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Penn State Football (Still) a Program in Transition

by on November 11, 2013 12:50 AM

Transition with Penn State football has happened so often, so fast and with such regularity, it’s sometimes hard this season to see the W’s for all the L’s.

Or to see that not all the W’s happen on the field.

Since the first week in September, every week of Penn State’s 2013 season has been one of transition -- from W to L to W to L to W to L to W to L.

And a W over Purdue on Saturday would continue that pattern, which underscores and is maybe even in concert with what we all already know: Penn State football continues to be a team – and program – in transition.

Tomorrow marks two years since Penn State played its first football game without Joe Paterno in 61 years. The transition to a new era has been made, this season especially, as much of the attention on PSU football has been focused on the field of play. That’s the most remarkable transition of all, really, given that many people thought – and wanted – Penn State football to be shut down. Instead, blown coverages and fumbles and third-down percentages dominate the Penn State football conversation.

There’s no bigger W. Although Bill O’Brien may not take it as such, criticism and critiques are the best compliments of all. He has restored high expectations. Against all odds.

Last year’s transition was different. The 2012 squad was different. It ran on emotion and survival instincts and anger and senior leadership and a very good bit of talent (i.e., two Minnesota Vikings linebackers and an Oakland Raider quarterback). A different kind of fuel has had to fire the 2013 squad, which had excellent role models. But the 2013 squad is faced with a different set of problems – more of them of the on-the-field variety. Sometimes, it seems as neither players nor coaches know which fuel to use, leaded or unleaded.

That’s understandable, because:

-- Thirteen different players this season started their first game. Ever.

-- Of the 70 players on the traveling roster for Minnesota on Saturday, 29 were true and redshirt freshmen (41%), 45 had freshman or sophomore eligibility (64%) and just 11 – eleven! – now have just three games left in college eligibility.

-- Many of those freshmen – including the freshman quarterback – will be going through Craig Fitzgerald’s offseason weight and conditioning program for the first time after the season closes.

-- Although John Butler was a defensive coordinator in 1999-2000 at Midwestern State, this season is his first as a DC at the FBS level. He’s had to work a defense in constant transition, with a wide receiver at cornerback, a cornerback at safety (for awhile), a safety at linebacker and a linebacking corps that has problem with deep drops. It’s his first year reporting to O’Brien and directing last season’s co-workers, LJ and Vandy, as well as safeties coach Anthony Midget who is new to the staff.

(Penn State’s defense made a significant transition at halftime against Minnesota. It yielded four straight scores to the Gophers in the first half and although Minnesota stuck to the ground in the second half, Penn State still held the home team scoreless in the final two quarters. Also: It’s good see that Butler is transitioning to being less manic on the sidelines.)

-- Moving down the field is one thing. Learning to close as you get closer to the end zone is another. And that doesn’t mean just in the red zone, either. It’s a learned skill. Matt McGloin used to say the most important thing a QB can do is to lead a touchdown drive. In Penn State’s 65 offensive drives (not including run-out-the-clock efforts) since the start of Big Ten play, its offense has scored 13 touchdowns – one in five drives. In the last three games against Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio State, the Nittany Lion offense reached their opponents’ 2, 2, 12, 16, 19, 21, 35, 37 and 38-yard lines, and came away with zero points. Two times they fumbled at the 2.

-- Penn State is almost through its first season with its current team physician and orthopedic consultant. Marketing of the football program is in outside hands, mostly, and remains in transition. Over the past 20 months, there have been myriad structural, organizational and philosophical changes.

-- Hard to believe, but O’Brien, 44, is still new to his job as head coach. He’s only 21 games into his tenure, and he’s seen and done more than any college football coach in history. But he still has plenty to learn, from juggling duties along the sidelines, to working with a jury-rigged roster, to such duties involving the media, marketing and navigating the oft-dysfunctional executive branch.

O’Brien is getting there.

In his book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell postulates that it takes 10,000 hours at a task to become proficient in it to the point where it's instinctual (although O’Brien may need more time than that when it comes to his wardrobe). He was a career assistant, with over two decades’ experience, before coming to Penn State. However, he had never been the top guy -- although four current assistants and his aide de camp all have been. Lost in all his leadership in the scandal is that the Wisconsin game will be just the first day of his 100th week as head coach. Hour No. 10,000 should come along about Feb. 5, 2014 – national signing day.

Still, another big transition awaits O’Brien – as well as all of Penn State.

O’Brien is working for the same two bosses, president Rod Erickson and athletic director Dave Joyner, that he was last year at this time. No matter how you look at it, that’s not progress. And, given the news last week, the wait will continue.

Erickson is guaranteed to be gone by June 30, 2014, and while Joyner no longer has the interim tag, he will serve at the pleasure of the new president. On page 22 of Penn State's latest response to The Freeh Report, Section 5.3 stipulates “Intercollegiate Athletics Organizational National Searches: Conduct national searches for candidates for key positions, including head coaches and Associate Athletic Director(s) and above.”

But…

Two columns over on the page 22 grid, under “status” of the implementation of the report’s recommendations, the aforementioned Section 5.3 passage is repeated, with this addition “…with exceptions as approved by the President of the University.”

That means Penn State’s new president, whoever he or she is and whenever he or she begins, has the option of retaining Joyner without a national search.

That also means the continuation of the exact same scenario from a year ago, when there was a lame duck president and an A.D. whose PSU future was uncertain. And that means when the NFL teams come calling to hire Bill O’Brien – and they surely will, especially since O’Brien will be available to talk weeks ahead of almost anyone else, since their NFL and NCAA teams will still be playing – Penn State’s leadership, and O'Brien's bosses, will still be in transition.

And these days, that might be the toughest transition of them all.

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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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