Is it Time for James Franklin to Hire Another Penn Stater as an Assistant Coach?
It will be quite the discussion in Delta Ballroom A at 8:30 Tuesday morning at the American Football Coaches Association convention, being held at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville.
There, in one of the final sessions of the annual AFCA convention, James Franklin will take the stage with fellow head coaches Sonny Dykes of SMU and Dave Clawson of Wake Forest.
The topic? Culture.
The sub-text: Turnarounds.
“It’s not X’s and O’s,” says the program for the convention, which draws 6,000 football coaches from all levels from across America, “but the talks focus on the culture and mindset they ingrain in the people within their programs.”
All three head coaches are repeated experts at quickly reversing the fortunes of a college football program. Under Sykes, Louisiana Tech went from 5-7 in his first season to 9-3 in his last; Cal (where Sykes was hired by Sandy Barbour) went from 1-11 to 8-5; and SMU went from 5-7 to 10-3.
Clawson is just as #awesome: He took Fordham from 0-11 to 9-3; Richmond from 3-8 to 11-3; Bowling Green from 7-6 to 10-3; and Wake Forest from 3-9 to 8-5.
You know what Franklin has done, at both Vanderbilt and Penn State. Very praise-worthy, indeed. And in deed. (Read my six-year anniversary recap of CFP's reign here.)
Franklin’s challenge now is to keep that culture going, especially on the second floor of Lasch Building where the coaches spend most of their time. It may be the toughest task this offseason. He’s already lost three assistant coaches, three graduate assistants and an offensive analyst (turned interim QB coach) in the past month.
Gerad Parker is the latest. With Parker's departure late last week, Franklin will now be on his fourth wide receivers coach in as many seasons.
Instability like that has very real-world, immediate and long-term implications for a culture built on family, loyalty, consistency and tradition:
The Penn State wide receiver room past, present and future has lost transfers Juwan Johnson, Brandon Polk and Justin Shorter in the past two seasons, as well as missing out on super-elite PA high school WR recruits Julian Fleming and Marvin Harrison Jr. (both to Ohio State…ugh). As for KJ Hamler, I think he would've gone pro no matter who the wide receivers coach was/is (and, I believe, KJ made the right decision).
Relationships matter. As Franklin told me three summers ago, it his most important word.
NOT PARKED FOR LONG
Parker, who just turned 39 last week, was hired to be Penn State’s wide receivers coach on January 10, 2019, and he left town to be take over as West Virginia’s offensive coordinator/WR coach on January 10, 2020.
We shoulda, kinda seen this coming.
From January 2017 to this Friday — a period of 1,100 days — Parker has been at six schools: Purdue, Cincinnati (for three weeks), East Carolina (for four days), Duke, Penn State and West Virginia. A native of Kentucky who played at the University of Kentucky, Parker did have a connection to Penn State: Ju’Juan Seider. Seider, who was hired as Penn State’s running back in January 2018, coached in 2011-12 with Parker at Marshall. In West Virginia.
Overall, five fulltime assistant coaches have left Penn State — of their own volition or by being released or by mutual agreement — in the past 13 months. And eight have departed in the past 25 months.
With all that movement, it will be a challenge for Franklin — who began Year Seven at Penn State on Saturday — to keep his culture, and the resultant 42-11 record over the past four seasons, going. As Franklin himself said near the end of the 2019 regular season, “the most telling statistic is consistency.” These days, that extends to the coaches meeting room.
Counting new hires Kirk Ciarrocca, Phil Trautwein and the to-be-named wide receivers coach, Franklin will have had 21 different fulltime assistant coaches in a little over six years. Not counting the three newbies, the average tenure of the remaining 18 has been 3.1 years as a FT assistant. Three of the last five departures — Parker, Phil Galiano (promoted from an analyst’s job) and David Corley — lasted one season as full-timers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average amount of time an employee stays in a job in the United States these days is 3.6 years. So, the average Penn State assistant coach tenure is pretty average. But, is average OK?
There are plenty of counterpoints: Franklin has said he is fine with coaches leaving for jobs that are “not lateral.” Parker’s is a promotion. Places like Alabama turn over much more rapidly (including former Franklin aides Charles Huff and Josh Gattis) and they’re doing more than OK. And there is stability: Brent Pry, Sean Spencer and Terry Smith have been at PSU for all six of Franklin’s seasons, with Tim Banks not far behind at four.
So, this seems to be just an offensive “problem.”
In the words of a Penn State professor friend of mine who left some prominent opportunities in private industry to return to State College to raise his family and teach (in a non-tenured track position), the goal “is to hire someone for whom this is a meaningful destination.”
Ciarrocca seems like a long-termer. He’s from Pennsylvania (south of York) and 54 years old; this could be his last stop. And, if not, it may be a long stop — unless he has head coaching aspirations. When he talks to the media, we’ll find out the answer to that one.
And Trautwein is from New Jersey, so PA is pretty close to his roots, though he played his college ball at Florida. Of course, at age 33, he’s still on the upward trajectory of his career. So Happy Valley is not his final stop. Plus, tucked away in his resume is a two-week stop at Yale, which he left in quick order when a spot at Boston College opened up. He is obviously a man with a plan.
From a Yale press release at the time: “I’m thrilled to be part of the Bulldog family. Growing up in New Jersey, I was aware of the tradition and heritage of Yale Football,” said Trautwein. “This is a special place, and I’m excited about the opportunity to be a part of something great.”
From a recent Penn State press release: "Growing up in New Jersey, I was always a fan of Penn State. It was the best academic and athletic university in the country then, and it remains so today," Trautwein said.
TIME FOR ANOTHER LION?
Maybe it’s time to for Franklin to consider adding another Nittany Lion to his staff.
Right now, Smith has been the only Penn State alum who has coached under Franklin. (Props go to CJF for having had, at one time, former Lions Andrew Goodman and Justin King on his recruiting staff and PSU alum Matt Fleischacker as a GA.)
Franklin, a Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart, has had a wealth of assistants from the Commonwealth; in addition to the four now, there have been Bob Shoop, Joe Moorhead, Galiano and Limegrover. The first two were stars.
And who knows, the next man (up) Franklin hires to coach the wide receiver may be a PA native as well.
Franklin did, after all, recently interview Moorhead protege Andrew Breiner — JoeMo’s successor as head coach at Fordham and his QB coach at Mississippi State — when searching for Rahne’s successor. Breiner is a native of PA, played at Hershey High School and also at Lock Haven University. A job at Penn State would definitely be meaningful for the 35-year-old, who coached wide receivers at Lock Haven, Allegheny and UConn.
It also may mean more for a former Nittany Lion as well.
In a different era, football coaches stayed at Penn State — former players and otherwise. In Joe Paterno’s final 20 seasons, he had a grand total of eight assistant coaches leave for other jobs, three of which were head coaching positions (and two of the other five eventually became head coaches as well).
Curious about how populated other high-profile units at Penn State are with alumni, I researched two — Penn State Board of Trustees and the Penn State athletic department. Here’s what I found:
Of the 33 voting members of the BOT who are not ex-officio members or trustees emeritus, 31 have at least one Penn State degree.
Penn State athletics’ top leadership is large group comprised of 28 members — these include anyone with a VP title (Sandy Barbour), deputy directors (two), senior associate athletic directors (four), associate athletic directors (five) and assistant athletic directors (16). Of those 28, according to my research, nine have a Penn State degree.
A Penn State degree is a good thing. I say that as an alumni director at Penn State, and as one of 700,000-plus alumni with a PSU degree.
With that in mind, I offer up a few former Penn State football players as candidates for the vacancy at wide receiver coach or as a DB coach, if Franklin would incorporate a double switch by moving Smith to wide receiver coach; he starred there as a co-captain at Penn State for the 11-2 1991 Nittany Lions, when he had 55 receptions and eight TDs. Smith also coached wide receivers at Temple.
If Franklin opted to move Smith to the offensive side of the ball, it would add some real stability and play to Smith’s hidden strength; his years coaching cornerbacks would be a real asset to the PSU WRs. It would also open up a slot on the defensive side to bring in such former Nittany Lions as Tom Bradley, D’Anton Lynn or Michael Zordich. Wow, that’s a helluva candidate pool for all of college football, Penn Staters or not.
To be honest, the Penn State secondary could use the help. In three of the final five games of 2019, it gave up 339 (Minnesota), 371 (Indiana) and 479 (Memphis) passing yards.
A final bottom-line consideration: A Penn State hire may make dollars as well as sense. Another Nittany Lion on the staff would certainly be a prime, new selling point in support of the lofty fund-raising goals of the football program.
ELEVEN NAMES TO CONSIDER
Tom Bradley — Part of a double-switch, moving Smith to WRs. (In a neat twist, Bradley actually recruited Smith to PSU.) Bradley has been the Steelers DB coach the past two seasons; in the NFL in 2019, Pittsburgh’s secondary ranked No. 3 in fewest passing yards, No. 2 in interceptions and No. 3 in fewest completions. Likely, he could figure out Indiana and Memphis. He’s been the DC at UCLA and PSU (as well as interim HC), and was associate HC at West Virginia. As DC at Penn State from 2000-11, his defense was ranked in the Top 15 in total defense and scoring defense six years in a row.
Gary Brown — If a RB coach like Corley can coach WRs, why can’t Brown? He’s been the RB coach for the Cowboys since 2013, and with a new HC his situation is unsettled, at least publicly. A native of Williamsport, Brown ran for over 1,000 yards at Penn State and for 4,300 in the NFL. That’s real cred. He’s coached collegiately at Lycoming, Susquehanna and Rutgers. His daughter is a PSU student as well. Like the next guy on this list, Brown is likely a reach...
Bobby Engram — Super credentials. Best Penn State WR ever, three-time all-Big Ten. Fourteen years in the NFL: 650-7,751-35 TDs. Currently coaching the Baltimore Ravens, and has been an NFL coach since 2011 with San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. There's no doubting that Franklin has talked with Engram in the past, but it is equally very likely that Engram told CJF that would need a title to make the jump. Maybe a co-OC with Ciarrocca?
Kenny Jackson — Has all the credentials. Excellent pro career with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Fantastic two-time All-American career at Penn State. Really smart and kid-savvy. Coached WRs eight seasons at Penn State, developing Engram, Freddie Scott and Joe Jurevicius.
D’Anton Lynn — Another Smith double-move. Lynn was a starting CB for Penn State for the good part of three seasons (tutored by Bradley), and has spent the past nine seasons as an assistant in the NFL — the past two as assistant DB coach for Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans. Only 31 and a Texas native, he would be quite the asset on the recruiting trail.
John McNulty — A PA native and walk-on safety at Penn State, McNulty consulted with Franklin this fall. Twice the offensive coordinator at Rutgers, he’s coached quarterbacks and/or receivers with six NFL teams, including Jacksonville, Dallas, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and San Diego. That’ll play on the recruiting trail.
Derek Moye — Moye led Penn State in receiving three consecutive seasons (2009-11). A PA native and state track and field champion, he had a cup of coffee in the NFL. In 2019, he was the head coach of the West Beaver High School football team, leading it to a 7-3 record, its best mark since 2008. Moye spent the 2018 season as the WR coach for the Aliquippa Quips, which won the Class 3A WPIAL and PIAA championships.
Jay Paterno — A longtime PSU assistant and lifelong Penn Stater, he was at his best as the passing game coordinator and QB coach in 2005 and 2008-09, when Penn State won a share of two Big Ten titles and went a whopping 33-5. Quarterback Michael Robinson was named the Big Ten’s top offensive player in 2005, while Clark was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten QB and shared the league MVP award in 2009. The 2008 team averaged 38.9 points per game, in elite company with the explosive offenses of 1994 (43.8), 2016 (37.6) and 2017 (41.1). A former recruiting coordinator at PSU, no one knows Penn State football better — though he is currently on the BOT, so he may not be eligible.
Terry Smith — Smith enters his seventh season on the staff of his alma mater. To the offense, he would add stability, consistency, experience and great mentorship. Given the turnover at this position — among coaches and players — those are essential qualities.
Michael Zordich — Another a double switch. And a good one. A former All-American safety at PSU, Zordich has coached the DBs at Michigan since 2015 after several years coaching the NFL Eagles. His son Michael (2012 team stalwart), daughter Aidan and wife Cindy (former PSU cheerleader) are all Penn State grads. His NFL playing career included 13 seasons and 20 interceptions.
Graham Zug — A bit of a long shot, since his only coaching experience is at the high school level. He has been the O-coordinator at Palmyra High School (my alma mater, BTW) since 2015. A sales manager in Central PA these days, he had all the intangibles as a walk-on who became a starter, winning the Robert B. Mitinger Jr. Award, given to the senior who exhibits courage, character and social responsibility.
And, I’m pretty sure he’d stay for more than a year.