw campus police. He is the only person known to be fully aware of both the 1998 and 2002 allegations against Sandusky. Many others could be culpable too, starting with those named in the grand jury report - AD Tim Curley, president Graham Spanier, Paterno, assistant coach Mike McQueary - and surely many others, including police/investigators, executives at Sandusky's children's charity The Second Mile and yet-to-be revealed others, such as big-time PSU football boosters.

How could this possibly have happened is Question No. 1, first and foremost. How does a human monster get away with destroying young lives like this, brutally violating human decency, over and over again?

In the wake of this central, colossal, horrifying question, we are left with offshoot questions, hundreds of them, few that have concrete answers. Here are a few that come to mind:
  • How could the Penn State administration possibly have been so unprepared for this? President Spanier and others knew this day was coming, of course, though possibly not the full extent (the perjury charges might have caught them by surprise). Still, they knew it was imminent Sandusky would be charged with sexually abusing children on the PSU campus, and this would require maximum crisis management - a bomb was about to explode. Yet Penn State was woefully unprepared. It has been a gargantuan failure in leadership and foresight. Spanier released a simplistic initial statement that showed no grasp whatsoever of the entirety of the allegations. PSU has desperately been trying to play catch-up since, languishing behind the story, and tripping over itself almost every step of the way. Meanwhile, the Harrisburg Patriot-News was fully prepared, with in-depth investigative stories such as this one ready to go: Thttp://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2011/11/who_knew_what_about_jerry_sand.html 
  • Should Saturday's football game against Nebraska be played? There is no easy answer to this one, despite what some commentators might say. There are compelling reasons on both sides. The feeling here is it shouldn't be played, that Penn State should forfeit. Of course that would be incredibly unfair to the team members, who are among the legions of collateral damage in this saga. But this is an extremely difficult decision with an incredible number of factors to consider on both sides.
  • If they do play Saturday - and it appears they will - dozens of other questions arise:
    • Will the security be ready and properly prepared? Will there be violence? (The noon start hopefully reduces the number of intoxicated persons)? Will the stadium be awash in protestors?
    • If Penn State falls behind early, will it emotionally collapse, committing ugly personal fouls and playing terribly? Can this possibly be a "normal" football game, at least between the lines?
    • Can the emotionally and physically exhausted, and possibly underprepared PSU players be expected to play well? 
    • If a PSU player does something good and has an enthusiastic reaction, will he be perceived as insensitive to the entirety of the situation? 
    • How will the crowd react? What will they cheer? Is it okay to root for Penn State football? If Penn State wins, is it okay to be happy? Is it okay to be sad if the team loses?
  • Will national sentiment toward anyone and anything affiliated with Penn State be permanently sullied at best, and overtly hostile at worst? For how long?
  • A major sponsor has pulled out of ESPN's coverage of the next two Penn State games. (What an extraordinary missed opportunity for this company, which could have run public service announcements about child abuse awareness, etc., and made an impact. But instead of taking the high road, they took the easy road.) Will this become a trend? And will any bowls extend an invitation to Penn State? What bowl will want a school with such a negative image, and which probably won't bring nearly as many fans as it does ordinarily? If PSU does get a bowl bid, should it decline?
  • Has the Board of Trustees helped make PSU a national pariah - in addition to continuing to look like it's not seeing the big picture - by inexplicably maintaining McQueary's status on the coaching staff despite his grand jury testimony to having witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy? (Even though McQueary will not be at Saturday's game due to concerns for his safety?) Some have reported that PSU might fear violating whistleblower laws with regard to McQueary. UPDATE: Late Friday afternoon McQueary was placed on administrative leave.
  • Can the Penn State campus move forward cohesively any time soon, with so many differing thoughts on what is happening, and with so many raw emotions? The only thing everyone can agree on is the feelings for the alleged victims and the abject horror that this not only happened, but happened at Penn State and in State College. Tonight there is a candlelight vigil for the victims. Everyone can get on board with that. But for other things it's not that easy. Such as determining how to show support for the alleged victims at the game tomorrow. There has been much debate about what do to, with wearing blue in support of the victims seeming to win out. We'll see.
  • Can people separate their loyalties from their analysis of this situation? Obviously, for so many affiliated with Penn State, this has proven exceptionally difficult, or impossible thus far, and the media has made sure to highlight this segment of the PSU student body. As hard as it is, Penn Staters need to step back and do their best to objectively evaluate everything. Withholding judgment of individuals until more information is known is okay, and having differences of opinion is okay. On the flip side, a lot of sports commentators, many ex-football players, are being asked for their opinions, and a few of them seem to be less interested in analyzing the unfurling tragedy and more interested in directing their vitriol at Penn State simply because it is Penn State, a rival school. Naming names and their alma maters isn't important. But in at least two instances RFBS has observed - and RFBS has been inhaling coverage of this saga since Sunday - it seems like they're relishing the opportunity to rip Penn State to shreds on a personal level, which is sad.

Hope is our focus now.

Hope that somehow, at some point, things can begin to slowly get better.

Hope is that there is someone, or someones, who tried, really truly genuinely tried, to do something about Sandusky and for inexplicable reasons beyond the limits of their ability were unable to do so.

Hope that abuse victims everywhere can somehow find peace in their lives.

Hope that raised awareness of sexual abuse of children will come from this tragedy and will help reduce instances of such abuse in the future.

Hope that the next witness - and next and next and next, on and on forever - will immediately go to the police and report what they know.

Hope that authorities will properly investigate such claims and make the right decisions.

Hope that media coverage as this saga continues will be thorough and fair. In other words, please don't focus solely on the 30 idiots who were misbehaving and the few hundred chanting (which has been all of the video highlights shown from Wednesday night, post-Paterno's firing, though RFBS watched live for an hour and saw only a sedentary gathering), and overlook the thousands who were basically just standing around and the 35-40,000 who weren't participating at all. Try to find the better range of thoughts and opinions, or consensus opinions. Not just that of the one moron jumping up and down on a car, or the zealot camping outside the Paterno house for the past 72 hours.

Hope that things don't get worse - that there aren't more victims of Sandusky, that as few people as possible actually could have prevented this tragedy.

Hope that the Board of Trustees will have wisdom and courage moving forward.

Hope that the incredible things about Penn State for the past century and a half are not permanently obscured and diminished. Everything good that has happened still happened.

There are much smaller hopes, too. Please, ESPN and anyone else (except perhaps websites specifically devoted to recruiting), stop talking about how this will impact football recruiting, stop providing updates on how individual recruits are reacting to this. It's completely inappropriate right now. Obviously, it will have a big impact on PSU football recruiting, perhaps for many years to come, everyone knows that. But can we at least wait a few weeks before discussing something like that? It is reminiscent of the blogger who, moments after news broke that an Alabama football player died in an accident, posted about how it will impact the Crimson Tide depth chart.

The Board of Trustees met for the fourth day in a row Friday. A special committee, headed by Merck & Co. CEO Kenneth Frazier, was formed to undertake a "full and complete investigation'' to determine:

  1. What happened, what failures occurred
  2. Who's responsible for those failures
  3. Impart measures to insure something like this can never happen again
  4. Make sure those responsible are being held fully accountable

May the committee's findings help us begin the road to recovery.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Right result (sort-of, for now), but so much else is wrong (11.10.11)

Penn State Board of Trustees did what it had to, but it didn't exactly get it right
There was no way Joe Paterno could coach Saturday's game against Nebraska, but the BOT has to be fully forthcoming.

The Penn State Board of Trustees acted late Wednesday night, swiftly and decisively as it had promised.

It fired Joe Paterno and dispatched president Graham Spanier too, though Spanier's departure was strangely announced as mutual, or something like that.

For Penn State to begin moving forward, national icon Paterno and 16-year president Spanier needed to be removed from their positions, for the time being at least.

The disgusting facts from the grand jury report in the sexual abuse case against Jerry Sandusky, which are pretty much the only known facts at this point, make it clear that Spanier and Paterno, among others, might be culpable in overlooking a heinous act by Sandusky, and thus enabling future heinous acts.

Which is enough to remove Paterno and Spanier from their positions while the school investigates. Certainly Spanier's ability to lead is crippled beyond repair, and Paterno must be further questioned. The surreal BOT press conference at 10pm Wednesday seemed to make this point.

But it missed on many other points.

The BOT set itself up for second-guessing and doubt about its leadership abilities by admitting it didn't have all the facts, but was firing Paterno anyway. It said it didn't have any more facts than those contained in the grand jury report. Which with regard to Paterno are brief and a bit nebulous about what he knew, though alarming due to their nature and what they might mean.

But it didn't place Paterno on leave and remove him from Penn State while it investigates. It fired him.

So then: AD Tim Curley, charged with perjury in the Sandusky case, is placed on leave by the BOT, and VP Gary Schultz, also charged with perjury, is allowed to re-retire, and both are having their legal fees covered by PSU. But Paterno, charged with nothing and absolved legally by the state attorney general, is fired? Instead of being placed on leave pending the investigation? And Spanier apparently is allowed to negotiate his end, but JoePa is fired with no request to resign first?

Yes, Paterno had to be removed now. Yes, this might seem like semantics.

But this isn't about whether the history books will say Paterno was fired or placed on leave for the final three games before his retirement.

It is about the BOT needing to get things right, needing to be transparent and honest.

It wasn't.

BOT spokesperson John Surma - a sharp guy if there ever was - didn't say Paterno is the name fueling the oppressive media onslaught that's inhibiting PSU's recovery. He didn't say Paterno's outsized presence is an obstacle to moving forward. He didn't say that Saturday's game against Nebraska, with Paterno on the sideline, would be a media-hounded, bizarre, powder-keg of a sideshow the school cannot tolerate or risk at this juncture. He didn't say they were scared of what more they might learn, considering how much is unknown and the mind-blowing nature of this situation.

Paterno had to be removed for those reasons. Except the BOT didn't say that. And they didn't just remove him, they fired him. While saying they didn't have all the facts.

The BOT needs to be accurate and forthright every step of the way. And they weren't.

So, as Penn State somehow tries to find ground zero and start the long, slow, ugly climb out of the greatest depths, as it rallies behind its Board of Trustees and begins the road to recovery, as it assesses the breathtaking range and depth of damage, as it plans the investigation and determines who must be cleaned out and processes everything that it is happening in this tragedy of unparalleled scope and horror, in its major initial opening salvo, the BOT came off as disingenuous.


Also, couldn't Surma have taken a police escort to Paterno's house and told him in person? Instead of sending a courier with a note to Paterno, asking him to call a certain number? What if Paterno had said, fine, I'll call in the morning?

The BOT also left Mike McQueary's status untouched. Yes, addressing those with the highest profile - Spanier and Paterno - was of greater importance than assistant coach McQueary. But McQueary is important also, based on his explosive statements in the grand jury report. How about the BOT taking the one minute it should have taken for all members to agree that McQueary must be placed on leave and removed from Penn State indefinitely pending the investigation?

Boom, done.

But instead, McQueary's status lingers today. Sigh.

The Penn State Board of Trustees is tasked with an extraordinarily difficult and important mission. In academic parlance, the BOT needs to make an "A." It must.

So far, it gets a "C."

Long way to go. Long way.