Penn State Football: Why Whittingham or Petersen Won’t Be Penn State’s Next Head Coach
Academic values and football success. A rare balance and a rare combination.
It is what Penn State’s search committee hopes to find in the school’s new head coach. It is what Joe Paterno had personified for 46 years.
The pressure on the six-person search committee to find someone who can ensure both is especially severe.
Why? The football coaches who can achieve both – and do so within the boundaries of the rules and the law – are few and far between.
Throw in strictly playing by NCAA rules and you get an idea of the gargantuan task of the committee, headed by acting athletic director and PSU alumnus Dr. Dave Joyner.
Take Kyle Whittingham, the University of Utah head coach who is the latest flavor of the day in Penn State’s hunt for a new coach.
Take him, because I doubt Penn State will.
Since he coached the Utes’ bowl game in 2004, Whittingham has had a 65-25 record, with six bowl bowl victories. Penn State, over the same time frame, has been 68-22, with four bowl wins. (For comparison’s sake, we’ll ignore the difference between the Big Ten and the Mountain West, Utah’s conference until entering the Pac 12 this season.)
The classroom is a bit…a lot…different.
According to a study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) that used the most recently available six-year graduation statistics, Utah has graduated 62 percent of its football players and 52 percent of its African-American football players. That’s measurably below the average of the 70 teams playing in BCS bowl games this year – 68 percent and 61 percent.
I said “below the average,” in case you missed it.
It is important to note that the bulk of the graduation stats were not compiled when Whittingham was head coach. But every piece of Utah's data came during his 10 years as defensive coordinator. So I think he can “own” those decidedly sub-par numbers.
And they are numbers I do not think the Penn State committee would feel comfortable trotting out at an introductory press conference any time soon.
As you might surmise, those Utah numbers pale to what Paterno’s teams achieved at Penn State. According to the TIDES study, Penn State’s overall graduation rate for football players is 87 percent overall and 89 percent for African-American players.
Simply put, that means for every 10 African-American players at Whittingham's school, Utah graduates five. And Penn State – under Paterno -- graduated nine.
I can’t see how Penn State, with its proud football history of racial equality that boasts the 1948 Cotton Bowl as a seminal event in college athletics, can hire a coach who was a key member of a program that graduates only half of its African-American players.
NEXT UP, CHRIS PETERSEN
Now, let’s take Chris Petersen, the coach of Boise State who is also a popular name on message boards.
While playing mostly in the weak Western Athletic Conference (save for the Mountain West this season), Boise State has been 72-6. And Boise scores better than Utah in the TIDES results, too – a graduation percentage of 74 percent overall and 67 percent for African-Americans. But…
But…as part of a five-sport NCAA investigation, Petersen’s football program was found guilty of several infractions that happened during is watch. As a result, his team is under a three-year probation, with a reduction in scholarships and spring practices.
Yeah, that's exactly what Penn State needs: A new coach on a first-name basis with the NCAA investigators.
In my mind, scratch both Whittingham and Petersen.
IT'S (NOT JUST) ACADEMIC
It’s appropriate here to say a few words about the two “eggheads” on the search committee – a pair of academics who are actually very athletically oriented.
Dr. Linda Caldwell, while the NCAA faculty representative for Penn State since 2010, is an international expert in “youth development through leisure, leisure and health, and prevention.” Geez, sounds like exactly what college athletics are supposed to be all about.
I’ve known Dr. John Nichols since I was a Penn State undergrad in 1979. Now retired, he was an administrative superior when he served as the associate dean in Penn State’s College of Communications – home of my day job.
A Minnesota Gopher by education, his overall knowledge of college athletics on and off the field dwarfs mine by volumes. He is co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an alliance of university faculty senates founded in 2002 to provide a faculty voice in the national discussion about the future of intercollegiate sports.
(BTW, in case you were wondering: Nichols has not given me an ounce of insider’s info -- verbal, digital or otherwise -- about the committee’s proceedings.)
They are keeping a sharp eye on the academic proceedings of the search. Along with Erickson, of course. Boy, is he ever.
Before ascending to the presidency, he was the longtime provost at Penn State. That means he's the No. 1 academic officer if the university and, as such, had an excellent, measured and earnest reputation. Last week in USA Today Erickson threw down the gauntlet that he does not want Penn State to be known as a football school, but rather “a world-class institution.”
That means, I guess, Penn State football won’t be at the forefront of almost everything the university does. That’s a true change of course in almost everything Penn State has done for at least 30 years, since the Nittany Lions won their first national championship. And you can make a case – as I did in the classroom the past four years – that has been the case ever since Paterno delivered the commencement address in 1973.
Football’s relationship to the university’s positive identification has been cradle to grave. Until Nov. 4, 2011.
Cradle: Ask an incoming Penn State freshman, as I do in my First-Year Seminar classes, why they picked Penn State. A large minority will tell you because of football, Paterno and, most of all, the spirit displayed by students in Beaver Stadium.
Grave: Paterno was the keynote speaker – nay, cheerleader -- in Bryce Jordan Center on April 23, 2010, when Penn State rolled out its latest fundraising campaign. It’s a venture with a goal of $2 billion.
That night, Paterno stood on stage, raised both hands like pistols and pointed with his index fingers to the older, richer audience of 1,000 alumni and loyal supporters: “The good news is, we’ve got the money. The bad news is that it’s in your pocket.”
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE MONEY
Ah, the money.
Penn State is one of less than 20 major universities whose athletic departments are totally self-sustaining; that is, it pays their own bills without getting money from the general university fund.
Most universities get dollars from the overall university coffers, generally from student fees that can go into the thousands of dollars. For example, two years ago, Temple’s athletic department got $11 million from the university to fund its programs.
By last count, in 2010-11, Intercollegiate Athletics at Penn State pulled in $116 million, according to the U.S Department of Education. (Land Grant or not, Title IX requires Penn State to report such things.) It’s unlikely that if there is an athletics budget shortfall on June 30, 2012, when Penn State’s current fiscal year ends, that Joyner will get any money from Old Main.
Erickson will be doing all he can to just maintain what it got from the Pennsylvania state legislators for the 2011-2012 fiscal year – which was $279 million, a cut of $68 million, or 19.6 percent. Those legislators are already on high alert after the events of the past five weeks.
Every penny counts.
Unless Penn State athletics makes its nut -- or Terry Pegula's debit card still works on campus -- Penn State’s incredibly robust program of 31 varsity sports and a wide-ranging recreation and sports empire might have to be cut. And that wouldn’t just impact dozens athletes in, say, golf and tennis, but almost every single one of the 93,000 students at Penn State’s University Park and its commonwealth campus all around the state.
In this way, and more than others, Joyner may be the man for the job. He came into the job already knowing all about Penn State athletics and money.
A former member of Penn State’s board of trustee, Joyner stepped down to assume the acting athletic director position. A star wrestler and football player as a Penn State undergraduate, Joyner graduated from Penn State’s medical school.
He also was the volunteer chair of the five-year “Success with Honor – A Campaign for the Penn State Way” fundraising campaign that ended in 2008 and raised $128 million for Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics.
That money only goes so far.
Football, with its infusion of cash from STEP, grossed $72.7 million in 2010-2011. And it was a wildly popular Mom and JoePa venture, with expenses of “just” $19.5 million. Paterno kept a notoriously tight fist with expenses, from travel to salaries to perks. He didn’t discriminate; the guy didn’t drive a company car.
In that sense, he was a money machine for his former protégé, Tim Curley – now on leave as Penn State’s athletic director. Last year, Penn State football made an operating profit of $53.2 million. On an overall athletic department budget of $116 million, that’s a helluva margin. And ROJ – Return On Joe.
A LOT MORE THAN VARSITY SPORTS
Here’s the domain of which Curley was master, and that is now under Joyner’s direction. Football funds a lot more than the field hockey sticks Paterno always used to kid about. This is from Curley’s official bio still on GoPSUsports.com:
“The Athletics physical plant has improved substantially under Curley's watch. The Nittany Lion Softball Park, golf clubhouse, soccer practice fields and men's and women's basketball offices are among projects recently completed or under construction.
“The most recently completed capital project was a new baseball stadium -- Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. The Penn State baseball team shares the state-of-the-art facility with a short-season minor league team -- the State College Spikes. Curley played a significant role in developing the unique partnership for the construction of the 5,406-seat stadium, which opened in June 2006.
“Curley also oversees the expansive intramural/club sport programs -- which included a fourth consecutive national championship in men's ice hockey in 2003 and five women's rugby national titles since 2000 -- on the University Park campus, as well as general recreational activities. He's charged as well with responsibility for the athletic and recreational programs at the Penn State Commonwealth Campuses.”
All that, and more, is a big reason the new Penn State football coach has to win. Now. Penn State athletics – and all that it entails -- needs the cash.
A losing Nittany Lion football team that sees a drop in attendance of 10,000 fans per home game could easily lose an extra $8 to $10 million a year, taking seat licenses, tickets, parking and incidentals into consideration.
That’s the bottom-line. And so is this:
No matter how you look at it, a wrong decision by the search committee could be costly. Very costly indeed.
Tomorrow: Ten NFL Coaches Penn State Should Think About Interviewing