Well…two years later, here we are again. Two years after a relative unknown, Bill O’Brien, was given the keys to a program rich in legacy but reeling from scandal and asked to follow a legend, the Penn State football program is once again in search of a leader. Had I known that I would type that sentence two years ago, I would have assumed that the Bill O’Brien era was the colossal failure that some of us feared that it would be. Instead, I wrote that sentence because O’Brien exceeded all reasonable expectations and earned the chance to follow his dream.
For that reason, I’m going to say this to any Penn State fan that has a problem with O’Brien leaving for the head coaching gig with the Houston Texans: shut your face. Bill O’Brien never lied to you. He has always been upfront about the fact that his dream job has been a head coaching position in the NFL. If you follow the team at all, you already knew this. So why act surprised? Have you forgotten what the situation at Penn State was like when O’Brien took the job? In case you need a reminder, it was arguably the most toxic situation on the history of college football. It was as Chernobyl-like as a situation can be without actually having nuclear waste lying around.
What did O’Brien do? He coached Penn State to a 15-9 record in two years. He brought an exciting, attacking offense to a program used to play-calling from the stone ages. He brought elite-level recruits to a place nobody dreamed they would ever go to. All of this happened while maintaining the academic integrity that Penn State fans have always taken pride in with regard to the football program. He did this with a program that was supposed to be left for dead, instead Penn State remains nearly as relevant as ever. So if you’re genuinely upset that Bill O’Brien left your beloved Nittany Lions, stop acting like a 16-year-old girl that just got stood up on prom night. O’Brien gave you more than you could possibly expect.
This doesn’t mean that he is without blame. There is a group of people that he does owe an apology to, and that’s the recruits that he lied to with regard to his situation. He flat out lied to those kids and they did not deserve that. The apology list begins and ends there, though. And thus the lesson is reinforced: If you are a high-level recruit in any sport, NEVER sign with a school because of the coach. Go for the team, go for the atmosphere, go for the academics, go because it was your favorite team growing up…hell, go because they have the hottest chicks. Just don’t go because of the coach, because you will almost always get screwed.
Bill O’Brien had a saying, whether somebody got hurt or whether they transferred out in Mark Emmert’s attempt to kill Penn State football without actually getting blood on his hands. That saying was “Next Man Up”. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the candidates whose names are being bandied about to replace O’Brien. We might end up with a name out of nowhere, but I think it will be one of these guys:
James Franklin (Vanderbilt head coach) – Franklin is currently the hot name being rumored for the job. This is personally my top choice, and for good reason. Like O’Brien, he is an energetic young coach that is known for his offensive play-calling. This is the kind of hire that should keep guys like Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman from transferring. Another way that Franklin is like O’Brien is that he gets high marks for his recruiting prowess. While not a Penn State guy, he is from Pennsylvania and I’m sure he knows what the Penn State brand means around the state. He has a 23-15 record at Vanderbilt, a school whose sole purpose is to keep the SEC from having a 0.91 grade point average. Granted, Vanderbilt’s conference record during this stretch is 11-13, but this is happening in what is the best football conference in America by leaps and bounds, and it’s not even close. Hire this man!
Al Golden (Miami head coach) – Philly sports fans might remember Golden as the coach that briefly turned Temple into a respectable program, which should probably be listed in the Bible alongside the miracles Jesus performed. At Miami, he has a record of 22-15. While that doesn’t look especially gaudy, keep in mind that the Miami brass knew they had sanctions coming their way, didn’t tell Golden about it, and he still stuck around and improved the team’s record every year. Not only is Golden a Penn State guy (which is seemingly the big requirement for the Joe Paterno loyalists), but he even dresses like Paterno on the sidelines. More importantly, he can recruit. ESPN.com had Miami’s recruiting classes ranked 8th in 2012, 15th in 2013, and so far they are 4th for 2014. I would imagine he has made in-roads in the fertile recruiting grounds of the greater Miami area. Let’s get some of those kids up here.
Pat Narduzzi (Michigan State defensive coordinator) – Who? Most coordinators are going to be unknowns, and Narduzzi is no exception. That being said, he deserves some consideration. Michigan State’s defense was a mauling, bruising unit this season, finishing 1st in the nation in total defense. Last month, he won the Frank Broyles award, which is given out every year to the top assistant coach in the country. At age 47, he’s still relatively young and has a reputation as a good recruiter. Can you imagine a Penn State defense led by two legitimately good coaches and recruiters in Narduzzi and Larry Johnson, Sr.? Speaking of whom…
Larry Johnson, Sr. (Penn State defensive line coach & interim head coach) – Regardless of who becomes Penn State’s next head coach, Larry Johnson should be kept aboard in some capacity, even if it’s in his current role as the defensive line coach. Johnson is Penn State’s ace recruiter and consistently produces a strong defensive line unit. He brings instant credibility with recruits and is currently being tasked with holding this year’s class together in the wake of O’Brien’s departure. Who knows? Maybe Johnson himself will be the next head coach. Earlier today he threw his hat in the ring, and interim Athletic Director Dave Joyner has already said Johnson will be considered should he apply. I’m a little worried about the concept of a 61-year-old first-time head coach, but for continuity purposes, Penn State could do a lot worse than LJ, Sr.
Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans head coach) – In return for losing a coach to the pros, could Penn State be gaining a coach from the pros? Munchak is one of the best offensive linemen in Penn State history, an NFL Hall of Famer, and a guy who might willingly leave the pro game to coach his alma mater. To be honest, I really don’t know much about his tenure with the Titans other than the fact that he has a 22-26 career record. I don’t know much about his coaching philosophy, either. He might be one of the most anonymous coaches in the NFL as far as I’m concerned. I’ve heard he doesn’t have the most dynamic personality and he’s been away from the college game forever, which raises questions in my mind about his ability to recruit. This would be a “meh” hire for me.
Greg Schiano (former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach) – Annoyed with the fact that O’Brien left Penn State’s kids twisting in the wind for the NFL? Well, Schiano did the same thing at Rutgers. He then spent two years with the Buccaneers before being fired. He was not liked by his players, had a near mutiny from his team this season, and he reportedly leaked personal information about his former quarterback, Josh Freeman, being placed into the NFL’s substance abuse program. Yikes. To his credit, he did for Rutgers what Golden did for Temple, but I don’t remember Rutgers being nearly the disaster that Temple was. Oddly enough, when Penn State was searching for someone to replace Joe Paterno, Golden and Schiano were very high on my list. While Golden is still someone I’d be happy to see patrolling the sidelines for Penn State, when it comes to Schiano, my response can be found in the last two letters of his last name.