Penn State Football: What Al Golden’s PSU Coaching Staff Might Look Like
By Monday, Penn State’s vacant head football coach’s position could very well be filled.
Odds are, it will be a Golden hire.
If Al Golden is indeed named head coach at his alma mater, among his first staffing steps will be filling the nine full-time assistant coaching positions allowed by the NCAA.
Don't worry: Al knows who to call. Although he's only 44, since graduating from Penn State in 1991, Golden has made seven stops in six locations -- enough for a smart phone full of contacts.
So much so, that if things break the right way for Golden, he could end up with a veteran offensive staff with decades of NFL experience and seven national titles, with a wealth of previous success in the passing game. It won’t just be one coach.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions will very likely be directed by someone(s) with more than a single season experience as a D-coordinator. The odds of retaining the ever-popular Fitz are strong. And, overall, you’ll see the return to the sidelines of some coaches with PSU diplomas.
First, let’s take a peak inside Al’s GPS:
His football journey has covered four college football conferences, a stint with an indepdent and a year each in the NFL (1992, New England) and high school coaching (Red Bank, N.J., 1993). He’s had college coaching stints with Penn State, Virginia (twice), Boston College, Temple and Miami (Fla.) – serving as head coach at the last two, including 2011-2013 with the Hurricanes. And that’s not to mention the four seasons he was a defensive tackle and then tight end at Penn State, lettering in 1988-91.
Very soon, Golden may be assembling his ninth coaching staff (at three schools) since 2006. He is accustomed to the task. That counts for a lot. In 2006, he had to hire a set of new coaches when he became head coach at Temple. And he did it again in 2011, when he moved to Miami. There are only the aforementioned nine assistant slots, and while you can cover five offensive line positions with one coach, quarterback demands its own coach. Some head coaches double up as position or special teams coaches (like Ohio State’s Urban Meyer). Not Golden. His Miami staff is broken down this way:
OFFENSE – Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks; tight ends; running back; offensive line; wide receiver/national recruiting coordinator.
DEFENSE – Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator; defensive line; linebackers; defensive backs.
Cash will also be a consideration. Under Joe Paterno, Penn State’s staff ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in remuneration. The PSU pay scale got a boost when Bill O’Brien came in with a wide range of college and pro assistants, in near-panic circumstances in 2012. Those coaches also got a substantial raise again last January. The higher pay levels will help Golden sign the best-available assistants, especially if he wants to reach into the pro ranks. Besides, Penn State has a check for $6.7 million from the Texans floating around somewhere.
Now, onto the good stuff. Who will Al bring aboard?
The following is a best guess, with a wish or two, after evaluating Golden’s current coaching staff at Miami, as well as the 2013 Penn State staff. I reviewed the 60 alumni listed as “Penn State Graduates in Football Coaching” section in Penn State’s football media guide. To me, a PSU-related candidate won’t be Golden if he has zero coaching experience. Sorry, LaVar Arrington and Kerry Collins.
I also looked at the coaching rosters at each of Golden’s stops since 1994 and, for the heavier hitters, tracked down where they are today. CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG ALERT: That produced a gem in Bill Musgrave, who was the offensive coordinator at Virginia when Golden was defensive coordinator there in the early 2000s. A highly respected pro offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, and six-year NFL QB, Musgrave was recently let go by the Minnesota Vikings in conjunction with the firing of Leslie Frazier. Perhaps a Siri-ous call from Al to Bill is in order?
COACHING STAFF BREAKDOWN
HEAD COACH – Al Golden
WIDE RECEIVER – A home run here. Penn State legend Bobby Engram just completed his second season coaching the WRs at Pitt. He would mean a great deal to PSU passing, not only with the receivers but with Hackenberg as well. In 2012, for the first time, the Panthers had two starting wide receivers named to All-Big East the same season. In 2013, Tyler Boyd had 85 grabs for 1,174 yards. Engram was an all-time great as a Penn State player – a three-time All-American and the inaugural recipient of the Biletnikoff Award – and played 14 years in the NFL.
WR Back-up: Terry Smith, wide receivers coach at Temple in 2013, would be a great connection to Western PA, where Penn State has lagged the past two seasons under O’Brien. Smith was head football coach at Gateway for 11 seasons, with a 101-30 record. (Don’t worry: I have an idea for Smith later on.)
TIGHT ENDS – Right now in Miami, Larry Scott coaches the TEs and the 2013 season was his first with Golden. It will also be his last. Brennan Carroll coaches Golden’s wide receivers and is his national recruiting coordinator. ADAM BRENEMAN ALERT: With Engram on board, Carroll would have to shift to tight ends. That may even be better. Carroll played one year at Delaware, then three years at Pitt, where he was a reserve TE and on special teams. Oh, and you know his dad – Seahawks and former USC coach Pete Carroll. Brennan was on Pete’s USC staff for eight seasons, the last six full-time, and was part of two national titles. He coached tight ends for the Trojans from 2004-10.
OFFENSIVE LINE – Two legendary options. Pick one. Penn State’s Mac McWhorter is one of the nation’s best at this spot, as a tactician and psychologist. Word is he might stay, if asked. Al needs to ask. If Mac declines, Golden should do all he can to convince Art Kehoe to come back to his home state. Kehoe, a 1982 Miami grad, has coached the Hurricanes’ O-line for 29 years, playing a key role in five national titles and two Heisman Trophy winners. He’s coached seven All-Americans, including Leon Searcy and Bryant McKinnie. He might just head north: Kehoe is a native of Conshohocken, Pa.
RUNNING BACKS – Miami's RB coach, Hurlie Brown, is a Florida native and just finished his first year as an on-the-field coach for Golden, so it is unlikely Brown will coach the Blue and White. But someone from Golden's past might. For much of Golden’s tenure at Virginia, Anthony Poindexter was the RB coach. He’s still there, but now coaching the safeties. Poindexter played a few years in the NFL and has had his No. 3 jersey retired at UVA. He’s also been special teams coordinator, too, working directly with the Cavaliers’ kickers.
RB Back-ups: A great choice, but perhaps too expensive, is Gary Brown, who coached at Rutgers for six years; was an offensive coordinator at Susquehanna University for two years; has coached in the NFL the past six seasons (2013 with Dallas); played eight years in the NFL; rushed for 1,321 yards at Penn State; and is a native of Williamsport. There’s also PSU alum and State College native Jeff Nixon, who is the Miami Dolphins’ RB coach.
QUARTERBACKS/OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR – Under Golden, this is typically one job. Which is often a good thing, allowing the head coach to manage, and not neglect, all three phases of the game. James Coley, 40, performs both functions now for Miami. He came over from Florida State, where he was O-coordinator in name, but head coach Jimbo Fisher called the plays. (Miami’s QB/OC coach in 2011-12, Jedd Fisch, is with the NFL’s Jaguars.) Coley, who’s had stints at LSU and with the Dolphins under Nick Saban, was the OC/QB coach for Florida International in 2007. His resume is sound.
QB/OC Back-ups: These are of the longer-shot variety. Musgrave is an intriguing choice. He was a great quarterback at Oregon; after playing in the NFL, he’s had seven pro stops. His only college coaching gig was with Golden in 2001-02. Then there’s Mike Groh. He was on the staff with Golden at Virginia, where the head coach was Mike’s dad, Al. Mike was the quarterback and kicker for Randolph High School and made the game-winning FG for the 1990 state championship. He was a starting QB for Virginia, and then coached there for seven seasons, before coaching stops in Alabama and Louisville. He was the WR coach for the Chicago Bears n 2013. Darkhorse: Ron Prince, Rutgers’ offensive coordinator in 2013, was a Virginia OC – a few years sharing duties with Musgrave – when Golden was there. He was 17-20 as head coach at Kansas State, where he was fired in a messy exit in 2008. He’s not a QB coach.
DEFENSIVE LINE – Keep Larry Johnson. No brainer. LJ (D-line) and Golden (LBs) were on the Penn State staff together in 2000, Golden’s sole season as a PSU assistant.
DEFENSIVE BACKS – This is a given. Paul Williams is a trusted soldier of Golden’s. He has coached the defensive backs all eight seasons Golden has been a college head coach (Temple 2006-10, Miami 2011-13). A native of Delaware, he played for the Blue Hens. He was a college assistant at four stops – Lafayette, Penn, Delaware and Western Michigan – before connecting with Golden. He knows how to recruit this region and can do so immediately. He’s also coached special teams.
LINEBACKERS – Current Miami LB coach Micheal Barrow, a 13-year NFL veteran, also played for the 'Canes and was with the team before Golden arrived. He'll be there after Al leaves. HULL AND BELL ALERT: Mark D’Onofrio was a “Linebacker U” star. Along with Golden, he was a 1991 co-captain. He led Penn State in sacks (11) as a sophomore and tackles (71) as a junior. A New Jersey native, his Penn State roots are deep and so is his connection with Golden; the two were college roommates. D’Onofrio has been Golden’s defensive coordinator for all eight of his seasons at Temple and Miami. For the past six years, he’s also been the assistant head coach. Here’s the rub: Miami’s defense has been heavily criticized – and justifiably so. Over the past two years, the Hurricanes have been awful in the top four major defensive categories: total defense (116th in 2012, 89th in 2013), pass defense (102nd, 90th), rushing defense (112th, 77th) and points allowed (82nd, 65th).
There’s a little doubt that D’Onofrio will come to Penn State with Golden. The question: Which is thicker, a near-blood brother or an overall obligation to their new employer and old alma mater? The last thing Golden needs when he comes to town is to face criticism that Penn State roots are stronger than performance. Both Golden and D’Onofrio need to be bigger than their friendship. A possible solution...
CO-COORDINATOR – D’Onofrio saves face back in Beaver Stadium, Golden gets to bring along his most trusted assistant and the defense gets the extra helps it needs after the stop-gap years of Ted Roof and John Butler. During the last head coach’s search, longtime Green Bay safeties coach Darren Perry expressed interest in the top job. Maybe this time around he’d return in a different capacity – as safeties coach and co-coordinator (or, if Golden can look at things pragmatically, sole coordinator; D’Onofrio could still be assistant head coach).
Golden and D’Onofrio know Perry – he was team co-captain with them in 1991, and he led Penn State in interceptions in 1990 (7) and 1991 (6). He then played 10 years in the NFL -- seven with Pittsburgh, where he had 32 picks – before embarking on a pro coaching career with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Oakland and the Packers. He’s learned the defensive coaching game from some of the best-ever in NFL history: Bill Cowher, Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers. Players like Lucas, Amos, Della Valle and Golden -- as in Malik; no relation -- would PSU their pants at the prospect of being coached by the likes of Perry. (Important note: Under my scheme, Perry is in addition to Williams, who with Perry’s presence can coach cornerbacks plus direct recruiting or handle special teams; see below.)
SPECIAL TEAMS – Williams (DB coach) and Poindexter (RB coach) can easily split it. They’ve both been ST coaches in the past. Williams oversees defensive situations – punt, kickoff, defending FGs, PATs and two-point conversions. Easy to remember and Williams will already be in the defensive flow. Poindexter oversees the offensive situations – punt return, kickoff return, FGs, PATs and two-point conversions. Or, with Perry aboard, Williams might be able to handle the whole thing.
RECRUITING – This is a tough one. And very crucial. Typically, one of the nine fulltime assistants is the point person, while a staff of non-coaches do the dirty work. Perhaps Johnson, Williams or Poindexter, all of whom know the Mid-Atlantic well and have covered it for years, will serve as the point. D’Onofrio could do that as well, depending on Golden’s structuring. Engram is also a good option. Carroll could still handle the national emphasis as he did in Miami. A great hire by Golden would be to bring in Smith not to coach, but to be the hub of the wheel, like Bill Kavanaugh was. A very important (re)hire for Golden will be keeping recruiting administrator Brenna Mathers, a very key player in the revamped and effective recruiting structure O’Brien put into place and one that Golden should appropriate in some fashion.
STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING – Craig Fitzgerald doesn’t seem like a pro guy. O’Brien tried to get him to the Patriots years ago. As a Philly native with monster energy, he’ll relate to D’Onofrio and also is in the same age and strategy-smart wheelhouse of Golden. The players love him and the feeling is mutual. A family man with three boys, he may not want to relocate again – especially since he is so close now to his roots. Miami’s strength coach, Andreu Swasey, is a Miami institution and unlikely to move. And the Houston Texans’ Cedric Smith was the 2013 NFL Strength and Conditioning Coach of the year. No matter. If Golden can get Fitz to stay, that may be his best hire.
KEY AIDES – There are two more keepers along the lines of LJ: Veteran equipment manager Spider Caldwell literally washed Golden’s socks and underwear when he was a player and assistant coach, so no one knows Al’s dirty laundry at Penn State better than him. And Golden will find that no person on the above list will work crisper or smarter than Christine Laur, the executive assistant to the head coach. She’s the Spider of Lasch’s second floor. Together, they will be two of the new head coach's best reality checks – because no matter who’s on staff, there will be times all is not Golden.