Penn State Football’s 2011 Coaching Search: Where Are They Now?
In late December last year, Penn State’s next head football coach was going to be Tom Bradley or Brian Norwood. Or NFLers Greg Roman, Tom Clements or Mike Munchak.
Or somebody else.
We do know that Norwood and Bradley interviewed for the job. That Roman couldn't stop talking about it. That Clements wanted it. And that Munchak supposedly had it.
But, ultimately, Bill O’Brien got it.
There are a lot of reasons why – why the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator and quarterback coach became the man to succeed Joe Paterno and become Penn State’s 15th permanent head coach and its first since 1966. O’Brien impressed the six-person search committee with his preparation and professionalism. He:
-- Had a big book with a complete plan of action for the program, including which assistant coaches and staffers he planned to bring aboard.
-- Brought to the table dozen questions about the position, Penn State’s status and the scandal, as it was, at that time. (Nothing you wouldn’t expect from a man whose wife is an attorney who used to work in college athletics.)
-- Possessed a healthy respect for and knowledge of Penn State’s tradition, by doing his homework and following the program as a kid in Massachusetts. But he had no history of his own with Penn State, key if a(n almost) clean sweep was desired due to the scandal.
-- Not only respected the academic side of the house, having coached at four major college campuses, but experienced its role and purpose at schools like Brown, Georgia Tech and Duke.
-- Was a guy who knew how to put points on the board, important since Penn State had averaged just over 21 points per game the previous two seasons.
-- Was young (42), eager (worked his way up from low-level jobs at Georgia Tech and New England to become O-coordinator) and fearless (straightforward with a strong sense of self-confidence).
In retrospect, an easy decision, huh? But this is now, that was when. Whatever happened to all those coaches who were going to be the guy who turned out to be O’Brien? The past is prologue, as Shakespeare once wrote, so 50 weeks after OB was hired let’s see what happened to some of those coaches who ended up being much ado about nothing.
The following list is by no means a complete one, but it is pretty solid. The six-person search committee – headed by interim athletic director Dave Joyner and trustee Ira Lubert -- went off in many directions, putting out and receiving feelers. (Other committee members were women's volleyball coach Russ Rose, athletics’ senior woman administrator Charmelle Green and academic representatives John Nichols and Linda Caldwell.)
So while a discussion with one committee rep may have happened, that didn’t constitute a coach was being seriously considered or even interviewed, in person or by Skype, which was a big tool during the process. Let’s see where some of the coaches (in alphabetical order) considered in “the process” that resulted in O’Brien have ended up:
Tom Bradley – As interim head coach, Bradley held together the team under extreme circumstances last November and December. The amiable Penn State fixture (1975-2011 as a player and coach) interviewed with the search committee, but it came late in the process and some people involved thought he wasn’t seriously considered. He’s spent much of the past year weighing opportunities in coaching and media, and has a gig covering the Steelers on radio – and is a regular at their practices.
Tom Clements – A former Notre Dame quarterback who left law to be a coach, ascended to offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers on Feb. 2, 2012. He had been the QB coach, developing Aaron Rodgers. Under Clements, Green Bay’s offense is down 10.4 points and 56 yards per game, falling from the No. 3 offense in the NFL in 2011 to No. 17. (In contrast, New England, since O’Brien’s departure, has climbed to No. 1 from No. 2, improving four points and four yards per game.)
Larry Johnson Sr. and Ron Vanderlinden – The pair of longtime Nittany Lion assistants had discussions in December with PSU officials, but the talks were more likely about remaining on staff – which they did – than assuming the top job. They were the only coaches on the 2011 staff who O’Brien kept.
Kitchen Sink – No guarantees that everyone in this group was considered, but their names were bandied about quite a bit. They are clearly divided into the have nots and the haves. Duke’s David Cutcliffe (6-6 in 2012), Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe (5-7) and Virginia’s Mike London (4-8, with a gift-wrapped 17-16 win over PSU) had unspectacular seasons. With identical 10-2 seasons, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Louisville’s Charlie Strong had excellent years, with Swinney recording his second consecutive 10-win record and Strong taking Louisville to the Sugar Bowl against Florida.
Mike Munchak – Last season at this time, the former Penn State standout and pro football Hall of Famer, was fighting for a playoff berth in his first season as head coach of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. He didn’t make it and 2012 has been a challenge, with the Titans now 5-9 under young and unsteady quarterback Jake Locker. Munchak was a lot closer to becoming the next Penn State head coach than people realize. Former teammates had started planning for him and Munchak had feelers out for assistants, including a former Nittany Lion now coaching in the NFL who was being considered as Munchak’s D-coordinator.
Brian Norwood – The former Penn State secondary coach interviewed for the job and was also considered a candidate for HC at Hawaii. As it was, he stayed at Baylor, where he’s coached safeties for five seasons, as well as serving as defensive coordinator for three seasons and associate head coach the past two. Baylor was 7-5 in its first post-RGIII season.
Jay Paterno – The Nittany Lions’ longtime QB coach and Joe Paterno’s son had a meeting with the search committee and sat down with the new head coach, albeit briefly, after O’Brien was hired. Paterno touched thousands of people with the eulogy at his father’s funeral, then spent much of the past year in writing projects, penning a bi-weekly column for this site, and doing civic, volunteer and political work.
Bo Pelini – The Nebraska Cornhuskers' coach adamantly denied that he was interested, contacted or met about the job. But a former Nittany Lion close to the program who played a long time in the NFL told me that Pelini reached out to him. In 2012, the Cornhuskers are 10-3 overall and 7-1 in the Big Ten, having lost miserably, 70-31, to Wisconsin in the conference title game, and came from behind to beat Penn State, 32-23. No. 16 Nebraska faces No. 7 Georgia in the Capital One Bowl.
Chris Petersen – Last year at this time, Dave Jones of The Patriot News in Harrisburg reported that Penn State officials twice flew to Idaho to potentially woo Petersen, the perpetually successful Boise State coach to State College. It is a good possibility that any talks never involved Petersen directly. Petersen’s name is always on the list for top vacancies, and for good reason: in seven seasons he’s 83-8, including a 10-2 mark in 2012.
Mark Richt – The veteran (117-40) and occasionally unappreciated Georgia coach fashioned a season (11-2, 7-1) that had the Bulldogs in the national title hunt until a 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Although reported as a candidate for the Penn State job, I couldn’t verify if Richt was even a contender. I do know that one search committee member didn’t like him, based on a mutual acquaintance, and that rumors last December that Richt was being hired reverberated throughout Lasch Building.
Greg Roman – The New Jersey native and offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers didn't impress the committee, as his knowledge of Penn State football, its history or the institution were miniscule. Roman, in several media interviews, acknowledged that he talked with Penn State about the job. The 49ers, with QB phenom Colin Kaepernick, are ranked No. 11 in total offense and are 10-3-1 in 2012.
Early Urban Leader – Urban Meyer, who was out of coaching in 2011 but worked as a TV analyst, was a candidate to succeed Joe Paterno, several sources have told me. But that was before the scandal hit. Meyer had met with Graham Spanier, Penn State’s president at the time, and he was supported by Paterno. There were even talks about who would be retained from the Nittany Lion staff. But Nov. 5, 2011, changed everything. Twenty-three days later, Meyer was introduced in Columbus as the next head coach of Ohio State.
And what about that O’Brien fellow? Whatever happened to him? Only a fistful of national Coach of the Year honors, that’s all.