It is a daunting challenge that faces the Penn State search committee as it works through the process of finding a successor to football coach Bill O’Brien. Filling a head coaching vacancy at a major program is always a bit of a crap shoot and in this particular case it’s even more so. There are multiple obstacles in place that could prevent Penn State from successfully replacing O’Brien.
That said, it must be noted that athletic director Dave Joyner has a perfect record when it comes to football hires. His only selection, O’Brien, was a masterpiece.
Doing better in the best of circumstances the second time around would not be easy. But these are not the best of circumstances that Joyner and his search committee face as they understandably move at a brisk pace to name the next coach. The new man could be announced as early as next week.
So why is the task daunting?
• Penn State is not a great job. It used to be. It’s a good job, but not a great one. When there was talk of a successor for Joe Paterno several years ago, one of the names mentioned was Urban Meyer. Such a suggestion would be laughable today, even if Meyer weren't firmly ensconced at Ohio State. One of the hottest names in the college coaching profession is Charlie Strong, who’s ripe to move up from his current position at Louisville. But Strong, a candidate at Texas, isn't even in the Penn State discussion.
• The field of applicants from which Joyner and his committee can select is limited. Penn State must nail this hire in terms of long-time commitment. Which means virtually everybody with an NFL background is out of the question. Greg Roman, the San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator, is a name mentioned in connection with Penn State. Does anyone seriously think Penn State will hire another top NFL assistant?
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is an extremely attractive candidate. He’s had huge success at Vanderbilt, he’s a Pennsylvania native and he played college football in Pennsylvania. No one would dispute that Penn State is a step up for Franklin. But does he need the aggravation of succeeding not one popular head coach but two, when he can bide his time at Vanderbilt, where there’s very little pressure and wait for an elite SEC job to open? And would Penn State go after Franklin knowing there might be an SEC or NFL job in his future?
Miami coach Al Golden would be an excellent hire. But would he be willing to leave what most people consider a better job for the lure of returning to his alma mater? Golden has just taken a team through NCAA sanctions. Returning to Penn State would put him in a similar negative situation.
In addressing reporters before Miami’s bowl game loss to Louisville, Golden said, “We’re at one of the greatest places there is in college football and we've gone through a hard time, but it’s hard to imagine places out there that you can sell, that you can present better than the University of Miami."
• As was written here early last month, the face of college football is changing and its turning away from schools in the East and Midwest. The best teams are in the South -- Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, LSU, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Clemson. The best new powers are in the South -- Baylor, Oklahoma State. Just about the only northern schools east of the Mississippi that are not in decline or holding their own are Ohio State and Michigan State.
A major reason for that is the good players are in the South. For years, some of the best came north and even some of the ones that Florida, Miami and Florida State didn't want also came north and became big-time players. With the best teams now clearly in the South, more players are staying home. The coming of age of football programs at Central Florida, a burgeoning power, and South Florida, are keeping even more players in the South. Those schools were not a factor 10 years ago.
• It’s hard to believe the undying loyalty to the "Paterno way" remains a negative factor, but O’Brien clearly thought it was. In a conversation with Dave Jones of the Patriot-News in early December, he said: “You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a (expletive) what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I've done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.”
Toward that end, in an editorial yesterday, the Patriot-News wrote, ''And he (O'Brien) sent a strong message that it’s time for the handful of zombified acolytes of the late Joe Paterno to stop clinging to past glories and follow the university’s football program into whatever future awaits it."
From most accounts, the extreme Paterno loyalists are small in number. But they remain a negative to the job that Joyner cannot guarantee will go away.
All this said, the cause is far from hopeless. As stated, it is a good job. It will attract good candidates. There is a spectacular tradition. There is a tremendous fan base. Excellent players remain attracted to Penn State.
But considering the drawbacks, the job of finding a successor to O’Brien/Paterno is a truly daunting task.