Penn State Football: Where Should School Turn in Effort to Replace Joe Paterno?

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IDecember 6, 2011

Penn State Football: Where Should School Turn in Effort to Replace Joe Paterno?

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    Penn State is beginning its first coaching search since hiring Joe Paterno as head coach in 1966. The field, as the school said, is "wide open."

    That begs the question: "What is Penn State looking for in a new coach?"

    It also begs the question: "What should Penn State be looking for in a new coach?"

    Let's delve deeply into that second question and talk a little bit about what the university has lost and what it will be looking to replace it with in 2012. This is likely to be a long and difficult search, but there are some key indicators for those willing to strip away the scandal talk and look at one of the Big Ten's premiere football programs as just that: a football program.

Those Big Black Sneakers

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    In case you didn't know, Joe Paterno is leaving some big shoes to fill. Specifically, they're trademark black sneakers often worn with rolled up pants. But really, the shoes don't make the man.

    Paterno is all over Penn State. The library is named after him. There's a statue of him outside Beaver Stadium that has the win-loss record of each of his teams (up until 2009, when they ran out of space).

    He's a prominent part of a downtown State College mural. Every store that sells Penn State gear has a goodly portion of Paterno items from life-size cardboard cutouts at The Family Clothesline to drawn portraits at McLanahan's.

    Heck, he's even an ice cream flavor at the on-campus Berkey Creamery, where Peachy Paterno is one of the big sellers.

    The man, with his unkempt hair, huge glasses and stately profile, is an icon on campus and in the college football world. Everybody knows his name.

    Whoever Penn State hires will have to be okay with carving out their own legacy in the shadow of Paterno's. Scandal or not, his legacy will dwarf any successor (at least until that person compiles 410 wins, a few championships and somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 years of coaching in Blue and White).


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    College football recruits are told by parents and coaches to choose a school based on what academic programs interest them, which campus makes them feel the most at home and which school is ultimately better for them.

    Those same recruits often make their choice of school based on one factor only: the coach.

    Look at Ohio State. The school is likely to dominate in-state recruiting once again now that Urban Meyer, recruiting czar, is in as head coach. His hiring has already raised the profile of a program that was largely mediocre this season. The Buckeyes will play in this year's Gator Bowl despite only having a 6-6 record (the minimum for bowl eligibility).

    Whoever takes over the Nittany Lions' program in 2012, that person has to be able to sell Penn State as a football destination. That may, especially considering the backdrop, rule out some low-profile guys. A higher-profile name will be a better draw for high school players looking for a football future.

    Also, Penn State would do well to look internally at Tom Bradley, the long-time defensive coordinator and current interim head coach, who has a tremendous reputation in Western Pennsylvania (where he is from and where Meyer will represent heavy competition) and has been doing a lot of the heavy recruiting for years now.

    Some recruits have been quoted as saying they would remain committed if Bradley were the coach. While he seems like a dark horse, he may be the best option if the school doesn't want to risk its recruiting present and future on an outside name.

Roster Makeup

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    The Penn State philosophy has always been predicated on two things: a staunch defense and a great rushing attack.

    Joe Paterno's teams were almost always glimpses into the Bear Bryant days. They weren't known for churning out quarterbacks who could play in the NFL. They didn't always produce NFL-caliber running backs either despite several being chosen in the first round.

    They did, however, turn out some of the best linebackers in NFL history (Jack Ham for example).

    The Penn State committee in charge of selecting the Nittany Lions next coach is going to have to make a determination on where the roster goes from here. Do they go with a defensive mind that builds teams that don't necessarily score a lot of points, but will prevent most teams from scoring a lot? Or do they go with what's become sexy in college football: spread offense, lots of passing and just enough defense to keep up?

    The answer shapes the coaching search and the coaching staff. Given the way the current roster is put together, the best chance for immediate success is someone with a defensive background or a coach who puts out a strong running game.

    But if you look around the Big Ten, passing is starting to become in vogue. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State, three of the top finishers in the conference, all have great passing games. They also have good defenses and successful running games.

    The missing piece to Penn State this season was clearly under center. Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden weren't able to put up a passing attack that scared opponents despite having the talented Derek Moye to throw to. Someone who can build a good passing game might be attractive to Penn State.

High Profile vs. Low Profile

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    Do they look at Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden or another big name or do they go for a Dan Mullen, Tom Bradley or Mike Munchak?

    The current school of thought, which I agree with, is that Penn State needs a coach in place by the time they face Houston in the TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 2. Tom Bradley should coach that game regardless of who's hired, but that's probably the longest the team can afford to let this whole issue fester.

    A high-profile name would theoretically help recruiting, but would a high-profile coach want to take over the program in turmoil and with Joe Paterno's legacy looming over them? The answer to that question is hard to gauge, but it's significant that there hasn't been a lot of mention of big, big names in the mostly quiet search for a new leader.

    A name with less power might hurt recruiting in the short term, but could pay dividends later. Look at Michigan. Brady Hoke was not the highest profile name associated with the program when he was hired, but he's found instant success and is a finalist for the coach of the year award.

    The key is to get the right coach. Penn State needs someone who can be in place for the long term. Joe Paterno and others of his longevity proved that the best programs are the ones that can keep coaches for long periods. Hiring someone who's looking at Penn State as a transitional position would only hurt the program later.

    My personal feeling is that this will be a low-profile hire and a guy with integrity and football intelligence.

Ties That Bind

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    Penn State ties or no Penn State ties? That is the question.

    Tom Bradley wants this job. He has wanted this job for years, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before he finally would get it. Joe Paterno couldn't have coached forever and Bradley was the in-house successor.

    And then it all fell apart. Now, Bradley has his dream job, but it comes with an interim tag and a lot of sentiment that he shouldn't even be in the conversation because he's been with the school long enough to have potential ties to the scandal that has blackened the school's sterling reputation.

    Still, the school hasn't ruled Bradley out. There's some that think he actually stands a decent chance at the job.

    But what about that elephant in the room? Wouldn't someone outside the organization with no ties to it be a better public face to put forth in the coming months and years of questions and media coverage?

    I'm not sure how to answer that question, but I think the best way to find a new football coach is to remove the scandal from the equation and hire the best man for the job, the man they'd hire if each candidate came into the interview process with no non-football strings attached.

    Unfortunately in today's world there is little chance of that happening. The media has become pervasive in every situation and a coaching hire here will be judged against everything the school is going through right now and what the new coach can do to ensure the program is back on the straight and narrow.

Tradition and Other Wild Cards

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    It's hard to predict when big schools change coaches after long, long periods of success. The only really similar measuring stick would be Florida State, who recently replaced Bobby Bowden. There is one glaring difference: Bowden retired.

    Penn State has a lot of traditions that a new coach will have to embrace or replace. One thing that can't be overlooked is the fan perception, which so often drives whether a new coach finds success or not.

    Winning attracts fans, but how teams win in college is something that's always looked at. We talked a little about that in the slide on roster construction, but there's more than just the playing philosophy.

    Fans will expect the new coach to embrace things like the blue line at the end of the tunnel, white outs, black shoes, plain uniforms and, perhaps most importantly, Joe Paterno's idea of "success with honor."

    Perhaps the worst thing a new coach could do coming into this job is try to put too large of a stamp on this program. Before the controversy enveloped Paterno and his team, this was one of the most attractive jobs in the NCAA. Now, it still should be for the right person.

    I won't make a selection in this coaching derby, but I will implore Penn State's search group to hire the coach who embraces enough of the past to ensure a successful, prosperous future. That might be Tom Bradley. It might be Dan Mullen. It might be someone completely different.

    Hiring the right person, however, has never been more important.