Rumors have been swirling around the NFL for the past few weeks that Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien was a hot commodity among several general managers, leading many to believe that the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator would not remain in Happy Valley. This inevitable fact was confirmed on New Year’s Eve, when it was announced that O’Brien had accepted the Houston Texans head coaching position.
O’Brien leaves Penn State with a 15-9 record over the course of two years, but these numbers do not really show the impact he had on the Nittany Lions. O’Brien accepted this job not knowing how severe the sanctions would be from the NCAA, and although the penalties handed down from NCAA president Mark Emmert were incredibly tough, he continued to rebuild the program at a rather rapid pace.
His first season witnessed the Nittany Lions begin the year 0-2 before going 8-2 down the stretch with wins over #24 Northwestern and Wisconsin; 2013 had its moments as well thanks to freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the former blue chip QB who threw for 2,955 yards and 20 TDs to lead Penn State to a 7-5 record.
Although the situation looked great on the field, it has become apparent–thanks in part to this great article by The Patriot News’ David Jones–that O’Brien was not very happy with his situation at Penn State. Match that with five years of coaching in the NFL and a desire to someday have control of a franchise, and the result is the Nittany Lions preparing for its second coaching search in three years, which serves as a very strange turn of events for a school that previously had the same head coach for forty-six seasons.
Now that O’Brien has set his sights on Houston, who will Penn State target to lead the Nittany Lions? Although the situation is still certainly not perfect in Happy Valley, this job is still a high-profile one, especially since the NCAA reduced the school’s sanctions back in September and may do so again in the near future. Penn State, just like all college teams, desires a coach who will be willing to grind it out with the team and stay there for the long run; O’Brien decided this was not the role he wanted to play, so can the team hit a home run this time around?
Here are five coaches I would target to be the next Penn State Nittany Lions head coach:
James Franklin, Vanderbilt HC – This year’s coaching carousel will decide if Franklin stays at Vanderbilt for the long-term or decides to instead cash in his chips and move on to a bigger and better opportunity. Franklin has done an outstanding job as Commodores head coach, posting a 23-15 record over three seasons with Vandy earning victories over Auburn, Tennessee (twice), Georgia, and Florida during that time frame. The Commodores have not been competitive in the Southeastern Conference in several generations, and although they are not at the point where they are in the hunt nationally, they are still turning heads, especially in the state of Tennessee. Franklin is rumored to be a candidate for both this job and the Texas job; it is not clear which job the forty-one year old is more likely to land, but it sure looks like he will do wonders at the school he is employed at this fall. Not too shabby for a coach who was never given the chance to fulfill his position as the head coach-in-waiting at Maryland and was viewed as a consolation prize after the Dores were unable to lure Gus Malzahn away from Auburn.
Al Golden, Miami (FL) HC – Penn State wants one of its own to step in and lead the team in 2014 and beyond, which makes Golden high on many fans’ lists. A tight end for the Nittany Lions from 1987 to 1991, Golden is no stranger to coaching at Penn State as well, serving as the linebacker coach for Joe Paterno in the 2000 season. Golden has had a commendable amount of success as a head coach with stops at Temple (27-34 in five seasons at a school that had not gone to a bowl game since 1979) and Miami, where he holds a 22-15 record thanks to a 9-4 campaign this season. Golden has experienced his share of sanctions in Coral Gables (bowl ban in ’11 and ’12 and scholarship reductions), so the thought of working with a little less probably would not scare him away from heading to Big Ten country. The big question for Golden is whether or not he would be willing to leave the Hurricanes, a prestigious program that has the benefit of access to outstanding high school talent, to appease a familiar fanbase that truly needs to win as soon as possible.
Greg Schiano, former Buccaneers HC – Stated by many to be Penn State’s top choice in this search, Schiano’s NFL run may not have been very successful (11-21 in two seasons), but he is still heralded by many as a great college football coach. A former graduate assistant and later defensive back coach with the Nittany Lions from 1990 to 1995, Schiano took on the difficult job of rebuilding a Rutgers Scarlet Knights program that was stuck firmly in the basement back in 2001 and promptly put the team amongst the best the Big East had to offer, going 68-67 with six bowl appearances and an 11-2 record in 2006 that helped Schiano win five different Coach of the Year awards. Schiano is not the first college coach to struggle to find success in the pros, and while his name may not be considered sexy to most at this point in time, there is no reason to doubt that Schiano could step in and do a great job at Penn State.
Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State DC - Narduzzi is one of the most sought-after assistant coaches in football, and it is no coincidence that the Spartans’ defensive coordinator was the recipient of the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach this season. The Spartans capped off a Big Ten championship season with a hard-fought 24-20 victory in the Rose Bowl, a game that saw Stanford garner just 305 yards of offense and post only three points in the second half. Michigan State’s success has allowed both Narduzzi as well as head coach Mark Dantonio to be very picky with the opportunities that present themselves, which makes it easier for both to stay put in East Lansing. However, a shot at leading his own Big Ten school would certainly be intriguing for the forty-seven year old, a move that may lead to the reestablishment of Penn State as Linebacker U.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State HC – Certainly the darkhorse of these candidates, Mullen has kept the Bulldogs fighting in a cutthroat SEC West division, going to bowl games in four of his five seasons in Starkville–Mississippi State went 5-7 in his first season–along with four wins against Egg Bowl rival Ole Miss. Although the Bulldogs struggled at the beginning of the 2013 season, it is definitely not easy to win at the school, yet the team kept fighting under Mullen’s leadership to close out the season with three straight victories, including a blowout victory in the Liberty Bowl. Mullen, who was born in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania and graduated from Ursinus College in Collegeville, has a considerable amount of ties to Big Ten country, which explains in part why he was considered a candidate for this position when O’Brien was hired. The leash on Mullen seemed to be quite tight when the Bulldogs sat at 4-6 and were in the midst of a three-game losing streak in mid-November, so it will be important to watch and see if 1) Penn State pursues Mullen and makes him an offer and 2) if Mullen jumps at it this time around.