Penn State Football Coaching Search: What Will Bill O'Brien Tell James Franklin?
A decade before Penn State’s current search for a new head football coach, the worlds of Bill O’Brien, James Franklin and Al Golden had already overlapped.
And now they are again.
Franklin -- head coach of Vanderbilt and a native of Pennsylvania -- has the resume to become the 16th head coach of a program decidedly on its way back up after being hit by severe NCAA sanctions.
The Nittany Lions, however, took a big body blow when O'Brien ended his two-year reign just minutes before the year itself ended. And the pounding continued on Thursday, when Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson left for the NFL and quarterback recruit Michael O'Connor said won't even arrive.
Given all that, you have to figure that if Franklin hasn’t already, he will soon pick up his smart phone and call a former fellow University of Maryland assistant coach who is uniquely qualified to give Franklin the real lowdown on his potential new employer.
That guy's name? Bill O'Brien, who was a Terrapin assistant with Franklin in 2003 and 2004.
Just the conversation alone about Ron Vanderlinden would be worth the price of admission. Vandy, the longtime PSU linebackers coach and former Maryland head coach, hired Franklin. And 13 years later O'Brien fired Vandy. I wonder if that would impact Franklin's possible decision to leave Vandy (as in Vanderbilt)?
It is a lot less likely Golden will reach out to O'Brien.
Golden earned an undergrad degree in pre-law from Penn State in 1991, the same year he captained the 11-2 Nittany Lion football team; its losses were at No. 5 Southern Cal and at No. 9 Miami (Fla.). He returned for a single season in 2000, to succeed the just-retired Jerry Sandusky as linebackers coach under Joe Paterno.
The next season, Golden left for Virginia, where he had a five-year stint as defensive coordinator. That’s where Golden -- the Miami (Fla.) head coach who also is a top contender to be the new coach at his alma mater -- can say that he shut out both Franklin and O’Brien. At the same time. Overall, he coached against Franklin four times, O'Brien twice.
In 2003 and 2004, O’Brien and Franklin -- both in their early 30s at the time -- were on Ralph Friedgen’s staff at Maryland. With O’Brien coaching the running backs and Franklin coaching the wide receivers and serving as recruiting coordinator, the Terps had seasons of 10-3 in 2003, averaging 31.1 points per game, and 5-6 in 2004, averaging just 17.7 points per contest. In the first meeting involving O’Brien, Franklin and Golden, Maryland won 27-17 at home in 2003. Then, Virginia and Golden pitched a 16-0 shutout at home in 2004.
Now, a decade later, the former Terp coaching colleagues are both riding the 2013-14 coaching carousel. O’Brien left Penn State on Dec. 31 to coach the NFL’s Houston Texans while Franklin is expected to ride his 23-15 record and 2013 SEC sweep of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee to a new job. But that will have to wait until late Saturday afternoon, after the 8-4 Commodores play Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., at noon.
In addition to Penn State, Franklin is considered a top candidate for the Texas head coaching job as well as some open spots in the NFL. Orangeboods.com has reported that Franklin has already spoken with the Longhorns. At the pro level, Franklin has already taken part in the NFL’s Minority Coaching Fellowship Program, working with Philadelphia, Minnesota and Miami in three different seasons. Peter King of Sports Illustrated recently reported that Franklin was included on a list of top minority coaching candidates compiled by the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel.
After the 2010 season, Friedgen was fired despite a 9-4 season and his fifth bowl victory. Franklin had been designated head coach in waiting the previous season, but at the end of the season he left for Vanderbilt. Now, in hindsight Friedgen said he wishes he had done the same thing as his two former assistants have since done and, in Franklin’s case, is likely to do it again soon.
“You know, it's interesting with all of these coaching changes now at this time of the year,” Friedgen told Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports on Dec. 30. “Then, you see some of these situations with Billy O'Brien and some of these other guys, and I think, sometimes when you got those opportunities, you should take them because there really isn't any loyalty in this business."
Franklin and Golden squared off twice prior to O’Brien’s arrival at Maryland. In 2001, Maryland won 41-21 and in 2002 Virginia won 48-13. Franklin actually arrived at Maryland in 2000, having been hired by Vanderlinden, the Terps’ head coach at the time. Vandy was fired a year later and was replaced by Friedgen.
After the 2004 season, when Maryland and O’Brien and Franklin were blanked by Golden’s defense, the two Terp coaches left College Park. O’Brien departed for Duke, where the head coach was Ted Roof – Penn State’s defensive coordinator in 2012. O’Brien was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2005, when the Blue Devils were 1-10, and in 2006, when they were 0-12.
The next season, O’Brien left for a low-paying apprenticeship with the NFL’s New England Patriots. And now, just seven years later, he’s head coach of an NFL team.
In 2005, Franklin left Maryland for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers to be the team’s wide receivers coach. The Packers promptly went 4-12, their worst record in 14 years. Head coach Mike Sherman, Franklin and many other assistants were fired. Franklin landed on his feet in 2006, finding work as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Kansas State. And now, just seven years later, he could succeed O’Brien as head coach.
As it has turned out, for two years, Bill was money at Penn State.
Soon, a Franklin will have an opportunity to cash in on his own success – whether at Penn State or somewhere else.