Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bill O'Brien makes his most important moves at Penn State

Bill O'Brien has assembled his crucial first coaching staff; will it be able to work cohesively and chart a successful new course for Penn State?

As a 42-year-old, first-time head coach, Bill O'Brien's inaugural coaching staff at Penn State is especially critical.

It's vital, it's essential and it's every other word meaning really, really freakin' important.

His coaches will spread his vision and represent Penn State football. They will help direct O'Brien as he negotiates his way into this most daunting job, his maiden head coaching voyage. They will establish the culture. They will recruit the next generation of players. They will work on game plans. They will tirelessly watch and evaluate game tape, and evaluate practice tape, and evaluate recruiting tape. They will push and prod, and motivate and inspire, the players and the team. And they must all work cohesively together.

Did we mention they will recruit the players who will win games ... or lose them? The players who will represent the university well and graduate .. or not?

O'Brien and his staff now are Penn State football, in what is essentially the first major overhaul of the Penn State coaching staff in ... forever.

The coaching staff is the foundation on which O'Brien will build his program, and there will be no time to rebuild the staff later. Tweak, yes. Rebuild, no.

Basically, O'Brien is living Eminem's Lose Yourself:
Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity 
To seize everything you ever wanted 
One moment 
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

O'Brien still only is moonlighting as the PSU coach, as he's finishing the NFL season as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator. He's been on the job for less than two weeks. He's functioning within the white-hot crucible of January college football recruiting.

Against that backdrop, O'Brien did perhaps the most important thing he will do at Penn State: He pulled together his coaching staff.

How did he do?

Well, O'Brien needed to do three things with this staff:  (1) Maintain a modicum of continuity to the previous staff, which had been here for about 1,000 years (2) surround himself with people he knew he could work with, and (3) hire very good, well-rounded coaches who can recruit.

Check, check and (we think ... we hope?) check.

Well done on the big points, Bill. Apparently PSU also provided a fair amount of money for O'Brien to distribute to assistant coaches, because he pulled the staff together swiftly without problems.

Is anybody in America holding down two full-time jobs and doing better at them than this guy? 

So who is O'Brien, and who are these guys he has hired? 

Raised in Andover, Mass. Age, 42.
1990-92 - played LB/DE at Brown, graduating in 1992, double major in political science and organizational behavior management
1993-94 - began coaching career at Brown
1995-2002 - Georgia Tech: offensive graduate assistant (1995-97); RB coach (1998-00); OC and QB coach (2001); assistant head coach (2002); under HC George O'Leary through 2001, was slated to go with O'Leary to Notre Dame prior to 2002 but O'Leary quickly resigned in a resume scandal, and Chan Gailey was the HC in 2002
2003-04 - Maryland: RB coach under HC Ralph Friedgen
2005-06 - Duke: OC and QB coach under HC Ted Roof
2007-11 - New England Patriots: offensive assistant (2007); WR coach (2008); QB coach (2009-10); and OC/QB coach (2011) under Bill Belichick
2012 - Penn State: HC and OC

(position, name, age, interesting information)
Defensive Coordinator - Ted Roof, 48 (Auburn DC 2009-11, Ga Tech DC 1999-2001, Duke HC 2004-07)
WRs/Asst. HC - Stan Hixon, 54 (with O'Brien at Ga Tech 1995-99, at LSU 2000-2003, in NFL since 2004)
Quarterbacks - George Godsey, 33 (played for O'Brien at Ga Tech, with him in New England in 2011)
Running Backs - Charles London, 36 (with O'Brien at Duke in 2005, in NFL since 2007)
Tight Ends - John Strollo, 57 (25 years at small schools in northeast, with O'Brien at Duke in 2005-06)
Offensive Line - Mac McWhorter, 61 (with O'Brien at Ga Tech 2000-01, at Texas from 2002-10)
Defensive Line - Larry Johnson, 60 (arguably best DL coach in nation, sterling recruiter)
Linebackers - Ron Vanderlinden, 56 (arguably best LB coach in nation, former Maryland head coach)
Secondary - John Butler 38 (Pa. native, coached under Roof at Minnesota, could coach special teams)
Strength Training - John Thomas (entering 21st season as PSU)
JAN. 21 UPDATE: Thomas reportedly has not been retained, and South Carolina strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald, a Philadelphia native, will take over at PSU.

  • The hiring of Godsey is still unconfirmed by Penn State and O'Brien as of Jan. 23, though many media outlets are reporting it will happen. O'Brien only has said he will hire one more coach.
  • This staff is younger than the previous one, though the subtraction of Joe Paterno alone made that a certainty. But it is not without significant experience. Six of the nine coaches (not counting Fitzgerald, the new strength and conditioning coach, who is younger than O'Brien) are older than O'Brien.
  • NFL experience: High school prospects with visions of playing in the NFL frequently like the idea of being coached by someone who has been in the league, and PSU now has a few of those in O'Brien, Hixon, London and Godsey (albeit briefly).
  • This group feels like a smartly crafted financial portfolio: O'Brien has made it very balanced and diverse in many ways, including a nice blend of small college, major college and NFL experience, yet all have coached at a BCS conference school.
  • Success: Almost everyone has something truly meaningful in football they can boast about, such as: National Championships (Roof - Auburn, 2010; McWhorter - Texas, 2005: Hixon - LSU, 2003; and Vanderlinden - Colorado, 1990); Johnson, Vanderlinden, Hixon and McWhorter coaching numerous All-Americans and in many major bowl games; O'Brien coaching Tom Brady; Hixon coaching several NFL standouts in recent years; Godsey holding eight Ga Tech school passing records when he graduated, etc.
  • Academically accomplished: Roof and Godsey are Georgia Tech graduates, and London (Duke), Strollo (Boston College), and O'Brien (Brown) graduated from well known and highly regarded schools.
  • Similarities: Just as previously, there is no specifically designated special teams coach, though Butler presumably will take the lead in that area and others will help out in specific areas.
  • Differences: There is one offensive line coach, unlike the unusual previous arrangement of a TE/OT coach and a separate G/C coach. And there is one play-caller - O'Brien - who will be on the sideline, whereas Galen Hall and Jay Paterno collaborated previously from the coaches box.
O'Brien's retention of defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr, and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, as well as strength and conditioning coach John Thomas, provides a strong measure of stability.

This is a seismic coaching transition, from nearly half a century(!) of Joe Paterno and Co. to who-is-this-guy Bill O'Brien. A few aspects of the past needed to be retained. And O'Brien nailed it with Johnson and Vanderlinden.

They will help O'Brien deal with those things about PSU that only coaches who have been there for years can. Not only has O'Brien never been a head coach, but he never has coached at Penn State and never had his own staff. That's a lot of "nevers.'' Johnson and Vanderlinden will help with that. They were a major coup. He kept the right guys. They are absolutely fantabulous coaches, as good as any position coaches in America.

Also, retaining Thomas will provide a thread of continuity for every returning player, as they all work with Thomas almost year-round.

The second thing O'Brien needed in his staff is first-hand familiarity. Almost everyone else O'Brien hired he had a previous working relationship with, most of them on the college level at either Georgia Tech - where O'Brien spent eight formative seasons - or Duke. (O'Brien and Fitzgerald, a Philadelphia native, worked together at Maryland.)

So there will be no major surprises about how each person goes about his business, about what the expectations will be, etc. O'Brien knows exactly what he's getting. It's about quickly having a tangible comfort and confidence level.

It improves the chance the staff will be a united front, moving forward in the same direction. 
As someone once said, everyone moving in the same direction with purpose, even if it's the wrong direction, is better than half moving the right way and half pulling some other way.

With all of the staff connections to O'Brien's formative seasons at Georgia Tech, it's worth knowing how the Yellow Jackets did in that span. During the seven seasons O'Brien worked for HC George O'Leary at Georgia Tech (1995-2001), the Yellow Jackets were 52-30 overall, 36-20 in the ACC, with bowl appearances and a final AP Top 25 national ranking the last five years. (They were 7-6 in 2002 under Chan Gailey before O'Brien departed.)

Not bad. 

So, there's good reason to think this group has an excellent chance at success at PSU. Some, such as Godsey (good luck with the QBs, young fella) face bigger challenges than others (Vanderlinden's LB unit will rock again in 2012), but upon initial review, O'Brien appears to have done very well with this staff, hitting on the big needs.

That said, the unique and extreme challenges O'Brien and his staff are inheriting are well-documented. And the biggest, constant need is always recruiting. 

Johnson and O'Brien should do very well in this area; it has been a long time since the PSU head coach hit the road recruiting with any regularity. And if O'Brien's Patriots offense keeps doing well in the NFL playoffs, his recruiting influence will rise accordingly.

What about everyone else, how will they recruit? We'll see. None are considered standout, superlative recruiters.

And not all hires were greeted enthusiastically by Penn State fans, most notably the all-important defensive coordinator, Roof. A former star linebacker at Georgia Tech in the early/mid-1980s, Roof has an erratic coaching track record, at least by quantifiable measures, certainly much less consistent than his predecessor Tom Bradley.

For every national title and stout defense (Auburn, 2010), every major improvement (Minnesota, 2008) and every string of solid results (Georgia Tech, 1999-2001) Roof generated as a defensive coordinator, there are major smudges, such as last season's Auburn defense (school-record 406 yards per game allowed, which resulted in him leaving Auburn for Central Florida - where O'Leary is HC - briefly before PSU picked him up) and his 6-45 record as head coach at Duke, which is bad even by Duke's miserable standards.

On the plus side, Roof has coached many good defenses - Auburn's 109 rushing yards allowed per game in 2010 is outstanding, especially considering who Auburn played against. Also, he has been a DC or HC at a BCS school for the past 13 seasons, and at age 48 he is in his coaching prime.

The key issues are how Roof will blend with Johnson and Vanderlinden - who obviously work well with each other, but will their personalities and philosophies mesh with Roof? - and what he and Butler will do with the secondary. PSU almost always played soft corners and lots of zone under Bradley. Roof and Butler are likely to play more man-to-man and press coverage.

Initially, PSU might not have the personnel to pull this off. Then again, the secondary appears so thin at the moment that barring some position changes or surprising developments (CB Derrick Thomas making himself more popular with the new coaching staff would be nice), there might be no coverage scheme that could work well for PSU in 2012. 

In other words, there of course will be some growing pains. This in all likelihood will not be the most streamlined game day coaching staff next fall. There will be some goofs. That has to be expected.

But will those hiccups reduce, and disappear, as the season goes along? Seeing the game management growth of O'Brien and staff will be an indicator of how they are communicating behind the scenes, how ...

We're getting way ahead of ourselves. With only two weeks left in recruiting season (Feb. 1 is signing day), the new staff must stake out its territory and begin establishing the new culture of Penn State football, within the framework of the old culture of Penn State football that was so well established and respected.

They must recruit good prospects who largely stay out of trouble and shepherd them to academic success and football success.

Football success. Wins and losses. At the end of the day, for all big-time college football coaches, it always comes down to winning enough games.

Right now, it's clear, Bill O'Brien and his staff have a chance.

Which is more than many would have said about the future of Penn State football just a couple of weeks ago.

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