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Penn State Football: Five Ways Paterno Has His Assistant Coaches’ Number

by on December 17, 2010 3:42 AM

Last Friday, clad in a heavy blue parka, Joe Paterno (who turns 84 on Tuesday and is in his 61st year at Penn State) fast-stepped from the cold outside air into the Nittany Lions’ indoor practice facility, outpacing a few of his players.

The Penn State head football coach for the past 45 years walked to the middle of Holuba Hall, stopping in the center of the facility’s two 80-yard practice fields.

Already there were offensive line coach Dick Anderson (in his late 60s and his 33rd year as a Penn State coach, with four more years as a Penn State player) and Galen Hall (age 70, seventh year as Penn State’s offensive coordinator and running backs coach, four more as a Penn State player).

Paterno joined the conversation for a few minutes, the three of them (222 years old, 109 years at Penn State) apparently discussing the upcoming practice.

After a few minutes, Paterno headed over to defensive line coach Larry Johnson (late 50s, 15th year at Penn State).

From there, Paterno walked five yards to talk with linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden (turns 55 in January and in his 10th season at Penn State).

Leaving Vandy, Paterno turned and crossed the practice field to where defensive coordinator Tom Bradley (age 54, in his 32nd year on the Penn State staff after four as a player) stood with Mike McQueary (mid-30s, 11th year on the Penn State staff after four as a player).

Paterno spent a few minutes talking with them both. As he did, Jay Paterno (42 years as a son, 16 years on staff, four years as a player) jogged by. As Jay slowed, Joe caught up with him and the two exchanged a few words.

All that lasted about eight minutes.

Some say the elder Paterno is out of touch, but on this day, it didn’t take him long to touch base with seven of his nine full-time assistants.

He missed only Bill Kenney (50ish, 23 years at Penn State) and Kermit Buggs (late 30s, seventh year on staff).

Figuring Kenney coaches the O-line with Anderson and Buggs coaches the secondary with Bradley, you have to be impressed how quickly Paterno – all zipped up in his heavy winter coat -- quickly directed his staff.

COACHING THEM TO STAY

Earlier in the day, rumors swirled of Bradley and Vanderlinden and coaching vacancies at Pitt (since filled) and Ball State.

While meeting with about 50 members of the media before the practice, Paterno sent those same coaches a different kind of message:

Stay.

“Whether there's anything good enough for them (to leave) or not, they'll have to make that decision,” Paterno said. “I hate to lose any of them. I think we have a good staff.

“I would hope we can keep them all. But, you know, people have to make decisions and do what's best for them and their families. We may find ourselves in a position where some of the guys may have opportunities to go other places.”

Paterno’s plea was this: If you are taking a parallel move, don’t move.

If there is “a chance to be an assistant coach at someplace, I would hope the situation here was good enough that he wouldn't leave,” he said. “...I would hope that if it's another assistant's job, that the job they have is good enough to stay here. You don't know. It's a pretty nice place to work. It's a good place to live. I would hope that we would be able to keep all our people.

“But I can't guarantee that. Whatever's best for them is best for all of us.”

The last high school recruit Paterno saw on the road was Terrelle Pryor nearly three years ago, and the second-last may have been Nittany Lion senior Derek Moye.

The masses may be up in arms about Penn State’s 2011 recruiting class.

And the age-defying coach may have told four-star defensive tackle recruit Darian Cooper that he plans on staying at Penn State for five or six years.

But, for Paterno, the most important recruiting he has done the past several years has been that of his own coaching staff. The longer it stays, the longer he can stay.

That way, the meeting routines and practice schedules and on-the-field drills that have been in place for decades do not have to change.

WHAT, JOE WORRY?

Paterno has no need to worry, really. It’s not like two years ago, when Johnson almost bolted to Illinois to become Ron Zook’s defensive coordinator.

And yes, he – like me and maybe you – knows that Vanderlinden is known to have his job-hunting antennae up this time every year. At least that’s what one of the linebackers told me at season’s end.

There are a lot of reasons to think that the current staff is going to stay intact, if only for one more season. Here are five.

1. NO ONE LEAVES ANY MORE.

There hasn’t been a single change on Penn State’s full-time staff for three seasons, not since safeties coach Brian Norwood left town. And his vacancy was quickly filled by Buggs, who worked for Paterno in a personnel and development capacity before talking the coaching job.

The last time Paterno hired a full-time assistant without any ties to the Penn State program was in 2001, when he brought in Vanderlinden, Norwood (a good hire, whose receiver son Jordan was a wonderful twofer) and Kenny Carter (a bad hire, most will admit, who lasted only three years).

Before that was Johnson in 1996. Before that was Kenney in 1989, after a year as a Penn State grad assistant. And before that was Jim Caldwell in 1986.

That’s right, the Jim Caldwell who is now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He left Penn State in 1993 to coach Wake Forest, unsuccessfully, going 26-63 from 1993-2000.

2.) IT IS A PLUM JOB.

Always has been. Even moreso now, working with a legend, who’s not over your shoulder in the office every day, who gives you plenty of leeway, who provides lots of job security.

It’s a small club, having worked for Joe.

Since he ascended from being a Penn State assistant coach himself in 1966, Paterno has had only 38 different full-time assistants. And that includes seven who kept their jobs when Rip Engle retired and Paterno was promoted after 16 years. Nine full-time assistants has long been the norm in college football, meaning that over the course of 45 years the average tenure of a Paterno assistant is 10.65 seasons.

With seven such loyalists, the 2010 staff is par for the course.

The job certainly has other advantages as well. For “Joe’s Steps on Retaining Employees,” check out my column from April 22, 2010: http://bit.ly/hfZ85J

3.) IT IS NOT THE CRADLE OF HEAD COACHES.

More like Barcaloungers.

Three of the current Penn State assistants were head coaches elsewhere – Hall (Florida, NFL Europe, AFL, XFL), Anderson (Rutgers) and Vanderlinden (Maryland). Vandy’s term with the Terps was up in 2000, Galen was all the XFL’s Rage coach last in 2001.

Hall and Anderson aren’t leaving until Joe does, I think, and with each season it is unlikely Vandy will get his own gig again.

A decade is a long time to go between head coaching jobs. Florida assistant Dan McCarney was only four years removed from his 12-year stint as Iowa State’s head coach and the best he could do this offseason was get the head coaching job at North Texas, not exactly a high-profile school. That he’s 57 years old doesn’t help.

Paterno has never had a penchant for developing head coaches. Only seven of his assistants have gone on to become head coaches, and just one has a career winning record to date.

They are: Anderson (27-34-3), Caldwell (26-63), Craig Cirbus (Buffalo, 19-47) Ron Dickerson (Temple, Alabama State, Lambuth, 15-62), Al Golden (Temple, Miami, 26-32), Greg Schiano (Rutgers, 59-63) and George Welsh (Navy, Virginia, 189-132-04).

That’s a combined record of 361-433-7, a winning percentage of .455.

4.) YES, AGE DOES COUNT.

There have been 13 new hires in BCS football programs since the end of the 2010 regular season. That includes McCarney, and I am also including Dana Holgorsen, 39, recently hired as coach-in-waiting at West Virginia (and the wait looks like it won’t take that long, either), and Frank Cignetti, 45, the front-runner for the Temple job.

With guys like 39-year-old Will Muschamp going from Texas to Florida and the 41-year-old Golden going from Temple to Miami (Fla.), the trend is to young hires. Even the two new hires in the Big Ten are under 50: Kevin Wilson at Indiana and Jerry Kill at Minnesota. Both are 49.

Here’s a look at the remainder of that list: Jon Embree, 45, Colorado; Hugh Freeze, 40, Arkansas State; Dave Doeren, 39, Northern Illinois; James Franklin, 38, Vanderbilt; Michael Haywood, 46, Pittsburgh; and Mark Hudspeth, 42, Louisiana.

The average age of those 13 hires is 43 years and eight months. It’s been a decade or more since Bradley, Johnson or Vandy – the three most viable candidates to leave Penn State for head coaching jobs -- have seen that number. JayPa is the one Nittany Lion who most fits the profile, at least age-wise.

5.) IT’S A WINNING FORMULA.

Sure, the Nittany Lions are taking a 7-5 record into the Outback Bowl against Florida. But over the past six seasons, Penn State is 58-18, ranking 10th in the nation in winning percentage (.763).

Winning makes going to the office a lot easier.

Just ask the guys at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 105-22 in Jim Tressel’s 10 years at the helm. Part of the reason for his success is the same reason for Paterno’s success – retaining his staff.

Four of Tressel’s full-time assistants have been in Columbus for at least nine of his 10 years there, and eight of his nine current coaches have been there for at least six seasons. Overall, in 10 seasons at Ohio State, Tressel’s coaches have been coaching there for a combined 69 seasons. A perfect retention score is 90: 10 seasons times nine coaching slots.

At Penn State, the numbers are even more startling, albeit predictable: Over the past 10 seasons, the nine assistants on Paterno’s current staff account for a combined 78 seasons of service out of a maximum of 90.

To Paterno, that’s anything but new math.

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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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