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Penn State Football Coach Search: Many Reasons to Court Clements as Candidate Field Narrows

by on December 27, 2011 4:20 AM

Among the known and remaining candidates to be Penn State’s next head football coach, Tom Clements may be best qualified to make his own case.

The Green Bay Packers quarterback coach is also a licensed attorney. As well as his own agent.

Clements’ No. 1 pupil, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is the No. 1 player on the NFL’s No. 1 team.

But Clements, who graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame’s law school in 1986, yearns to run the defense as well.

That’s why Clements was proactive and put his name in the hat for the Penn State job, as acting athletic director Dave Joyner and his search committee continue their quest to find a new head coach, 49 days after Joe Paterno was fired.

Clements, 58, interviewed with the six-person search committee last week via Skype, as reported by USA Today’s Jon Saraceno, who also first broke the news a few weeks ago that Clements was interested in the job.

The candidate list also includes: Tennessee Titans’ head coach Mike Munchak, twice-fired NFL coach Eric Mangini, and ACC coaches Jim Grobe and David Cutcliffe. Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden interviewed for the job last week, Saraceno reported, making him the fourth PSU assistant to do so.

Interim head coach Tom Bradley, who took over on Nov. 9 when Paterno was fired, has also interviewed with the search committee.

MAJOR CHALLENGE

In the wake of the Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal -- and should he be named Penn State’s 16th head coach in 126 years -- Clements’ legal training could be important in the coming months and years, helping him to knowledgeably discuss any legalities. Clements, who worked in 1988-92 for Bell, Boyd & Lloyd, a Chicago-based law firm, has never backed away from a challenge.

“One of the things that is most impressive about Tom is that he decided to get into coaching after being at a major law firm for five years,” said John Heisler, Notre Dame’s senior associate athletic director.

“Tom made the career change and didn’t shy away from a major challenge. He embraced it from the very beginning. That tells you what kind of person he is.”

Penn State would most certainly be a test. But Clements need look no further than the Packers’ front office for advice – whether it be transitioning from the pros to the college game or dealing with extraordinary circumstances.

Prior to building Green Bay into a Super Bowl champion, Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy was a former NFL All-Pro safety with the Washington Redskins. After his playing days, Murphy served as athletic director at Colgate, turning an 0-11 football team into one that made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs. Then, as athletic director at Northwestern, Murphy made the bold decision to appoint Pat Fitzgerald as the nation’s youngest head football coach following the death of Randy Walker. Murphy, too, is an attorney.

McCARTHY KUDOS

Clements -- who masterfully managed Brett Favre as he simultaneously tutored Rodgers -- has received a big recommendation from the Packers’ head coach, Mike McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native whose father was a Steel City policeman and firefighter.

“I think Penn State is a great opportunity, and I think Tom would be an outstanding candidate,” McCarthy said at a press conference on Dec. 16. (Click here and go to the 3:12 mark for more remarks about Penn State and Clements by McCarthy.) “I have three siblings who graduated from Penn State, so he’d have the McCarthy vote as far as him being the next head coach there.”

The Packers (14-1) have already clinched a bye week and don’t play Jan. 7-8. After facing Detroit this Sunday, they won’t play again until Jan. 14 or 15. Theoretically, Clements could come to State College for an announcement, then meet with recruits for the entire open recruiting period from Jan. 4-7 — and not miss a Green Bay beat.

If Clements does get the Penn State job, McCarthy said he believes the Packers and Penn State will make the logistics work.

“As for the process of individuals being hired this time of year,” he said, “I think the college administrators and the National Football League have been very practical and respectful of each other’s schedules. So I’m not concerned about that type of thing.”

PENNSYLVANIA ROOTS

Like McCarthy, Clements is a Pennsylvania guy. He’s from McKees Rocks, and was a four-year letterman in basketball and football for Canevin Catholic High School. Clements coached for the Steelers from 2001-03, and has had NFL stops with Kansas City, New Orleans and Buffalo (as offensive coordinator).

Clements quarterbacked Notre Dame to the national championship in 1973, beating Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl. He finished fourth in the Heisman voting as a senior and was 29-5 as a starter for the Fighting Irish. He then had a lengthy career in the Canadian Football League, throwing for almost 40,000 yards and 252 touchdowns.

Clements began his coaching career at his alma mater under Lou Holtz for four seasons (1992-95), the last as assistant head coach. It was there that Heisler saw firsthand Clements make the successful transition from lawyer to football coach.

“Tom is a very bright, dependable guy,” Heisler said, literally heading out the door to catch a plane to Orlando, where Notre Dame is playing Florida State in the Champs Bowl. “He’s not into drama, and I think that is what they are looking for. There are few surprises with Tom. He had great relationships with players while he was at our place. You couldn’t help but like him. He’s a solid person."

Clements was in the mix for Notre Dame's head coaching job in 2005, but lost out to Charlie Weis. Things didn't work out too well for Weis or the Irish, as he went 35-27 overall and 16-21 in his final three seasons. Meanwhile, Clements coached one more season with Buffalo, then found a home in Green Bay.

“Tom’s been in a lot of situations, with a good amount of success,” added Heisler, who has been at Notre Dame for 34 years and has written eight books on Fighting Irish football. “You don’t have to worry about his football – or all the processes that go along with being a head coach. He excels at that. There’s no doubt he really knows football."

Not to mention the law. While in South Bend on the Notre Dame coaching staff, Clements was an adjunct associate professor of law at the university’s law school, where he taught “Sports and the Law.”

THE OTHER CANDIDATES

NFL Hall of Famer Mike Munchak, a native of Scranton, was a standout guard for Penn State. He is a first-year head coach for the Tennessee and is in his 28th year with the franchise. With a very outside shot at the playoffs, the 8-7 Titans have one regular-season game remaining, against the Texans on Sunday. If committee head Dave Joyner and sidekick Ira Lubert want to take in the game, it’s only a 27-minute flight from Dallas to Houston.

(Just saying: I was the first to publicly tap Munchak as a candidate, anointing Munchak as the best successor to Paterno on July 8, 2010; check out “The Winter’s Tale” section. Then I wrote it again six months later, on Jan. 28, 2011.)

Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe and Duke’s David Cutcliffe are still in the running, according to David Jones of The Patriot-News. Cutcliffe is 15-33 at Duke. Grobe was 33-33-1 at Ohio University and has been 68-66 at Wake Forest, with a 14-22 mark the past three seasons.

Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden came to PSU in 2001, after going 15-29 as head coach at Maryland. He’s late to the party. If he’s a viable candidate, it raises questions as to why he wasn’t named interim head coach instead of Bradley or why he didn’t interview with the committee until it was well into its fourth week of the search.

ESPN analyst Eric Mangini, fired as head coach by both the New York Jets (23-25) and Cleveland Browns (10-22), was reported to be under consideration by the king of all Philadelphia sports media, Mike Missanelli, in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Christmas.

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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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