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Penn State Football: Assistants’ 230 Coaching Years Should Aid Game Day Experience

by on August 24, 2012 6:16 AM

Penn State’s nine assistants have coached a total of 230 college and pro football seasons, third highest in the Big Ten Conference.

And all have coached with at least one other member of the staff before the 2012 season. For example, head coach Bill O’Brien worked with four of his assistants at other schools before they landed with the Nittany Lions.

But the Penn State coaches haven’t all coached together in an actual game (which will change in eight days). Play and formation signals, sideline duties, press box seating, halftime adjustments – that all had to be figured out.

O’Brien is a planner by nature and big on structure, which is exactly what you would expect from an Ivy League grad who studied organizational behavior management. His line a few weeks ago is testament to that:

“I always talk about this meeting can't be a review of the last meeting. We have to accomplish what we did in the last meeting, implement those ideas and then move on to the next meeting.”

O’Brien made an exception in summer drills. So that his staff and players had every duty and every nuance down pat, on six different occasions since Aug. 6 they’ve gone through game day routines and responsibilities. Three times they did it in Beaver Stadium and three times on their practice field. On each occasion, the coaches wore headsets.

“You have to have a bunch of dress rehearsals,” O’Brien said earlier this week, reciting a long laundry list of pressing items that his assistant coaches, especially, need to have buttoned down:

“…game management situations, what we are going to do at halftime, here are the things we have to get done, here are our openers on offense for the second half. Then there’s communication – who’s giving me the down and distance, who’s giving me the hash mark, who’s telling Ted (Roof, the defensive coordinator) down, distance and hash. We need to know those kinds of things.”

They went through that exercise twice in the spring, including the Blue-White Game. But for all the football season the Penn State assistants have been coaching – an average of 25.5 years per man – synchronicity is still key. It’ll sting you if you don’t have it, old pros or not.

“You just can’t start doing those things on game day or else you’ll be in a boatload of trouble,” O’Brien said.

The learning curve is made easier by the assistants’ collective experience, a good deal of it at the highest level.

The Penn State staff includes four assistants who were college head coaches and another who’s been the No. 2 guy. That’s a lot of brainpower. In addition, all five have been members of national championship teams – although not as head coaches.

These four were head coaches: Roof (at Duke), quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher (West Georgia), offensive line coach Mac WcWhorter (West Georgia, interim at Georgia Tech) and linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden (Maryland). And receivers and assistant head coach Stan Hixon was an assistant head coach at LSU.

While at LSU, Hixon was part of the Tigers’ 2003 national championship season. Roof (Auburn, 2010), McWhorter (Texas, as associate head coach, 2005), Vanderlinden (Colorado, 1990) and Fisher (Eastern Kentucky, 1982) each has a championship ring as well.

They form the core of an assistant coaches group whose 230 years of experience are almost identical to the 234 years of Penn State’s 2011 staff, which included two assistants who were in their 70s.

In the Big Ten in 2012, only the assistant coaching staffs at Northwestern (243 combined years) and Michigan (232) have more years on the sidelines in the college and pro ranks than Penn State’s. Michigan State is fourth, with 196. Ohio State (133) has the least, followed by Wisconsin (136) and Indiana (137). Numbers are based on an audit of each team’s website I did this week.

O’Brien assembled his staff in near-record time in January, save for Fisher. And he’s even happier with the coaches than when he hired them.

“I feel really good about our staff, working with these guys,” he said a few weeks ago. “We've got good chemistry on the staff. They’re really hard workers and good communicators, so I feel good about that.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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