Penn State seeking perfect fit as coaching search continues
It doesn't take someone who has had his picture taken at the Lion Shrine or knows the lyrics to the university alma mater to appreciate the job of football coach at Penn State. And, as Bill O'Brien proved, being an alumnus isn't a requirement for success.
“It's still a sweet job, and in my mind, it's still one of the top jobs in college football,” said longtime Pittsburgh-based sports agent Ralph Cindrich, a Pitt alumnus. “It has the program. It has the great place to live. It has everything you'd need. There's nothing going to take away from any of that.”
As the search for O'Brien's successor continues, one of the mysteries involves whether the Nittany Lions' 16th football coach will be a Penn State graduate or someone with ties to the university.
“You have to find someone who will be comfortable in Penn State's surroundings and who the institution could embrace,” said consultant Chuck Neinas, a former Big Eight and Big 12 commissioner and College Football Association director. “It doesn't mean he would have to be a Penn Stater.”
Neinas cited former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, a Texas native and graduate of Texas-based Stephen F. Austin who was a four-time conference coach of the year in 14 seasons with the Red Raiders.
“(Dykes) was always perfect in West Texas but would never fit in at Stanford,” Neinas said. “One of the things I've always tried to do in my involvement with an institution is try to make certain that we have something that will fit.”
Among the names connected to the opening, only Vanderbilt coach James Franklin did not coach or play at Penn State. But he was born and raised, and played and coached college football, in eastern Pennsylvania.
Miami coach Al Golden, who interviewed with Penn State's six-member search committee Saturday, played at Penn State and spent one season as an assistant there. He seemingly removed himself from consideration in a statement released Sunday on Miami's website. Former Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak had a standout career as a Nittany Lions offensive lineman. And Penn State interim coach Larry Johnson has spent 18 seasons at the school, the past 15 as defensive line coach.
In campaigning for the full-time job Friday, Johnson pointed out, “I think I know the lay of the land very well.”
At a place where Joe Paterno spent 62 seasons on the coaching staff — 46 as head coach — some find comfort in continuity. Johnson's status as the longest-tenured member of the current coaching staff makes him a popular choice among many in the university community.
“The only consensus with everyone I talk to is we would like to see L.J. retained on the new staff in some capacity,” said Dan Byrd, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association. “Not only for recruiting purposes but to have a well-respected ‘legacy' employee. The current players and lettermen love the guy, as do we alums.”
Two years ago, Penn State hired a coach who was not a “legacy” Penn Stater. Anger ensued from some circles. Former star linebacker LaVar Arrington was one who opposed the move. Even after O'Brien posted two winning seasons and picked up a consensus national coach of the year recognition, Arrington stood by his position that the coaching job needs to stay in the proverbial blue-and-white family.
“I think now they have an opportunity to (right a wrong),” Arrington told Lions247.com after O'Brien resigned last week.
A member of the search committee that settled on O'Brien indicated Penn State had little choice but to choose an outsider when they vetted candidates in late 2011. The university still was reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and firing of Paterno.
“I think if there was a reason to not have somebody affiliated with program previously, that's changed now almost 180 degrees, and it might now be a perfect time to maybe bring in somebody who has Penn State connections,” said Nittany Lions women's volleyball coach Russ Rose, who is not involved with the current search committee. “One would think somebody who knows and understands the history and tradition of the university and athletic department and Coach Paterno would be more committed and more likely to give it more time than maybe we've seen we got from Coach O'Brien.”
After Paterno's run of historic continuity that may never be seen again, Penn State isn't used to dealing with a coaching change. O'Brien, a so-called outsider, left after two seasons. Even if he fulfilled a dream by taking an NFL job, a sense of desertion lingers.
“It seems to me the best fit for the job is someone who intimately understands the Penn State community and value system and who embraces all we've accomplished,” said board of trustees member Anthony Lubrano. “(O'Brien) leaving after two years underscores how fortunate we were to have the stability of a Joe Paterno for as long as we did. And we grew spoiled by that.
“There's something to be said for someone who wants to be more than just a football coach, which Joe Paterno clearly was. I think someone with Penn State ties can appreciate that more than an outsider.”