Any way you want to look at the situation, the departure of Bill O’Brien from Penn State to the NFL is a vicious kick in the teeth to a football program that should be used to such treatment. With the word out that O’Brien, as was reported as early as Saturday, was leaving to become coach of the Houston Texans, Penn State is again looking for a head coach and with no assurance that the job won’t continue to be a stepping stone.
And how will O’Brien be remembered?
• To many, he will be the man who saved the program in its worst hours, as near-death penalty sanctions threatened to bring down even further the toppling house that Paterno had built. By almost every measure — on the field and off it — O’Brien appeared to be the perfect hire. He held on to most of the players, when they could have transferred without penalty; he recruiting successfully under distressing circumstances; he led the Lions to seasons of 8-4 and 7-5; most of all he brought back pride to a program that had been embarrassed and humiliated by the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
• To others, he’s little better than the much-despised Todd Graham, who left Pitt after one season. The argument could be made that the only difference between Graham, who left for Arizona State, and O’Brien is that O’Brien stayed an additional season. That, however, is a simplistic viewpoint. Graham left in secrecy and against his contract. O’Brien’s departure is public and well within the confines of his agreement with Penn State. The comparison is actually stupid and unfair: O’Brien’s accomplishments were massive, Graham’s next to nothing.
Meanwhile, all eyes focus on the highly crucial search for a successor. The outstanding work that O’Brien did in not just holding the program together but helping it move forward can be undone by the wrong choice. Truth be known, the right choice might have trouble stabilizing Penn State in face of the departure of so popular a coach and a recruiting class that might scatter to the winds.
A partial list of candidates:
Al Golden, 44, the coach at Miami. Golden gained national attention and the reputation as a program builder in five seasons at Temple (2006-10). He was 27-34 overall but in his final two seasons was 17-8, which is just a bit short of a miracle considering the football history at Temple. That success moved him to Miami, where he took over a crumbling program of another stature and one that was under NCAA sanctions. Golden is 22-15 at Miami, including 9-4 this year. He coached the linebackers at Penn State in 2000.
Jim Caldwell, 58, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the Baltimore Ravens. He coached on the college level for eight seasons at Wake Forest (1993-2000) and was 26-63. He was head coach of the Indianapolis Colts for three seasons (2009-11), going 14-2, 10-4 and 2-14. The Colts lost in the Super Bowl to New Orleans after the 2009 season. Caldwell was the Penn State quarterbacks coach from 1986-92.
Mike Munchak, 53, head coach of the Tennessee Titans. He is 22-26 in three seasons with the Titans. His job was believed to be in jeopardy but it looks like he will be kept on. Munchak was an outstanding offensive guard for Penn State, 1978-82, and had a 12-season Hall of Fame career with the Houston Oilers. He has spent his entire professional life with the Oilers/Titans franchise.
James Franklin, 41, head coach at Vanderbilt. Franklin, a Pennsylvania native and East Stroudsburg graduate, has worked wonders at Vanderbilt. He is 23-15 in three seasons with a game to be played. The Commodores are 9-7 in the SEC the past two seasons, unheard of for that program. Their five wins in 2012 were the most they’ve ever had in conference play.
Other names that might surface: Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, 41, a Pennsylvania native who has posted four consecutive winning seasons with the Bulldogs; Ball State coach Pete Lembo, 43, who also had successful stints at Lehigh and Elon; San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, 41; recently fired Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, 47, who parlayed success at Rutgers into an NFL job and who is a former Penn State assistant.
Youth is believed to have an edge in coaching hires but Penn State, all other things being equal, might prefer an older coach, like Caldwell, who is less likely to move on. If the career trajectories of Franklin and Golden should continue at Penn State, they might be prime NFL candidates some day.
The notion that Penn State ties are important for the next coach doesn’t make much sense since it was not important in hiring the last coach.
Athletic director Dave Joyner probably has a longer list but time is of the essence. It is imperative that Penn State not allow this recruiting class to be lost. Joyner might be well served to heed the famous words of the legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who in instructing his players would say: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”