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NCAA Football

History says major changes ahead for Penn State after Paterno Era

The 2010 Penn State football season started and ended in relatively the same way. There are questions about quarterbacks, leadership and coaches. These topics seem to be a recurring theme when it comes to Penn State football, but the one that has interested me the most has been the question regarding coaches.

This season saw more action than ever by Tom Bradley looking for a way out. It was always long perceived that Bradley would be the next head coach at Penn State. Being rewarded for his years of service and high level of achievement with the Penn State defense. After a season of inconsistent defense the most consistent name used in conversations about the next head coach disappeared. Bradley interviewed with Pitt, Temple and UConn this offseason. Many Penn State fans became deeply concerned when Ron Vanderlinden became tied in with Bradley possibly leaving for Temple if hired. Speculation further developed that if Bradley were to leave he would not only take members of the current coaching staff, but probably some current players as well. This would leave Penn State in unfamiliar territory. The mere fact that Bradley has been interviewing so feverishly has led me to believe that it is clear amongst the coaches: when Joe Pa goes, everyone goes.

This was not something that surprised me because when a legend like Joe Paterno does leave a program, the last thing a school wants is to live in that coach’s shadow for 10-15 years. They want to and need to move on. They need to build new traditions and expectations. They need to expand recruiting to new areas and expect new styles of play and intensity. They need to bring in fresh faces and expectations. Or do they?

When the regular season and bowl season conclude in College Football the landscape for coaches always changes drastically. However, at Penn State things have stayed very quiet and consistent for 45 years. According to gopsusports.com, during Paterno’s head coaching tenure there have been 874 coaching changes in Division I-A football. Penn Staters don’t know what it is like to have coaching changes on a consistent basis like at the University of Pittsburgh, who has not had a coach for longer than 8 seasons since 1965. At the end of each season Paterno meets with Tim Curley to evaluate the season and prepare for the following year. The end of the 2010 season was filled with rumors of Paterno’s retirement due to health concerns. The feverish momentum that these rumors built seemed unfathomable. Without any true credibility they circled the globe and pushed Penn State fans into a world of questions including, “What will happen after Joe?”

This question opens up uncharted waters for Penn State fans and it is easy to understand their concerns. I became interested in seeing what history tells us about life after a legend retires, is fired or resigns.

Penn State has always been compared to four programs: Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama.

Each of these programs has had a legendary coach lead them to greatness for ten or more seasons, national championships and at least 100 wins. For Notre Dame we can compare the Lou Holtz era, Ohio State the Woody Hayes era, Michigan the Bo Schembechler era and for Alabama the Paul “Bear” Bryant reign.

All of these programs have seen these coaches leave and have experienced life in what I like to call the P.L.E (Post-Legend-Era). Penn State should take notes.

When it comes to finding a coach after a legend leaves, the number one term that is used over and over again is “expectations.” The expectations for the first coach in the P.L.E. are always astronomical. Today’s college football fans expect immediate results with new hires and easily become frustrated when they have to wait for results. Sound familiar? In today’s world waiting is kryptonic. We need fast internet, immediate access to social media and news everywhere and will find the most efficient way possible to get what we want when we want it. College football is not immune to these demands.

When it comes to legends there are three coaches who are immediately named together in regards to winning: Joe Paterno, Paul Bryant and Bobby Bowden. The P.L.E. for Florida State has been quite easy for the Seminole faithful. A succession plan was put in place and executed. Bowden retired, albeit earlier than he wanted, but in accordance with the plan and the program has moved on. This does not sound like an option for Penn State. Up north of Florida State, Paterno’s other good friend Paul Bryant finished at Alabama without a succession plan and the program fell into a downward spiral that led to nearly 30 years of underperforming teams and scandals. Bryant held the reins from 1958-1982 at Alabama and finished with a 232-46-9 record as head coach. Bryant would finish his career with 323 wins with all of his head coaching experience combined. Bryant led Alabama to six national titles and would leave football as the all-time winningest coach in Division I-A football until Joe Paterno passed him in 2003. After Bryant, the storied program collapsed and a coaching nightmare arose.

Ray Perkins was the first coach in the P.L.E for Alabama from 1983-1986. He lead the Crimson Tide to a 32-15-1 record. His first two seasons were tough for the Alabama faithful, a 7-4 and 5-6 record respectively. After Perkins came Bill Curry (1987-1989). Curry finished with a mediocre 26-10 record. Gene Stallings (1990-1996) took over for Curry and would finish with a great record of 70-16-1. However, the damage done by Stallings would later be felt. The NCAA sanctioned Alabama for falsifying the eligibility of Antonio Langham under Stallings’ watch. The program was docked 30 scholarships, made to forfeit eight wins and a tie from the 1993 season, barred from post season play in the 1995 season and put on three years of probation. If you factor in the nine forfeit games, Stallings really finished with a 62-25 record. After Stallings came Mike DuBose. DuBose (1997-2000) finished with a 24-23 record and was fired after a terrible 3-8 season in 2000. The NCAA later hammered Alabama again for violations under DuBose. They lost 21 scholarships over three years, were given a two year bowl ban and five years of probation.

Alabama replaced DuBose with Dennis Franchione (2001-2002) who finished with a 17-8 record, but split to coach Texas A&M. The coaching nightmare for the Crimson Tide continued.

MIke Price was brought in after the 2002 season to replace Dennis Franchione. Price coached through spring ball and was then fired after an alleged evening out in Pensacola, FL that ended with an intoxicated Price and a woman he had met at a strip club returning to his hotel. A charge of $1,000 on room service was put on Price’s hotel bill which was ultimately paid for by the University of Alabama. Sports Illustrated ran the story and Price was fired. Once again Alabama searched for a coach to bring back the glory of Crimson football. They rested on Mike Shula. Shula (2003-2006) underperformed and finished with a 26-23 record.

Alabama is now currently working with their 8th head coach in the P.L.E. Fortunately for the Alabama faithful the eighth time was the charm. The hiring of Nick Saban lead to winning the 2009 National Championship. How many coaches will it take for Penn State to find their own Nick Saban?

Penn State is compared to Notre Dame constantly and like Penn State their expectations each year in football are through the roof. Under Lou Holtz from 1986 through 1996, Notre Dame football dominated the collegiate landscape. Holtz finished with a 100-30-2 record which included nine consecutive New Year’s day bowls, one undefeated season and a national championship. When Holtz decided to leave Notre Dame, the Irish faithful were left wondering what was to happen next? Notre Dame would go through a circus of coaches over the next thirteen years. After Holtz, Bob Davie was promoted from Defensive Coordinator to head coach. Davie (1997-2001) finished with a 35-25 record and two scandals under his watch. He was replaced by George O’Leary who resigned 5 days into his job after it was found that he had misrepresentations on his resume. Notre Dame quickly picked up Tyrone Willingham (2002-2004) who finished with a 21-15 record. His dismissal lead to the hiring of Charlie Weis (2005-2009). Weis lead Notre Dame to a 35-27 record during his tenure. Weis was released following last season (2010) as the Notre Dame coaching carousel continued with the hiring of Brian Kelly. After Holtz’s 1994 Cotton Bowl victory, Notre Dame lost nine bowl games in a row. Would Penn State fans be able to swallow this type of productivity?

The names Hayes and Schembechler are synonymous with the Big Ten conference and Michigan and Ohio State have become historic national powers because of the work by those two coaches. When Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1991 it was clear that Michigan and Ohio State would have a tougher road to the Big Ten title each year, however, both schools would be without their legendary coaches while facing Joe Paterno in the eleven team conference.

Bo Schembechler coached Michigan from 1969-1989 and finished with a record of 194-48-5. Schembechler won thirteen conference titles and went to 17 bowl games in his 21 seasons as head coach for the Wolverines. More impressive he was named coach of the year six times. Life after Schembechler was not as rocky as life after Holtz at Notre Dame. Gary Moeller (1990-1994) lead the Wolverines to a 44-13-3 record and 5 bowls. Moeller was hired from within the Michigan coaching staff. He was then replaced by Lloyd Carr (1995-2007). Carr finished with a 122-40 record and one national title. Unfortunately after three Rose Bowl losses in four years, Carr was forced out and replaced with Rich Rodriguez (2008-present). Rodriguez has completed three seasons with a 15-22 record. Michigan had gone to bowl games in 33 consecutive seasons until Rodriguez’s devastating first season where the Wolverines finished 3-9, the worst record in school history.

Ohio State has been the exception during their Post Legend Era. Their hires have consistently resulted in high expectation that were reasonably met through success on the field. Ohio State’s hiring of Earl Bruce, their first hire after Woody Hayes, set the tone for all coaches to come and allowed Ohio State to avoid a major let-down in the beginning of their Post Legend Era. Woody Hayes (1951-1978) finished at Ohio State with a 205-61-10 record. He would amass five national titles and establish Ohio State as a force in college football.

Earl Bruce (1979-1987) was hired to replace Hayes and continue the winning tradition at OSU. Bruce was a former player and then coach for Ohio State before moving away to gain head coaching experience at the University of Tampa and Iowa State University. Hayes helped bring him back to OSU and take over the Ohio State program. Bruce lead the Buckeyes to an undefeated regular season in his first season and lost the Rose Bowl, which was the national championship that year, by one point to USC. Bruce would finish with four conference championships and a record of 81-26-1.

The University felt that even though Bruce was having success they needed a change to get the program back to the national championship. John Cooper (1988-2000) replaced Bruce. Cooper would finish with a 111-43-4 record at Ohio State. He won three conference championships, but had trouble winning key games especially versus hated rival Michigan. Jim Tressel (2001-present) was brought in to replace Cooper and immediately delivered with a national title and perfect 14-0 record in 2002. Tressel has won seven conference titles and has built Ohio State into a consistent national title contender. Can Penn State afford to wait 21 years to find the next Jim Tressel? That would mean 46 years between national championship seasons.

Post Legend Era by the numbers for coaches of Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame:

3 – National titles won
4.8 – Average number of coaching changes per school
5.25 – Average number of seasons per coach before another change
8.5 – Average number of wins in first season under first new head coach
13 – Most seasons coached by one coach in the P.L.E. (Carr & Cooper)
19 – Number of head coaches hired in the P.L.E. combined

It is clear that finding the perfect formula for success after a legend leaves is not an exact science. Some schools hire from within the current staff, bring back old staff or look for a completely fresh face for the program. For Penn State alumni and fans the thought of football after Joe Paterno should be frightening especially if the university hires outside of the current coaching staff. What will football look like in Beaver Stadium? What new traditions should we expect? Who will even be the coach? We have never had to deal with big name coaches making huge promises and then breaking our hearts. We have never had to deal with failure that lasts for four years and is then recycled for four more by someone else. My biggest fear is a coaching carousel where alumni expectations are set through the roof with a big name hire. Can you imagine Penn State falling into a continual search for the “right fit”. We may resemble Notre Dame, Alabama or Michigan after Joe Paterno leaves, but hopefully our success will come quickly like that at Ohio State. If it doesn’t come quickly those expectations for a national championship that are already 25 years stale may pull Penn State into an even worse decline than ever seen before at a historic football power.

This post was originally published as a guest blog on Penn State alum Devon Herrick’s blog (follow Devon on twitter @devon_macy):

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