It has been nearly a month since the college football season ended, and all the open jobs have been filled except one: Penn State. This is simultaneous surprising and not surprising. On the one hand, Penn State fired Joe Paterno with three weeks left in the season, giving them plenty of time to contact a search firm. Pitt, in the same state with the same recruiting base, lost their head coach unexpectedly in mid-December, and a new coach in nine days, and a very good hire at that. With its tradition and revenue, the appeal seems natural, but of course the circumstances are quite complicated, which is why the job remains glaringly open.
Most fans thought no one would want to be the guy who followed Joe Paterno, and now with the scandal, it certainly doesn’t help matters. Sports by Brooks reported a few weeks ago that there was in fighting in the Penn State administration over whether to hire an external candidate or keep Tom Bradley, “because he know where the bodies are buried” according to a source. Colin Cowherd said on ESPN Radio shortly after Paterno was fired that Penn State job only looked better than it was because of Paterno, and that a Randy Edsall-type was the best Nittany Lion Nation could hope for. Given that Penn Live reported in mid-December that Penn State had talked recently to Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo after originally targeting Urban Meyer-trained Dan Mullens and Kyle Whittingham, it would seem Cowherd was accurate. And the instability in Penn State’s administration, with an acting athletic director and no permanent president, probably isn’t helping matters.
I would like to offer an apology to Penn State on behalf of my program-the turbulent stint at Nebraska by Bill Callahan probably is hurting Penn State’s ability to hire a top coach. And Michigan’s ugly three years with Rich Rodriguez probably didn’t help either.
Michigan and Nebraska are both examples of why potential coaches would think twice about taking the Penn State job. Callahan and Rodriguez were outside hires to tradition-rich, successful programs who made dramatic changes to the offense. When they met resistance, the crusty, northern fan bases where quick to turn on their coaches, and the fact that Callahan and Rodriguez were seen as outsiders only hastened their departures. Penn State, similarly, is a tradition-rich school whose expectations have been inflated by past results. Also similar to Nebraska and Michigan, Penn State has tradition been financially conservative when spending for football; the coming civil lawsuits for the university’s failure to report Sandusky to the police won’t help.
Not that there still aren’t a lot of positives about Penn State: the 100,000 seat stadium yields roughly $50 million in ticket revenue (assuming seven home games), plus the money from the Big 10 network and the newly created Big 10 championship game probably puts Penn State’s total football revenue around $75-$80 million, as high as any top football program in the nation (although a lot of that goes into non-revenue sports). There are traditions and expectation, which over the long run are good. Penn State can also sell itself as the football school, in a football conference, to the recruits in the northeast, from Boston down through D.C.
I would postulate there is another parallel with Nebraska, and Penn State’s other rivalry via similar culture, Iowa, share that will ultimately help Penn State get at least a good coach: willingness to keep a coach that maybe doesn’t win huge but wins consistently. Iowa often gripes about what they have to pay Kirk Ferentz because of his NFL overtures, but they don’t mind keeping around, even with more losses to Northwestern than ten-plus win seasons. Similarly, Nebraska has kept its criticism of Bo Pelini on the lighter side, after the Steve Pedersen made the Cornhuskers look like a win at all costs program. My prediction is, while Penn State maybe a rough-and-tumble job if you go about it the wrong way (Rodriguez didn’t anticipate how much bigger the spotlight got, West Virginia to a more visible program), but it is a job where you can survive a couple of six or seven win seasons in a row, as Ferentz does at Iowa. Of course, if you are a bad coach, or a career assistant in the head coach’s chair (ala Callahan), you’ll get found out quickly, and the road out of town will be unpleasant to say the least.
That leads to the question of Tom Bradley, and specifically whether or not Penn State should give him the job. It is been my mind all along, with allegations against Sandusky being what they are, and given that it seemed to be an open secret among the Penn State administration, that there’s no way anyone with a Penn State connection should get the head coaching job (including Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano). While there is no precedent for the NCAA acting in this incident, the governing body will investigate, and Penn State should learn from USC: make sure you fire everyone who was involved in the cover-up, or the institution will be screwed. Ohio State followed that model, fired Jim Tressell, and got a penalty that was less severe than USC. Yes, Penn State did fire Paterno and the university president, but I wouldn’t take any chances, especially given how close Bradley and Sandusky were.
Given the lack of precedent in the case, it is hard to say how the NCAA would punish Penn State, if they indeed deem it necessary to do so (another subject for another post). What I am saying is that, given Penn State’s keep-in-the-family approach, the best thing to do would be to start over, even they have to a has-been like Tommy Bowden. Get someone respectable, and show everyone you’re moving on. Again, civil suits are likely around the corner
And if Bradley unearths more dirt on the university? Penn State already looks like a mess, they should just let Bradley go and say whatever he has to say, and issue public apologies when he does. Giving Bradley, a yes-man career assistant, the head coaching job could sink the program even worse in the long run. Don’t think that Paterno made Bradley his defensive coordinator for a reason: Paterno was turning seventy-four when he promoted Bradley, and he must have known, that, to continue to hold on to his position for many more years, he would have to surround himself with people who would do his bidding without question. Don’t let him blackmail you into the head coaching job, Penn State.
Although, there would be some merit in keeping Bradley. If the best Penn State can do is David Cutcliffe, fired from one job and now not winning at Duke, Bradley at best could be Bill Guthridge at North Carolina, who gave the Tar Heels three pretty good years before heading off into the sunset. With the uncertainty in the administration, Bradley might be the best man, at least until the Big 10 and the NCAA have finished their investigation, and a new president and athletic director are firmly in place. At least he wouldn’t embarrass the program…unless he knew about Sandusky.
But ultimately, what Penn State needs to do is get ride of all of the current staff, and move on to a new coach, showing that the keep-it-in-the-family culture is gone. They already look pretty backward, in the most drawn-out coaching search since Steve Pedersen’s Nebraska debacle in 2003.