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.

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