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28 Assistants in 28 Games in 28 Months: Where Have All the Penn State Football Coaches Gone?

by on February 20, 2014 11:45 PM

Connecting all the Penn State football dots in a busy off-season of coaching transitions:

The pro and college football market is starting to get flooded with coaches with Penn State ties, many of whom switched outfits the past few months.

In part, it’s because last fall there were 28 PSU grads coaching in college or the pros.

And in part it’s because over the past 28 games played in the past 28 months, the Nittany Lions have had five head coaches and 28 different assistant coaches -- counting James Franklin’s VanderLions (not to be confused with Air Force’s Ron Vanderlinden, PSU’s former LBU czar).

(A bit more than 28, but for comparison’s sake: In his 46 years as head coach, Joe Paterno had 38 assistant coaches. Total.)

So many Penn State coaches, such little time. Let’s begin on Dec. 31, 2013, when Bill O’Brien quit his job as head coach at Penn State to become head coach of the Houston Texans in the NFL – bringing along John Butler, Charles London, Anthony Midget, strength and conditioning coaches Craig Fitzgerald and Sean Hayes, Jim Bernhardt, Stan Hixon and quality control assistants Tim Kelly and Will Lawing.

QB COACHES NO. 1, NOT 2 AND 3

Penn State's revolving door actually started sooner, when O’Brien fired Vanderlinden and quarterback coach Charlie Fisher. Fisher just landed at Richmond, where he is now associate head coach, director of recruiting and wide receivers coach.

Richmond’s head coach is Dan Rocco, a former PSU defensive back who transferred to Wake Forest (only after he and I both had Jack Selzer’s English 10 class with future transferee Jeff Hostetler). Rocco’s brother Frank – now head coach at Liberty Christian Academy (Va.) -- played QB at Penn State and his dad, Frank Sr., was a longtime Penn State assistant coach and administrator.

The guy who almost got the Penn State QB coaching job instead of Fisher, George Godfrey, now works in Houston for O’Brien, who wanted to bring Godfrey along to Penn State from New England. But Bill Belichick said no.

The guy who had the job before Fisher, Jay Paterno, is now running for associate head coach of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

MUNCHAK DIDN'T FIT THE BILL

Recently, O’Brien interviewed Mike Munchak to be the Texans’ offensive line coach. Munchak, who played football at Penn State and unsuccessfully interviewed (twice: see 2011, 2013) to be its head coach, was fired as head coach of the Tennessee Titans in December.

Munchak didn’t get the Texans’ job, either. Now he coaches the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line. Former longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley does the Steelers’ pre- and post-game radio shows, part of Bradley’s burgeoning second career in media that includes a TV gig as a college football TV analyst.

O’Brien ended up hiring Paul Dunn for the O-line job in Texas. Dunn was a grad assistant at Penn State in the 1980s and also coached at two schools -- Kansas State, Vanderbilt -- where Franklin coached, but both times before PSU’s new head coach got there. (Fisher also coached at Vanderbilt at one point, but not with Dunn or Franklin.)

Dunn, a Pitt grad, coached the offensive line for the Panthers in 2005-07. Bobby Engram, a Penn State grad and 14-year NFL veteran, coached the wide receivers for the Panthers in 2013. This off-season, Engram was hired to coach the receivers for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. 

Engram just missed the chance to work with former Nittany Lion quarterback coach Jim Caldwell, who had been the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. Caldwell wanted to interview for the Penn State head coach’s job after O’Brien left – but couldn’t even get his call returned. So Caldwell tried the NFL Lions instead and was named the head coach of Detroit after Jim Schwartz and his staff were fired.

Caldwell’s new staff does not include former Nittany Lion Sam Gash, who played several years in the NFL and was Detroit’s running backs coach – until he got fired along with Schwartz. Gash contemplated getting out of coaching, but landed on his feet. He is now an assistant with the Green Bay Packers, as is former Penn State All-American Darren Perry, who coaches the Green Bay secondary, although he was interested in a job on the Penn State staff the past few years, either as head coach or D-coordinator.

Perry and Gash were co-captains of the Penn State’s 11-2 1991 team, along with Terry Smith, Keith Goganious, Al Golden and Mark D’Onofrio. After a long and successful stint as head football coach at Gateway High School, in suburban Pittsburgh, Smith was an assistant coach at Temple last season before coming home to his alma mater last month.

TEMPLE WAS GOLDEN, NOW IT RHULES

Smith’s boss at Temple was Matt Rhule, a State College native and former Penn State linebacker. Rhule was offensive coordinator at Temple for Golden, the Owls’ one-time head coach. Golden left in 2011 to coach Miami (Fla.) and in January 2014 Golden interviewed for – and thought he had – the Penn State head coach’s job. D’Onofrio was defensive coordinator at Temple while Rhule was there and now handles the Miami defense for Golden. (It's not unrealistic to think that Gash, Smith, Perry, Golden and D'Onofrio would have been reunited had Golden gotten the PSU HC job.)

For one season, Rhule was the assistant line coach for the NFL’s New York Giants, working under the Giants’ O-line coach, Pat Flaherty. Flaherty was an All-America center at East Stroudsburg – alma mater of Franklin, who was a starting QB several years after Flaherty graduated – and coached at both ESSC and Penn State. Flaherty coached at Rutgers under PSU alum Dick Anderson, who returned to his alma mater to coach the quarterbacks as Caldwell’s successor, before he in turn was replaced by the younger Paterno and eventually retired after the 2011 season.

(Fisher, God bless him, also coached at Temple as well.)

Temple hired Elijah Robinson, a former PSU lineman whose career was cut short by a spinal injury but who stayed on scholarship and helped the team as a student, then as an assistant under the elder Paterno and O'Brien in a variety of roles. In the off-season, Robinson left to become the defensive line coach for the Owls. Robinson and player personnel director Bill Kavanaugh, who left in December to coach his alma mater Bentley, were fill-in full-time assistants after the 2011 scandal broke.

Bill Kenney, a former longtime offensive line and tight end coach for the Nittany Lions, coached Robinson at Penn State. The past two seasons, Kenney has coached the offensive line at Western Michigan.

Last season, Charles Huff, Penn State’s new running backs and special teams coach, worked with Kenney at Western Michigan, where he was the RB coach. Both Huff and Kenney just missed coaching with Penn State’s new wide receivers coach, Josh Gattis, who was an assistant coaching receivers at Western Michigan in 2011.

At Penn State, Kenney did coach with Lions offensive coordinator Galen Hall, now retired, unemployed Mike McQueary and Larry Johnson Sr. You may have heard that LJ left to become associate head coach under Ohio State's Urban Meyer. You may not have heard that former Penn State secondary coach Kermit Buggs, who coached at Lock Haven in 2012 and UConn in 2013, is now assistant defensive coordinator at Old Dominion. He was canned by UConn, along with Huskies head coach Paul Pasqualoni, a former PSU linebacker who succeeded Randy Edsell.

TERPS NOT FRANKLIN'S TIME

Edsell is now the head coach at Maryland, a new member with Rutgers in the Big Ten Conference in 2014. He didn’t go to Penn State, but he is from Glen Rock, Pa. Before their dandy Vandy experience, Franklin, Penn State’s new offensive coordinator John Donovan and new director of performance enhancement, Dwight Gait and Gattis all coached at Maryland. Former Nittany Lion defensive lineman Greg Gattuso coached for the Terps last season, but got the head coach’s job at Albany in the off-season.

Franklin worked for Ralph Friedgen at Maryland and was even the head-coach-in-waiting. But when a new AD came in and said the Terps didn’t have a waiting room, Franklin left for Vanderbilt. Friedgen was fired shortly thereafter. He resurfaced a few weeks ago, as the offensive coordinator for Rutgers. Penn State plays at Rutgers on Sept. 13 – the Scarlet Knights’ first game in the Big Ten (and two months shy of 145 years after they played in intercollege football’s first game ever, won 6-4 over Princeton in New Brunswick, N.J.).

Rutgers sounds a bit like Rodgers, as in Jordan Rodgers, little brother of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron. Jordan was the starting quarterback in 2011-12 at Vanderbilt for Franklin and Penn State’s new QB coach, Ricky Rahne. Speaking of Vanderbilt, the rest of Franklin’s heretofore unmentioned new Penn State staff were also Commodores: Brent Pry, Herb Hand, Sean Spencer and Bob Shoop.

Jordan Rodgers works out these days with Blake Bortles, the highly-touted Central Florida quarterback who played for UCF head coach George O’Leary, who is one of O’Brien’s best friends, as well as OB’s former boss at Georgia Tech. O’Brien, whose Texans have the No. 1 selection in May’s NFL Draft, needs a quarterback and there’s talk he might even pick Bortles (who threw for three TDs and 288 yards to lead UCF to a 34-31 win over Penn State in Beaver Stadium last season).

O’Leary’s Central Florida squad will play host to Penn State in Ireland in the teams’ season-opener on Aug. 30. Spider Caldwell, Penn State’s legendary equipment manager who has seen all 28 assistant coaches come and go and come, is probably already packing as you read this.

James Franklin will be on Penn State’s Croke Park sideline that day. And Bill O’Brien will not.

Hey -- isn’t that how this whole thing got started?

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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