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January 26, 2011

Penn State's Next Coach: The Update

Untitled Document Three months have passed since we went public with the definitive list of candidates (read now if you haven't already) from which Joe Paterno's replacement will be chosen. Three months later, we still believe the name of the next Penn State football coach is on the list.

Did we mention it's a new list?

Well, not really: The criteria are the same, and 10 of the 15 candidates from our initial list remain. We trimmed five from the first batch either because they got new jobs (although, as you'll see, that wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker...) or because events of the past three months made it unrealistic to keep them on the list. We replaced them with five coaches who (mostly) fit our criteria, and who became contenders either through circumstances or their own on-field success.

We'll get to the candidates in a second; first, let's review our previous post. We can start with the timeline. As we wrote in October: "We're convinced that Penn State will hire its first new head football coach in almost half a century no later than February 2012." We should know better than to try predicting when Joe Paterno will finally step down, but given his contract status, the uncertain prospects for his 2011 team, hints of unrest on his staff and the still underachieving state of recruiting, we'll stick with our prediction that this will be Joe's final year.

Now, onto our criteria - and what the events of the past three months have taught us about just how right we were.

Qualifications - We told you the next Penn State head coach would be a current head coach, and we still think that'll be the case. The high-profile hires this offseason have gone to a mix of head coaches (Brady Hoke at Michigan, Al Golden at Temple, Randy Edsall at Maryland, and, ultimately, Todd Graham at Pitt) and top assistants (Will Muschamp at Florida, David Shaw at Stanford), and while a dynamic coordinator with a record of success at a major program could make the cut (yes, we did add one such candidate to our list), we remain convinced the university will want someone with CEO experience.

Age - We continue to believe the most likely candidates for this job are 55 or under.

Broad Recruiting Reach - The demographic reality hasn't changed in the past three months, so a coach with recruiting connections in places like Florida, Texas or California will have an advantage in this race.

Minimal Connection to Joe Paterno - This might've been the most controversial of our criteria, and if anything, events of the past month or so confirm it's also the most correct. The fact that as many of half of Paterno's assistants have reportedly looked for other jobs since the end of the regular season tells us what we already knew: Barring Paterno's unexpected and sudden resignation to due health issues, his replacement will not come from his current staff. Period.

Fitting the New Mold - Feel free to review this entry on the previous post; for now, we'll just highlight the current seasons of two of the coaches we mentioned as part of the new Penn State template:

- Cael Sanderson: With a throttling of Pitt last Friday night, the legendary Iowa State wrestler and second-year head coach has Penn State ranked No. 1 in the nation. A national championship this season is within reach, and a dynasty might soon follow.

- Coquese Washington: In her fourth season, the former Notre Dame assistant has Penn State in contention for the Big Ten title and on pace for its first NCAA berth since 2005.

The point? Hiring young, ambitious coaches with impressive resumes and no prior Penn State connections is working out pretty well at two of the university's marquee programs. Yes, football is a different animal, but the model still applies.

So, back to the list: Gone are Bill Cowher, Jim Harbaugh, Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and Gary Patterson. We axed the former Steeler coach because all signs point to him eventually returning to an NFL sideline. Harbaugh made our jobs easy by jumping to the pros himself. Johnson and Niumatalolo and their gimmick offenses were always going to be long shots, but their win-loss records were hard to ignore; but with Johnson struggling last season at Georgia Tech and Niumatalolo running a solid but hardly transcendent program at Navy, we decided to cull them now. Patterson, of course, did nothing to make the world think he's not one hell of a football coach, but with a contract extension through 2018 and TCU poised to join the Big East (and claim its automatic BCS bid for the foreseeable future), there are too many reasons for Patterson not to leave.

So, let's take a look at updates on the 10 of our 15 initial candidates who remain on our current list:

Pat Fitzgerald, 36, Northwestern
RESUME: Sixth season at Northwestern (33-29 overall); former assistant at Maryland (under Ron Vanderlinden), Colorado and Idaho.
UPDATE: Fitzgerald's hard-luck Wildcats stumbled to a 7-6 finish, but it does little to tarnish the young coach's rep. A year after Notre Dame came calling, Michigan was reportedly interested in Fitzgerald for its coaching vacancy; he turned down both overtures, and the administration in Evanston is doing all it can to make him a lifer. Still, he knows there's a pretty low ceiling at Northwestern, and we still think Penn State is one of the few programs he might leave home for.
Al Golden, 41, Miami

RESUME:
First season at Miami (26-32 overall record as head coach); former Temple head coach, former assistant at Boston College, Penn State and Virginia.

UPDATE: Yes, he's the new man in charge at The U, and no, we don't consider the Miami gig one that coaches typically leave for another college job. But while it's still one of the nation's top jobs, Miami also comes with its share of baggage. Is it that far-fetched to imagine Golden coming back north after a single season in Coral Gables. Well, sure it is, but we're still not ruling it out entirely.
Mike London, 50, Virginia
RESUME: Second season as head coach at Virginia (4-8 overall); two seasons as head coach at Richmond (24-5 overall, won 2008 FCS national championship); former assistant at Richmond, William & Mary, Boston College, UVA and NFL's Houston Texans.
UPDATE: London went 4-8 in his first season with the Cavaliers, but his career resume is still impressive, and he's already proving his recruiting prowess. His candidacy obviously relies on an improved sophomore campaign, but he remains the sort of candidate Penn State will find attractive.
Bronco Mendenhall, 44, BYU
RESUME: Seventh season at BYU (56-21 overall); former assistant at Oregon State, Snow College, Northern Arizona, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico and BYU.

UPDATE:
The Cougars finished an uncharacteristic 7-6, but that record doesn't tell the whole story: After stumbling to a 1-4 start, BYU rallied to win six of its last eight, including a bowl win over UTEP. A 43-9 record over the previous four seasons more accurately speaks to Mendenhall's ability, and while BYU's pending move to independent status for football will give the program more flexibility in scheduling its way toward a BCS berth, the chance to coach in a BCS league must appeal to the 44-year-old coach.

Dan Mullen, 38, Mississippi State
RESUME: Third season at Mississippi State (14-11 overall); former assistant at Wagner, Columbia, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, most recently as offensive coordinator for Gators.
UPDATE: Mullen improved on his 5-7 rookie mark with a 9-4 record in his second season, which ended with a 52-14 bowl thrashing of Michigan and a fat contract extension for the coach. That new deal (and the substantial buyout that comes with it) will make it harder for Mullen to leave Starkville, but he also knows it'll be an uphill battle to lift Mississippi State to the level of Alabama, Florida, LSU and Auburn. Would this Pennsylvania native trade second-tier status in the SEC for a chance at the top rung of the Big Ten? We bet he'll get the chance.
Chris Petersen, 46, Boise State
RESUME: Sixth season at Boise State (61-5 overall); former assistant at UC- Davis, Pitt, Portland State, Oregon and Boise.

UPDATE:
Another year, another 12-win season in Boise. Why leave a place where he's gone 61-5 in five seasons? Well, we can imagine it grated on Petersen to see his team totally forgotten after their only defeat of the season, a three-point road loss to a Nevada team that finished just outside the top 10. He was approached by Stanford after Harbaugh left and at least briefly entertained the Cardinal's interest before deciding to stay in Idaho. Boise's move to the Mountain West may be a step up, but it's not a step all the way up. Petersen will have to leave for a major conference if he wants to avoid being forgotten after 12-win seasons in the future.

Steve Sarkisian, 36, Washington
RESUME: Third season at Washington (12-13 overall); former assistant at USC and El Camino and with Oakland Raiders.

UPDATE:
The Huskies' progress under Sarkisian might best be summed up by their two games last season against Nebraska: In September, the Huskers' throttled the Huskies in Seattle, 56-21; three months later, Washington nearly shut out Nebraska in an impressive Holiday Bowl win. The Huskies won their last four games to finish 7-6 after a 3-6 start, and additional improvement in 2011 would only further burnish Sarkisian's reputation.

Greg Schiano, 44, Rutgers
RESUME: Eleventh season at Rutgers (59-63 overall); former assistant at Rutgers, Penn State, Miami and Chicago Bears.
UPDATE: Was the Scarlet Knights' 4-8 record last season a blip, or has Schiano's magic in New Jersey finally started to wear off? Many Penn State fans have soured on the former Nittany Lion assistant, a stance that seems to overlook his 36 wins (and 4-0 bowl record) from 2006 to 2009. If Rutgers bounces back next season, Schiano will remain a viable candidate for what everyone still assumes is his dream job.
Charlie Strong, 50, Louisville
RESUME: Second season at Louisville (7-6 overall); former assistant at Southern Illinois, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, South Carolina, and Florida, most prominently as Gators' defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
UPDATE: The Cardinals went 7-6 in Strong's first season, a run that included a win over eventual Big East champ UConn and a bowl win over Southern Miss. It's still early, but more success in 2011 (on the field and with recruits) will put him on the front burner for any high-profile jobs that open up.
Kyle Whittingham, 51, Utah
RESUME: Seventh season at Utah (58-20 overall); former assistant at Eastern Utah, Idaho State and Utah.

UPDATE:
The Utes finished 10-3 with a bowl loss to Boise State; it's the third straight 10-win season for Whittingham, and his first bowl loss in seven tries. Utah's move to the Pac 10 means the coach might not have much motivation to leave, but he also knows he'll have a hard time getting (and keeping) the Utes on the same level as the USCs and Oregons of that league.



And now, the new guys. Here are five new potential candidates in Beau Baldwin, Mario Cristobal, Tony Dungy (we know, we know...), K.C. Keeler, and Gus Malzahn.

Beau Baldwin, 38, Eastern Washington
RESUME: Three seasons at EWU (27-11, 13-2 last season) and fourth overall after one season at Div. II Central Washington. In 2010, he led the Eagles to their first FCS national championship.
PROS: Improved from 6-5 in his first season at EWU; a former college quarterback, he has a reputation for developing QBs.
CONS: Has spent his entire coaching career in Washington and has rarely had to recruit outside of the Pacific Northwest; jump from FCS program in a tiny market to a marquee Big Ten school would be daunting.
Mario Cristobal, 40, Florida International
RESUME: Four seasons at FIU (16-33 overall, 7-6 last season); previously an assistant at Miami and Rutgers.

PROS:
In 2007, took over a five-year-old FIU program that had never posted a winning record, including an 0-12 mark in 2006, and led the Golden Panthers to their first ever winning season in 2010; Miami native and former Canes player and assistant has great connections in talent-rich South Florida; strong recruiting connections in New Jersey as well; the sort of energy he showed in his post-victory interview at the Little Caeser's Pizza Bowl is just the sort that could help revitalize Penn State; reportedly lists Joe Paterno as his coaching idol and the inspiration for the shirt-and-tie look he sported on the sideline until this season.

CONS: Last season's success doesn't change the fact that his overall record is 17 games below .500; can he convince South Florida talent to spend four years in Happy Valley?
Tony Dungy, 55, Studio Analyst
RESUME: Super Bowl-winning former NFL coach.
PROS: Great reputation as a coach and person; numerous rumors have connected Dungy to Penn State's coaching search; NFL connections and high media profile could be a huge recruiting boost.
CONS: Outside of a single season as a secondary coach at Minnesota three decades ago, has no experience coaching or recruiting at the college level; given that he showed no interested in the job at Minnesota, his alma mater, during their recent search, it's hard to imagine him taking another job in the same conference; seems content being a TV analyst and promoting fatherhood; the longest of the long shots, but all the smoke with this one leaves us wondering if somewhere, just maybe, there might be some fire. Hey, there's no reason to believe it will happen, but we're doubting many Penn State fans would be upset if it did.
K.C. Keeler, 51, Delaware
RESUME: Nine seasons at Delaware (74-42 overall, 12-3 last season), including the 2003 I-AA national title and two other title-game appearances; previously coached nine seasons at Div. III Rowan, where he went 88-21-1 and coached in five Div. III title games.
PROS: Pennsylvania native; recruiting connections throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey; strong reputation for developing quarterbacks.
CONS: Despite his success at Delaware, the Blue Hens have had five seasons of six wins or fewer under his tenure; media spotlight and fan expectations at Delaware can't compare to what he'd face at Penn State.
Gus Malzahn, 45, Auburn
RESUME: Two seasons as offensive coordinator at Auburn, including last season's run to unbeaten national championship; previously offensive coordinator and QB coach at Tulsa (2007-08) and assistant at Arkansas (2006); 15 years as a top high school coach in Arkansas.

PROS:
The hottest coordinator in the nation, Malzahn is architect of the "hurry-up no-huddle" offense that Auburn used to demolish SEC defenses last season; also credited with popularizing the "Wildcat" offense; reputation as an innovator would go long way in modernizing Penn State's image; influence of Malzahn's offense on major-college and NFL teams a draw for top recruits; recruiting connections in talent-rich SEC; was briefly reported to have accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt but ultimately turned it down, a sign that he's waiting on a better job.

CONS: Having spent his career in Big 12 and SEC country, might be a stretch to think he'd leave his comfort zone and head north; some skepticism about whether his offensive schemes would be as successful in Big Ten conditions; recent salary boost from Auburn means he might not be in a hurry to leave.


And there it is. We can tell you with something resembling certainly that, within the next year, one of the men listed above will be named head football coach at Penn State.

Unless Joe Paterno really does decide to stick around until he's 90. At which point we'll tell you we knew it all along.



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