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Penn State Football: Franklin and O'Brien Staffs Linked By One Degree of Separation

by on January 21, 2014 12:20 AM

John Strollo and Ricky Rahne represent more than the out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new for Penn State’s football coaching staffs.

They were also former coach and player together for one season at Cornell.

And now, they’re the tip of the iceberg as far as ties between James Franklin’s new staff at Penn State and the one Bill O’Brien had with the Nittany Lions in 2012-13.

Overall, five of Penn State’s new coaches – including Franklin himself – coached with or played for six of Penn State’s old coaches, including O’Brien. Former Nittany Lion linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden actually hired Franklin in 2000 to be an assistant at Maryland, where Vanderlinden was head coach.

It was a big break for Franklin, who had coached the five previous seasons at five schools from coast to coast – Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, James Madison, Washington State and Idaho State. Vandy was fired by Maryland after that 2000 season and landed at Penn State, but Franklin stayed at Maryland for over a decade, through 2011, when he left the Terrapins to become head coach at Vanderbilt. (Some reports indicate that Vanderlinden may return to the Terps in 2014 as the defensive coordinator.)

When Franklin succeeded O’Brien as Penn State’s 16th head coach, he was asked whether he thought about hiring Larry Johnson and Vanderlinden, who was fired at the end of the 2013 season by O’Brien.

“Yes, I have. I’m a guy that for the last 12 years has been creating a staff,” Franklin said at his introductory press conference on Jan. 11. “I have a list of receiver coaches and tight end coaches and offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators for the right job and the right fit and the right setting, making sure that we’re always prepared. That’s something you’re going to find from me – we’re going to work very, very hard to be prepared for every situation that may come up.

“I am fiercely loyal as a person in general, and I’m going to be fiercely loyal to the guys that I’ve worked with in the past. But I also know that we’re going to sit down and have some discussions with some people that are here. I think there are some people that can help us in the transition -- guys that have strong Penn State ties, guys that understand this place.

“Although we had a plan that was very effective at Vanderbilt, you also better have a plan that is specific to that institution. When you have people that have a history and understand the place, they can help with that. So I’m looking forward to getting a chance to sit down with the coaches, as well as some of the administration and put together the very best staff that we possibly can put together for Penn State University.”

Franklin opted not to hire his old boss, instead bringing to Penn State eight former Vandy assistant coaches, as well as Dwight Galt, Vanderbilt’s strength and conditioning coach. Franklin’s other assistant coach hire was former Penn State wide receiver Terry Smith, who coached Temple in 2013 and Duquesne in 1997-2000.

Strollo was the last hold-over from Bill O’Brien’s coaching staff after offensive line coach Mac McWhorter opted to retire and Johnson went to Ohio State. Strollo, Penn State’s tight end coach the past two seasons, returned this week to Ball State, where he’ll coach the offensive line -- just as he did in 2011. 

Rahne is Franklin’s quarterbacks coach. And Rahne was quite the QB himself at Cornell, throwing for over 7,500 yards and 54 touchdowns as a three-year starter. His final year with the Big Red was 2001. And his offensive coordinator that year? John Strollo. Cornell was 2-7 that season, averaging 20.8 points per game. Rahne graduated that spring, while Strollo stayed at Cornell until 2003, then made four more coaching stops before landing at Penn State with O’Brien in 2012.


Here are the other one-degree of separation ties between Penn State’s new staff (listed first) and the old:

Franklin and Galt – at Maryland (2003-04), with O’Brien. Franklin coached the wide receivers and was recruiting coordinator, while Galt was head of S&C. O’Brien coached the running backs.

John Donovan, PSU offensive coordinator – at Georgia Tech, with O’Brien (1998-2000), as well as McWhorter (2000), wide receivers coach Stan Hixon (1998-1999) and 2012 PSU defensive coordinator Ted Roof (1998-2000). Donovan is a long-time good friend of O’Brien’s and had O’Brien not left Penn State for the NFL, Donovan would have likely been in the mix in some capacity to replace PSU QB coach Charlie Fisher, who was fired after the 2013 season.

Herb Hand, PSU offensive line coach – at Vanderbilt, with Fisher in 2010. Hand went to Vandy from Tulsa, having been hired by Commodores head coach Robbie Caldwell, who was a one-year stop-gap after previous Vandy head coach Bobby Johnson quit that summer. Vanderbilt went 2-10, Caldwell resigned near the end of the season, and Franklin was hired. Fisher, who coached at Vanderbilt from 2002-2010, mostly overseeing the passing game, was not retained and had a one-year stint at Miami (Ohio) before coming to Penn State in 2012.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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