Penn State Football: The Day After, Stan Hixon and Three PSU Coaching Staffs
Penn State football is at a crossroads. Again.
On Wednesday, that busy intersection was located smack-dab in the middle of the front parking lot of Nittany Lion football’s Lasch Building.
If only the afternoon had been recorded in time-lapse photography. It would have been as simple and complex as 1-2-3:
1.) Past meets
2.) Recent present now newly past meets
3.) Past, present and future.
Not too long after noon on Wednesday, a former Penn State assistant coach not named Paterno cruised by the building, slowing his vehicle to a crawl so he could gawk inside PSU football’s on-campus headquarters.
At that moment, there were two cars in the lot big enough to hold a couple dozen. The red SUV hatchback with PA plates belonged to Stan Hixon. The 1979 Iowa State grad was the Penn State wide receivers coach and also assistant head coach for two seasons under the recently-departed Bill O’Brien. Was. Hixon also coached with O’Brien at Georgia Tech from 1995-99.
A quiet, affable sort, Hixon is a Florida native, mannerly, measured and precise on the practice field. His work and relationship with Penn State’s outstanding junior receiver Allen Robinson were reflected in Robinson’s 174 catches for 2,450 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past two seasons. (A-Rob had three grabs for 29 yards before Hixon’s arrival.)
Robinson’s success is due to himself first, then Hixon, followed by O’Brien and quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg. Hixon, who coached in the pros with Buffalo and Washington, fine-tuned Robinson’s route-running, vision and hand skills. But he also showed him the NFL way in demeanor and work ethic, and how to learn the overall value of on-the-field performance and what will be needed at the NFL combine. Hixon has been a key adviser as Robinson decides whether to turn pro by Jan. 15.
Wednesday afternoon, about 30 minutes after the former Penn State assistant coach drove his vehicle through the lot, Hixon lingered inside the Lasch lobby before finally exiting the building with his wife, Rebecca. He was carrying a large plant from his office and a few other items.
He seemed quite edgy. He was wearing a blue Penn State cap, a blue Penn State jacket and blue pants. We’ve met a number of times over the past two years and I’ve interviewed him as well, in both Beaver Stadium and on the practice fields. But to be clear, I re-introduced myself.
We chatted a bit awkwardly. “I’m still a Penn State employee,” he said. “I’ve really liked it here.”
Hixon acknowledged he’d traded texts with O’Brien, “to tell him congratulations.”
I knew that O’Brien was calling players and recruits and staff members one by one, so I asked Hixon if he’d talked with his former boss after that. Hixon hemmed and hawed and said, “Bill will talk to everyone, he’s good about that. He said he’d do it and I know he will. That’s his thing.”
I asked him point blank if he was going to Houston, to coach the Texans with O’Brien, prefacing the question with the fact that I knew he had been a pro coach with two teams and coached at LSU. He was associate head coach and receivers coach there under Belichick Tree Disciple Nick Saban when the Tigers won the 2003 national championship.
“I like it down there,” he said of the South, where he coached in Louisiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia. “I really don’t know.”
At what had to be fairly close to that moment, Audrey Snyder of PennLive.com made this post at 1:02 p.m.:
“Stan Hixon, the Nittany Lions’ assistant head coach and wide receivers coach, informed the parents of wide receiver commit De’Andre Thompkins on Wednesday morning that he will be headed with O’Brien to the Texans. Thompkins is slated to enroll at Penn State on Jan. 10 but without Hixon in the fold he and fellow wide receiver commit Chris Godwin could both be looking elsewhere.”
The Houston Chronicle later posted, unattributed, the news that Hixon was committed to coach in Houston.
I asked Hixon for his phone number and he politely declined. We shook hands, he climbed into the car and drove away with his wife, likely never to be seen in these parts again.
Awhile later, Larry Johnson Sr. arrived and made his way into the building. Wednesday morning, after a board of trustees conference call, Johnson was appointed interim head of the football program.
Johnson, who arrived at Penn State in 2000, was the last remaining member of Joe Paterno’s staff still working at PSU. Both he and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden were retained by O’Brien when O'Brien became Penn State’s head football coach in January 2012. But Vanderlinden was fired by O’Brien before the 2013 season finale, a 31-24 victory at Wisconsin, although he did coach that game.
Always a good soldier, on Wednesday Johnson was rallying the Penn State troops once again as the temporary general. He made calls to some players – Hackenberg among the first – and gathered the football support staff, many of whom have been through transition after transition now after transition over the past 27 months.
A very popular coach with a Midas touch for sending players to the NFL, Johnson will remain on staff and serve as a conduit to current players and recruits.
And, as Penn State tries to move forward in a quick and efficient fashion, he will continue to be a link to the Paterno past as well as the just-completed O’Brien present. The vehicle LJ is driving for now – Penn State football – was once almost out of gas. Not now.
Despite O'Brien's departure, it once again has the potential for a very good future.