Bernard Fernandez: Decision time for Penn State

Joyner
Joyner
Posted: January 05, 2012

SPORTS WRITERS being a rather cynical lot, Penn State's seemingly interminable search for its next head football coach was frequently brought up in the Cotton Bowl Stadium press box during the Nittany Lions' 30-14 TicketCity Bowl loss to Houston.

"They'll probably name somebody by the start of spring practice," one of the Penn State beat guys said with a dollop of sarcasm.

"Or at least by the week of the season opener," replied a columnist seated nearby.

Ah, gallows humor. There's nothing quite like it.

I think the six-member search committee will announce a hiring before national signing day on Feb. 1, but maybe not far enough in advance of it to salvage what had been shaping up as a fairly strong recruiting class. There already have been a number of decommitments in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and subsequent Joe Paterno firing, and more are sure to follow if the coach selected doesn't score off the charts on the "wow" meter. With each passing day, expectations for a home-run hire as Paterno's permanent replacement are being downgraded to, say, a ground-rule double.

The committee's hesitancy to move boldly, swiftly and with some clear sense of purpose has made it likely Penn State will settle for a second-tier candidate.

USA Today, citing a person with knowledge of the situation, reported that New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien will interview today.

The delay has been unfathomable for a university that, despite its high-minded academic ideals, has a football program that generated a $52 million profit the last fiscal year and in essence funded 28 other varsity sports. Continuing to pack Beaver Stadium's 107,282 seats is paramount when you consider that any new coach will be paid considerably more than the $1 million or so Paterno received, and statewide budget cuts will take a chomp out of allocations for the commonwealth's flagship university.

"Penn State screwed up, because they should have been better prepared for the day when Joe Paterno wasn't there, for whatever reason," said Bob Lichtenfels, a recruiting analyst for Scouts.com. "It's clear they were ill-prepared for it.

"I'm not necessarily criticizing them for taking a little more time with the process. A wrong choice now could set that program back 5 or 10 years. But college coaches they may have considered are getting fat contract extensions to stay with their current schools. Others have been snatched up to fill vacancies somewhere else, and a lot of NFL positions have or will be coming open. Time increasingly is of the essence."

Why the foot-dragging? Consider the composition of the search committee. It's headed by acting athletic director Dave Joyner, a former Penn State football player (1969-71) and wrestler who was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. Pretty impeccable credentials, but Joyner is an orthopedic surgeon and former member of the PSU board of trustees who, when introduced as acting AD, made a point of stressing that he was "not an insider" and hadn't been for a long time.

The committee's other members are women's volleyball coach Russ Rose, faculty athletics representative Linda Caldwell, associate AD and senior woman administrator Charmelle Green, emeritus professor John Nichols, and Philadelphia-based investment manager Ira Lubert.

While all are individuals of sterling character and high accomplishment in their respective fields, where is the person who has some knowledge of the realities of 21st-century college football?

When Dr. Rodney Erickson succeeded Graham Spanier as Penn State president, and Joyner stepped in for Tim Curley, who is on indefinite administrative leave but won't be returning after being charged with perjury in the scandal, it was clear that they and the trustees were intent on distancing themselves from Sandusky and, by extension, Paterno. The word "transparency" was tossed around like a Frisbee, suggesting that the code of silence finally was being lifted in Happy Valley.

While in Dallas for the TicketCity Bowl, however, Joyner was asked about the number of coaches Penn State had interviewed. His answer: More than one, but fewer than 40.

Some transparency.

Then again, Penn State's decision-makers always think they're the smartest people in the room, and that their way of doing anything is right because they are . . . Penn State.

Many colleges employ companies that charge a fee to put them in contact with interested coaches. When the Sandusky scandal erupted and Paterno was fired before the conclusion of his 46th season as field boss, Erickson said Penn State would accept no less than a man of unimpeachable integrity, who would graduate his players at a high rate, and, oh, yeah, win a lot of games.

Penn State could, and maybe should, have gone through one of those dating services. Company troubleshooters would come up with a short list and make backdoor contact through the targeted coaches' agents to determine whether there was genuine interest. To maintain plausible deniability, the coaches being wooed would truthfully tell their schools' fan bases that they hadn't had "direct" contact with potential suitors. That flimsy cover story, they'd hope, would hold up until a deal was actually struck, and the coach switching jobs appeared at an introductory news conference.

Not that that method of doing business is foolproof. Pitt, until recently a proponent of the outside-company approach, has had six head football coaches since the 2010 season, including two interim fill-ins for bowl games.

It should be obvious that Penn State could do a lot worse than interim coach Tom Bradley, but it is just as obvious that if "Scrap" were going to be retained without the interim tag, that announcement would have come by now.

A word of warning to search committee members, whose focus appears to have shifted to NFL assistants (the Patriots' O'Brien and San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman). The requirements for success in the pros are not always the same as in college. Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Lou Holtz are, or were, tremendous college coaches who weren't nearly as productive at the so-called "next level," and the reverse can be said of any number of NFL coaches who have tried their hand on campus.

So whatever the Gang of Six is learning should be filed away for future reference, because the guess here is that whoever is hired won't stick around nearly as long as JoePa did.


Send email to fernanb@phillynews.com.

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