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Q&A with BTN's Gerry DiNardo & Penn State's (Good) 'Culture of Recruiting'

by on August 23, 2015 9:00 PM

To be frank with you, Gerry DiNardo knows football.

Big Ten football and SEC football.

Football as a head coach at LSU, Indiana and Vanderbilt (where he was Coach of the Year in 1991) and as an All-American guard at Notre Dame.

And, since 2007, as a frank, knowledgeable and entertaining analyst for the Big Ten Network.

(Frankly, I'd say so even if he didn’t do the following interview.)

DiNardo and his BTN entourage were in State College on Thursday night and Friday to take in a pair of Nittany Lion practices. They chatted on- and off-the-record with second-year coach James Franklin – of whom DiNardo is a big fan -- and a few assistants and players.

On Friday morning DiNardo, Dave Revsine and Howard Griffith – the network’s football studio team and rightfully its biggest triumvirate of stars – set up shop in the northeast corner of the Lasch practice fields. There, they did on-air interviews with Franklin, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, safety Jordan Lucas and quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Lucas and Hackenberg, team captains in 2015, were articulate, polished -- both referred to the BTN questioners as “sir,” on and off camera -- and showed flashes of humor. Lucas adroitly responded to a question about Penn State’s succession of 4-, 5- and then 6-loss seasons, by calling a 4-5-6 a good thing in the dice casino game Cee-lo. And Hacklenberg handled The NFL Question with ease and at length, especially in comparison to his queasy performance at Penn State’s media day two weeks ago – even getting a chuckle with a  throwaway line about his father, Erick, keeping him focused.

Afterwards, before DiNardo and crew headed to College Park, Md., for their 10th stop on a BTN tour of Big Ten training camps, he took a few minutes to talk with me about Penn State football – covering some items he touched on while on-air (offensive line woes and that athletic director Sandy Barbour is a pro), as well as a few others.

But the biggest takeaway was his appreciation of the ever-increasing level of talent that Franklin and his staff are bringing to Penn State. DiNardo said it's fast becoming the best he’s seen in Happy Valley in a very long time.

DiNardo certainly has the credentials to know whereof he speaks.

DiNardo, who started for the 1973 Notre Dame national championship team, has a deep knowledge and appreciation of Penn State. He went to Francis Prep in his native Brooklyn, N.Y. – “Brooklyn Prep, where Joe went, was our rival” – and was in college coaching for 30 years. He was an assistant coach at Colorado for nine seasons, including 1990, when the Buffaloes won the national title. DiNardo was an offensive line coach under Bill McCartney that year, while former longtime Penn State assistant coach Ron Vanderlinden was the defensive line coach.

In DiNardo’s three seasons as head coach at Indiana in the Big Ten, his Hoosier squad lost to PSU three times: 58-25 in 2002, 52-7 in 2003 and 22-18 in 2004. The 2004 contest was DiNardo’s second-last as a coach at any level – his final came the next week at Purdue, a 63-24 loss.

Penn State’s goal line in the final two minutes of that 2004 game at Indiana, followed by a win the next week at Michigan State, gave the Nittany Lions a 4-7 record and is seen as the springboard to Penn State’s successful 11-1 campaign in 2005. It halted a six-game losing streak and very well may have saved Paterno’s job. Click here to watch the four-play goal line stand.

With that as a backdrop, here are DiNardo’s thoughts on Franklin’s 19-month run as Penn State’s head coach – and more.

Q&A: 'CULTURE OF RECRUITING'

What is your impression of Lucas and Hackenberg and how they handled themselves?

It's probably not breaking news, but every time you come here you're impressed by the players. It's also kind of a trend through the Big Ten. I don't remember ever sitting down with a Penn State player and not being impressed. The list just got bigger today. Of course, we’ve sat down with Christian before.

You couldn't wait to bring Sandy Barbour into the on-air conversation. Why?

Her experience. You look at her background. She was a coach. She got her advanced degree at Northwestern – private school. Goes to Tulane – private school. She’s been at Notre Dame – private school. Then she goes to Cal…      

…which is like a private school.

And I could say the same thing, that Penn State is kind of like a private school, too. You get to know people in the business and when you’re in coaching you can't get into a conversation with another coach without talking about their athletic director. She has a good reputation – she has a reputation of building facilities, like she did at Cal. And she has a reputation of supporting coaches, because she was a coach. The best AD’s I ever had either played or coached the game. That’s the category I put her in.

You mentioned that Penn State’s offensive line has to be of a championship caliber if Penn State ever hopes to win its division. What else must happen?

Nothing else other than steady progress. This is James’ second season and at every position they're on track to contend in the East – except the offensive line. They’re behind. However many years it takes the rest of them (to be ready to contend), it's going to take the offensive line longer.

It’s an issue. It doesn't go away because you want it to go away. It doesn't go away because you have 20 offensive linemen instead of 12. Only five can play. Unless those five are markedly different the results aren't going to be markedly different.

How tough is the Big Ten’s East Division (Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers, Indiana)?

“The division has the potential to be the best division in college football. Big Ten East, SEC West, Pac-12 South. Big Ten East might be No. 3 right now, I don’t really know…”

(Note: The SEC West includes Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Ole Miss, Texas A&M; the Pac-12 South includes Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, UCLA, USC, Utah).

“…But the Big Ten West isn't in the conversation. The SEC East isn’t the conversation. Going forward, I think the Big Ten East – because of their four rock star head coaches in a seven-team division (Franklin, Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio). That’s what you have in the SEC. That’s what it takes nowadays.”

Your BTN road show came to Penn State when Joe Paterno was here and when Bill O’Brien was here and now with James for a second season. Is there any sort of common thread?

“I think the common thread is that historically this is a place of high academics and high character, football-wise. You look at graduation rates, you look at off-field problems. This is a school that has done very well academically and has not had a lot of off-the-field problems with players. I would say whoever takes over at this place always ends up with a roster full of character. That’s a good place to start.”

You’re a long-time football coach with a knowledge base that very few other people have. Is there anything you saw here the past two days that the untrained eye wouldn't?

“The recruiting has changed. When Bo (Schembechler) and Woody (Hayes) coached, Michigan and Ohio State had better players. They were located in the states and the footprint with the best players. Then, when (Jim) Tress(ler) was at Ohio State, they always had the best players. And Urban’s a great recruiter, so that continues.

“So, when we came here I never looked at Penn State as a school under Joe – and of course Bill wasn’t here long enough – that was going to get in the four- and five-star recruiting races. It’s clear they are now.

“How? Well, look around. How can you not sell this place? And nobody sleeps. They do satellite camps. No one is allowed to be on the staff unless they're a good recruiter. They have an offensive recruiting guy, they have a defensive recruiting guy. It's the importance you place on recruiting with your staff. Everybody talks about the culture, everybody now knows that when the horn blows (at practice) you go here, so James has done that, too.

“But a staff has a culture of recruiting. And that’s certainly true of James and his staff. And I think Bill was on his way, too. He was on his way. And there was a generation where Joe was on the cutting edge – early commitments. That started here.”



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. 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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