The Turning Point

Columbus - Newbill's shot may have just changed the trajectory of the Penn State basketball program going forward.

Columbus – Newbill’s shot may have just changed the trajectory of the Penn State basketball program going forward.

When I was a freshman in the fall of 2007, I remember having to wake up extremely early on a Sunday in early December. I had never seen the snow before that winter, and I sure as hell was not for walking in it so early on a Sunday. I was set to work as the statistician for the Lady Lions Sunday morning game with ComRadio, which meant I had to go to the game in business attire. There I was, running toward the Bryce Jordan Center, freezing, slipping nearly everywhere because of my dress shoes and a pounding headache from the vodka and beers I had chugged the night before.

I get to the arena, sweating profusely, and getting ready for what the two broadcasters for the game (both much older than me and not really friendly) were saying was bound to be an ass kicking.

Duke was ranked tenth in the nation, Penn State featured a new head coach and a bunch of players that (for better or worse) were not her own. But, the game turned out to be a barnburner, tons of big runs, lots of excitement; the Lady Lions were tied with the surging Devils, who had been down by as many as eleven at one point, when Brianne O’Rourke (the teams star player) hustled up court to drive in a game winning lay up. The Lady Lions won 86-84, snapping Duke’s 76-game win streak against unranked opponents.

Easily my favorite Lady Lion. The Pittsburgh native was a tough as nails scorer who was unafraid to play bigger than her 5'6 frame allowed.

Brianne O’Rurke is easily my favorite Lady Lion. The Pittsburgh native was a tough as nails scorer who was unafraid to play bigger than her 5’6 frame allowed.

We left the Jordan Center knowing that the 2007-2008 Lady Lions may not be a NCAA Tournament team, they may not have even been an NIT team, but with Coquese Washington at it’s helm, the program was going to be more than alright.

Fast forward six years and a month, I watched the Nittany Lions from my living room couch, a beer in one hand, my sweaty palm clutching to the remote in the other. And this crazy thing happened: as D.J. Newbill hit this game winning pull-up jumper, I began to feel the way the entire building felt that Sunday morning when O’Rourke hit her lay-up at the end of regulation.

I began to feel like this team was going somewhere.

This game was the kind of game that Penn State loses. They stay in the game, even have the lead a few times, but shoot themselves in the foot to lose the game to a “better” team. This is, of course, en route to a disappointing win-loss record.

DJ’s jumper was cathartic. Not just because Penn State hadn’t beaten Ohio State in ten years. Not just because Thad Matta was undefeated against Penn State since the beginning of his tenure. And not just because this win so happens to be Penn State’s first win since Value City Arena opened in 1999.  The biggest reason this jumper was cathartic, at least in my humble opinion, is because the shot sends a message that Penn State is on it’s way to relevance. It may not be this year, or even next year, but they’re on their way.

Some pointed to the win over eventual national runner-up Michigan last season as the “turning point” game during Chambers’ tenure. I may have at the time, but in retrospect, maybe that game was a fluke. Maybe that one was a game that was more about Michigan playing a terrible game than Penn State beating them (though to be fair, Penn State had given Michigan all they could handle ten days earlier in Ann Arbor). Tonight, in beating 23rd ranked Ohio State, a program that is so consistently good that it gets to be apoplectic to play them, after weeks of nearly beating top-flight Big Ten squads, the belief is back.

I can’t say that Pat Chambers is going to do what Coquese Washington has done for the Lady Lions (though I’d argue that it wasn’t until her fourth season that the Lady Lions made an NCAA Tournament, something Chambers can still match). I know that he surely cannot recruit the amount of talent that she has. I also know the Lady Lions have a tradition of winning that the Nittany Lions cannot even try and boast. That said, I think tonight was the turning point…not just for this season, but for the entire Chambers tenure.

This win is one that I could not help but feel is the dawning of a legitimate era of Penn State hoops where they become the one thing we’ve all been clamoring for since I could remember…a relevant, even dangerous, basketball team.

The State of Penn State hoops at 3:09 am

Empty BJC

I know I haven’t covered basketball nearly as much as I’ve wanted to. Part of this has to be attributed to the amazing soap opera that was the football-coaching search, part to a few glitches at the end of 2013, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy to cover this season.

Before the year, I had thought this season was going to be a 20-win season. I believed that Pat Chambers had finally built up his team, one chalk full of his guys and one that would be led by one of the greatest Nittany Lions to ever play. This was going to be the year that Penn State made a run at either a NIT or (possibly) an NCAA birth.

You can imagine my disappointment when Penn State, who currently sit at 9-9, lost their fifth straight game (a 80-67 ass-kicking to Michigan) on Tuesday night.

To be fair, within this five game stretch, they have had a few some competitive games. Also, I have to mention that the teams they’ve lost to are solid Big Ten teams. That said, this team has been terrible.

It’s gotten to the point where the fan base, which for the most part has been supportive, have begun to talk about how Chambers must go if 2014-15 doesn’t go better. I, sadly, am starting to see the argument as valid.

This season, which still has 13 games left, has been an exercise in futility.

As I’ve mentioned millions of times, I grew up an avid UCLA basketball fan. I was such a fan that when I was a high school senior, working a very low-paying retail job, I used an entire paycheck to pay for a pair of tickets to the sweet sixteen and elite eight which was coming to nearby San Jose. Why? Because the Ben-Ball Warriors (aka UCLA Bruins) were set to take on Pittsburgh (and either Kansas or Southern Illinois should they beat Pitt) for a Final Four bid. I took a two hour train ride to San Jose to sit in the second to last row of the upper deck of the HP Pavilion to watch the Bruins. I mention this because I think it explains that I have been a big basketball fan for a very long time. I’m talking scream-at-Arron-Afflalo-through-the-TV fanatic. I am so crazy, I still laugh about Adam Morrison’s tears.

When I cam to Penn State, I knew they didn’t have the same kind of history as UCLA did, but I followed them religiously anyways. I bought season tickets all four years, rarely sitting with in the student section, instead watching from the shadowy empty seats behind the band, analyzing why the team would never win. The jury is still deliberating about that 2009 team losing 20 games.

I bought this program during my freshman year in 2007. That was $15 that I could have used to get drunk that weekend.

I bought this program during my freshman year in 2007. That was $15 that I could have used to get drunk that weekend.

I was sure this year’s team would be a mid-table team in the Big Ten.  I whole-heartedly foresaw this team being closer to the 2010-11 team that went to the NCAA Tournament than the aforementioned 20-loss team.  I am beginning to reconsider that prediction.

When I interviewed Bill DiFilippo in October, I told him off-air that I thought this was a 20-win team. I was so excited to see this team perform that I even got into heated battles with fellow Penn Staters who began admonishing anyone who was still on the Pat Chambers bandwagon after the team lost to Bucknell during early season action.

Now, in the dead of winter, I am beginning to feel the same way I felt about the team after games during that 09 season. I would walk out of the Bryce Jordan Center, it’d be snowing and freezing, I wouldn’t be able to feel my face and the team would have played a good enough game to make me not angry but they were still losing. I’d be pissed and then be mad that I was pissed. I’d come back to my dorm room, my friends would be drunk and happy, wondering where I had been for the last few hours, I’d say where and get a sympathetic look before getting offered some weed or booze. I feel like that, except it’s worse cause I don’t have the fifteen-minute walk in the cold to get my mind off the performance. I just have the sad realization that I have to go back to work tomorrow. I CAN’T EVEN GO TRY AND GET A MERCY F**K FROM THE COED DOWN THE HALL! F**K MY LIFE!

Who am I kidding, no co-eds were running round when we had THIS GUY on our floor trolling around.

Who am I kidding, no co-eds were running round when we had THIS GUY on our floor trolling around.

I love this team. I know there is talent here. This is the best team Penn State has had since I became a Nittany Lion. Yes, even better than the NCAA tournament team, better than the NIT championship team and far superior to last seasons team. So, what does the jury say about this team underachieving? That maybe the coaching needs to change.

Here’s the thing, I’d be stupid if I thought that Penn State should be a power house team every year. I understand that that tradition is probably more important in college hoops than in most other collegiate sports (including football) and Penn State hoops are not near the UCLA’s and Pittsburgh’s of the world. But, Penn State is near a hotbed of talent (Philadelphia) in the best conference in the world (Big Ten) and one of the premier venues (BJC) in the world. How can that combination not equate to the same number good teams per decade as often as some of the other northeastern teams with comparable histories?

If we are to be "All In" we probably need to wait a little while longer. But, like Luke Skywalker inside the trash compactor, the walls are inching closer with every minute.

If we are to be “All In” we probably need to wait a little while longer. But, like Luke Skywalker inside the trash compactor, the walls are inching closer with every minute.

I think Chambers has done a solid, if not tremendous, job in the recruiting area of things. The future, in terms of talent set up for the next few years, looks bright. The problem is that there isn’t as much confidence from even the biggest Chambers backer that he can build a team that plays a full game.

This year, the team has had leads against top-notch opponents. They led at the half against 4th ranked Michigan State. I thought the team was robbed of a win against Pittsburgh earlier in the year. This team had Indiana on the ropes not a week ago. The list goes on in regards to the heartbreaking losses this team has had. But, they haven’t been able to finish games. Is that Pat Chambers calling a terrible game when his team has a lead? Is that youth/inexperience rearing its ugly head? Is that a product of a team that isn’t on the same page? Or is this just bad luck?

One person tried to blame the five-game losing streak to start the Big Ten slate on the terrible cold streak Brandon Taylor is on. I laughed at him, but then found myself asking if it was a legitimate point. I came to the conclusion that while a bit diluted in the way this person got to his conclusion, at least it was a conclusion, and that was better than not having any reason.

I won’t be behind the mob that wants to fire Chambers today. I think Chambers has worked wonders in the two plus years he’s been at the head of the program. This isn’t a place like Westwood where we should expect results now. However, something needs to change for the better in the now.  Not because we’re owed or anything like that, but because the talent is there and this isn’t the kind of place that gets this kind of talent very often. Watching it melt in the face of the Big Ten isn’t a good look if we are to climb out of the tar pits of college basketball irrelevance.

I still believe in Chambers, but it’s beginning to become a task to keep up the faith. Those with a loud, angry voice, the ones who lead the lunatic fringe, are beginning to overpower the ones with patience and sanity.

Larry Johnson Gone

Bob Flounders: LJ Gone

I was going to write a reaction piece to James Franklin’s press conference as well as one to the crazy recruiting drama that took place thereafter, but with the crazy amount of news coming out about staff choices I figured the biggest news was yet to come. I assumed, correctly, that news about Larry Johnson’s future with Penn State was going to be an item that came out sooner rather than later.

It did.

Now, before I go forward, I will write about the recruiting drama going down as well as a reaction piece to Franklin’s Saturday presser. However, suffice it to say, Larry Johnson’s status with the team is the biggest piece of the puzzle to this entire coaching search.

Before I get to analysis, I guess I have to start with the story. Larry Johnson Sr., the last tie to the Paterno-era Nittany Lions and the greatest recruiter from the last two coaching regimes, is gone. Not by force, but by choice.

News broke late Monday night, by Bob Flounders, that Larry Johnson had decided not to stay in University Park. After beginning his tenure as a coach with the Penn State football program in 1996, he had quickly become the best recruiter and position coach on the team. I’d argue the best in the history of the program in both categories. He had churned out more NFL quality stars than nearly any other position coach during his 17-season stay at Penn State.

He stayed on during the two-years with Bill O’Brien, becoming the best recruiter on his staff (responsible for 9 of the 19 in this years class).

Now he leaves Penn State, after receiving an offer to stay on as defensive line coach under James Franklin.

On one hand, he had been offered a chance to be retained. If he loved Penn State so much, he could have stayed. That said, he had been passed over twice in three years for the Penn State head coaching position. The university, both times, went with younger coaches (one of whom hadn’t ever been a head coach on any level). I am sure that didn’t sit well with Johnson.

Some have argued that this choice was earned, and I can’t argue that. A man, who loyally stood by this university during its toughest times, deserves a chance to do whatever he pleases. Others believe this, as well as the appearance that Johnson is to become rival Ohio State’s newest DL Coach, shows Johnson is nothing more than another traitor in a long line of backstabbers Penn State has dealt with over the last month or so.

I am heartbroken.

I really wanted Johnson to be the next head coach. I was ecstatic to sign Franklin, but I wanted Johnson from the jump. I wasn’t always sold on him, or whom he could bring in to run the offensive schemes and playcalling, but I wanted to see Johnson either succeed or fail at the highest level.

I also said the most important thing going forward was to ensure Larry Johnson Sr. was retained and kept in the Blue and White. Now it seems like the boys in Ohio have gotten someone who was Penn State through and through and are going to exploit his talents to try and beat Penn State on both the line and on the recruiting trail. Shrewd move. I respect it. But I hate that I have to root against Larry Johnson.

I thought the low point in my sports life in regards to having to root against a former hero was when Brian Wilson signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers…boy was I wrong.

I hoped Johnson ended up in the SEC or Pac-12, and certainly not at Ohio State or Pittsburgh. Now I have to vomit.

Worst of all: Johnson is probably in the right. It was silly to think a tie to the Paterno-era (now two coaching searches removed from our current status) would be on this staff. Realistically, holdovers are rare, and two-time holdovers are even rarer. They’re like unicorns and Santa Claus…they don’t exist and they never will. But you cannot expect a person like Johnson to stay when he should have gotten a shot to be a head coach, and definitely a defensive coordinator, at some point.

Penn State chose their man. We loved it. And we love him. He said all the right things. He yelled about dominating Pennsylvania (there are even t-shirts made about that mantra already), and we creamed our pants about it. We can’t be mad now, that’d be very hypocritical. That said, we can be heartbroken and upset about his choice of future employment.

I don’t know if Johnson works in Columbus. I don’t think he ends up coexisting with Luke Fickell, someone who hasn’t learned to lead the way Larry Johnson can. Old school (Johnson) doesn’t usually mesh with new school (Fickell in this case). I think that could have been the case with Vanderlinden and John Butler, and I think it could easily end up being the case for Johnson and Fickell (or the rest of the Buckeye staff for that matter).

What I do know is that this hurts Penn State.

Maybe this won’t end the world, though it feels like it will right now. James Franklin was an amazing recruiter before now, and that was at Vanderbilt, and I know he will continue to be.  Sean Spencer, the defensive line coach on Franklin’s previous staff, is no joke. This could end up backfiring on Johnson (as Silas Redd’s did in 2012), not to say that that’s the hope but I have to point out the facts.

I know I am hurt and disappointed – not just because he is a great coach or a great recruiter. I am disappointed and hurt because like any great baseball player tied to one franchise, Johnson deserved to end his career like he began it: at Penn State.

Franklin in, Johnson out…Maybe

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As I’m sure most of you know by now, a vast majority of the sports media outlets are reporting that Vanderbilt head coach, James Franklin, will be the 16th head coach of the Penn State football program.

Obviously, before I can get onto some analysis, I want to point out that there are more than a few reports are out saying nothing has been signed and James Franklin apparently is still at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt’s athletic director, David Williams, even made a claim that Franklin said all the media reports were untrue.

Vandy ad

Vanderbilt defensive end, and defensive sparkplug, Caleb Azubike mentioned that he has first hand knowledge that Franklin hasn’t made a decision yet. Obviously, his words ring hallow with Penn State fans, as those were the same sentiments certain players and recruits had right before Bill O’Brien was announced as the newest head coach in Houston.

Caleb Azubike

As much as this is all exciting for us, the Nittany Lions may be losing the best defensive line coach in the nation with this decision. Very much like the reports about Franklin, the reports of Larry Johnson Sr. departing are conflicting. We have some reports saying he is angry he was not given a fair shot at the Penn State head coaching job, others report that he hasn’t made a decision, and much like with Franklin we are in wait and see mode.

Johnson could be gone

I have to preface the rest of this post by explaining that Franklin was not my first choice. I like Franklin; I think the knocks on him (some feel his 18-8 record over the last two years is padded by the lack of depth in the SEC) are overblown and off. I know Dave Jones and Gregg Doyel have made it a point to say that Franklin is a poor choice for Penn State. In fact, Jones’ slanted view has made it clear he wanted Mike Munchak as the next man up.

For me, I really think Franklin will be a success in Happy Valley should the reports be completely true. I even would go so far as to say I think he could be leading the Blue and White for more than five seasons.

I had wanted either Larry Johnson Sr. or Al Golden. Not so much for their ties to the past, but because their recruiting prowess and their ability to deal with adversity is something that I am very interested in. I actually was leaning towards Larry Johnson being appointed, which I think is entirely too clear by my profile on him a few days ago. It would be a truly sad day if we lose him at this point in time.

That said, I guess I never truly got excited about Franklin. Again, it isn’t because I don’t believe he can be a success at Penn State. But the pessimist in me never thought Franklin had a chance in hell of being appointed to lead the Penn State Nittany Lions. I thought the Texas Longhorns would have scooped him up before Penn State got around to offering him a contract, if not, then by some lowly NFL franchise.

As a San Francisco Giants fan, I am used to getting hearing about all sorts of big names being floated around before settling for a lackluster product (Vladamir Guerrero was supposed to be a Giant until he wasn’t and the Giants signed Jeffery Hammonds and Brett Tomko). I guess I expected this to happen for Penn State. I actually expected Mike Munchak to end up leading the Nittany Lions.

James Franklin, as the Vladamir Guerrero of the offseason coaching carousel, was supposed to end up in Texas. I had no doubts. His name puts Penn State in everyone’s mind, which is something you want when going out to recruit. If Franklin steps into a recruit’s living room after a full offseason of being hyped up by the ESPNs and CBS’ of the world, he suddenly gets Penn State to climb atop some of these recruits’ lists. When thinking like that, there was no way he’d be still on the board once Texas made their decision.

Then, for Texas to pick the inferior (albeit still a home run hire) coach to lead them, I began to let myself warm up to the idea that Franklin would be at Penn State.

On the surface, Franklin isn’t a sexy pick (other than all the media attention making him seem that way). He runs a very basic, very vanilla offense that uses tons of screens. However, I am not sold that he will run the same offense in Beaver Stadium. With a glut of offensive weapons that Vanderbilt hasn’t had over the last few seasons, I can see some more fireworks coming out of the offense.

Now, what does trouble me is that Larry Johnson could be gone. I mentioned that the biggest move of the offseason was to keep Johnson on staff.

It didn’t matter how Penn State did it, but they had to ensure it happened. He is an amazing coach, an ever better recruiter and he maintains the level of discipline that Penn State is used to. I am not saying that Franklin bringing his entire 2013 staff to University Park means that Penn State players will begin to run amok. But, I think certain standards have to be maintained and I always felt Johnson was a safety net to keep that up.

LJ Mum

I hope that the reports that he’s gone are false. I also hope that Franklin, who seems like a smart person, realizes how vital Johnson would be on any staff, let alone one just coming into a new university and a new conference.

At the end of the day, no announcement on Franklin is expected. In fact, the CDT is reporting that we wont hear anything until after a Saturday the Board of Trustees conference call. From there, the Larry Johnson situation will slowly begin to clear up.

 BOT Conference Call

I will leave you with this, the Nittany Lions may or may not have picked the best football coach, but they picked the guy who will keep the Nittany Lions on the minds of recruits for the next few seasons, which is key for right now. They also have shown with their apparent choice, that they are ready to live in the now rather than in the past…their choice is to pick the guy who will help the program grow rather than pick a guy who is tied to the past (Munchak) or is safe (Al Golden). Maybe that’s enough to be excited about.

Penn State Coaching Search: Reviewing James Franklin

Here is a quick look at one of the top coaching candidates for the Penn State position:

James Franklin

Name: James Franklin
Age: 41
Current Position: Vanderbilt Commodores (HC)
HC Record: 24-15
HC Experience: 3 seasons
Other Positions: OC (6 seasons), WR Coach (9 seasons)
Penn State Ties: None

If there is someone who has the most momentum right now, it’s James Franklin. Even the people who adamantly want Larry Johnson Sr. as the next head coach seem to be all right with Franklin as head coach. Obviously, Franklin is the biggest name in the coaching carousel. He was one of the front-runners for the University of Texas job and is currently tied to numerous NFL postings (most notably the Washington Redskins job). If Penn State picks up James Franklin, it would be a coup on par with Penn State snatching the top overall player in a recruiting class after years of mediocrity.

On the other hand, the biggest problem with Franklin is that he could be a guy who turns out to be a name floated around every offseason as a potential college-to-NFL guy. If people hated Bill O’Brien having drama after his two seasons in college, imagine the kind of craziness that could follow this guy.

WHO IS James Franklin? 

James Franklin, a native of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, is currently the head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores. He has been in Nashville for three seasons, going 24-15 in that time, but most notably posing an 18-8 record in the last two seasons. Keep in mind, Vanderbilt is with much higher academic standards than most universities; they sit in the thick of the toughest conference in America; and Vanderbilt doesn’t have much of a rich tradition in the football realm.

Franklin has had to recruit against some of the very best recruiters in the world (i.e. Mark Richt, Steve Spurrier, Gus Malzahn and Nick Saban) and he’s held his own. His 2013 class was ranked 31st according to 247Sports (Penn State was ranked 30th), the incoming 2014 class is currently ranked 25th (Penn State is ranked 23rd).

He played in the early 90’s, playing quarterback in his four years at East Stroudsburg, where he set seven school records and was named Sports Illustrated’s National Player of the Week at one point in 1994. He immediately became a wide receivers coach at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in 1995. He floated around for a while in the mid to late-90’s before becoming the wide receivers coach at Maryland. To date, his five-year tenure (2000-04) in College Park is the longest stretch of time he’s spent at one stop. He left Maryland to work one season with the Green Bay Packers before heading to Manhattan to be the offensive coordinator for Kansas State and then back to College Park to be the offensive coordinator for Maryland. Finally in 2011, he became the head coach of the Commodores.

Franklin is an offensive mind, running a more fast-paced version of the West Coast offense. He is also someone who gets players excited for things, something we all enjoyed seeing out of the O’Brien staff. If he comes in, the likelihood is that he could keep a majority of the current recruiting class committed to Penn State.

Quite frankly, he gets results. There is no reason he can’t take Penn State and make them into something more than an old power. He was able to take Vanderbilt to three bowl games in three seasons, imagine the possibilities at Penn State.

 

DOES HE FIT?

Here is the problem with Franklin: he is a nomad. As mentioned above, the longest tenure that Franklin has had in his career has been a five-year stop in Maryland in 2000. To put it in even crazier terms, Franklin has had 11 different jobs in his 18-year career. Those are Nate Robinson numbers.

One could argue that him coming home to Pennsylvania will lead to him staying for a longer tenure than his previous five-year high. Maybe. But when it comes to changing someone’s patterns, it’s hard. I would love to have Franklin come to Penn State, lead us through the next decade or two and win a gang of championships before taking the leap to the NFL or something like that. But I doubt it will go down that way.

That said, this guy is the biggest name in the coaching carousel, and for Penn State (not Texas) to get him would actually benefit the prestige of Penn State going forward, and that alone may be worth dealing with Franklin’s inevitable exit in a few seasons.

He would be a fit for what Penn State is right now. For all the anti-Paterno sentiments that I am perceived to have, I know that Paterno was (and always will be Penn State) and I respect that. But with his untimely ousting in 2011, this university is still looking to rebuild itself. Reinvent itself, if you will. Bringing in a young, hot-shot coach who will do things very differently from his two predecessors will do everyone a lot of good.

 

PREDICTION

I like Franklin. I think he’d be great at Penn State. But I don’t know how much I trust that he actually wants to come to University Park. This morning has been chalk full of reports that Franklin is coming to Penn State and also that Vanderbilt is putting in an offer to keep Franklin in Nashville. I don’t know what to think.

I thought Al Golden was a for sure hire, but that obviously didn’t go the way I thought it would have. I thought Craig Fitzgerald was going to stay at Penn State, and he’s on his way to Houston now. So I guess the best prediction is to shut up and watch the craziness of Twitter go ablaze over the next few hours (and possibly days).

If Franklin is a Penn Stater, I’ll be ecstatic (if just for the epic Franklin-Meyer recruiting battles to take place over the next few seasons), but I won’t be comfortable.

Penn State Coaching Search: Reviewing Larry Johnson Sr.

Here is a quick look at one of the top coaching candidates for the Penn State position:

Larry Johnson Sr

Name: Larry Johnson Sr.
Age: 61
Current Position: Penn State Nittany Lions (HC)
HC Record: NR
HC Experience: N/A
Other Positions: DL (14 seasons), DE/ST Coach (4 seasons)
Penn State Ties: 1996 (as coach)

If there is someone who seems to be getting full backing (in some form or another) by the Penn State fan base, it’s Larry Johnson. Some may only want him as a defensive coordinator, some as head coach, but nearly everyone wants Johnson to be part of the Nittany Lions next season.

For me, the most important key to the success of the Penn State Nittany Lions going forward is what Larry Johnson is doing next season. If he is on the Penn State sideline next season in any capacity, Penn State comes out ahead. If he isn’t, this will be that much harder for whoever comes in.

WHO IS Larry Johnson Sr.? 

Larry Johnson Sr. was brought into the fold back in 1996 as the defensive end and special teams coach for Penn State. He went on to become Penn State’s defensive line coach in 2000 and has been at the position since then. He survived the 2011 coaching purge which saw him and the recently released Ron Vanderlinden as the only holdovers from the Paterno-era.

He has been someone who is known for developing his defensive linemen into top-notch NFL talent. He has made guys like Devon Still, Jared Odrick, Tamba Hali, Courtney Brown, Aaron Maybin, Jordan Hill and Jimmy Kennedy into NFL players. This is not to say that those men didn’t have talent, but Johnson’s leadership certainly helped propel them into being drafted.

Where Johnson has become a key cog to Penn State has been on the recruiting circuit. It seems like a good chunk of every recruiting class in recent memory has been due in large part to the extra work Johnson puts in. Incoming recruits often cite him as a large reason they have picked Penn State over other Big Ten powers.

On New Years day, after word of O’Brien’s departure to the NFL had spread, Johnson was named the team’s interim head coach. This was met with lots of positive feelings from the fans. More importantly, the former lettermen have made it clear they want Johnson to be the man in Happy Valley.

Johnson didn’t say too much today during his teleconference about what he would do if the interim tag is removed, but I would be willing to bet you see a majority of the recruiting class stay and probably the re-hiring of Ron Vanderlinden. After that, the lack of head coaching experience on this level would leave this venture as completely new for everyone in the Penn State family.

DOES HE FIT?

Larry Johnson fits, probably better than anyone else. Why? Because he’s been a Penn Stater for the better part of two decades and knows the lay of the land a lot better than anyone potentially coming in. I know Al Golden has played for Penn State, and thus people will automatically say he’s the best fit because he’s a “Penn State guy” or whichever adage they want to go with there. Ultimately the man who has had the longest tenure with Penn State is Johnson. He has been a survivor, which is something worth noting.

Johnson has, as noted above, the support of former (and current) Penn State players. He is someone the entire fan base wants back, even if only as the defensive line coach.

The tricky part is whether Johnson will be tired of working under other people. Will he leave unless he is the next head coach at Penn State? That probably is the hardest question to answer. I know for me, I am almost willing to give Johnson the job and see what he can do before letting him go. I rather take the risk of finding out that Johnson isn’t a great coach just to keep him on for the now.

On the other hand, what worries everyone (even the staunchest of Johnson supporters) is that he will not be able to have competent offensive gameplan going forward. This would be an utter waste of the offensive talent that Penn State has cultivated and is harboring. Christian Hackenberg is a talent that can build a program up and take them to the promised land of a championship. Johnson would need something a lot closer to the offensive schemes we saw with O’Brien than with Paterno. At least part of me fear’s we’d se the latter.

 

PREDICTION

I don’t know what to think. When I wrote the Al Golden article, I was sure Al Golden was the for sure man to be hired. However, in the last hour or so, Twitter has gone from Penn State and Al Golden being a lock to Al Golden being out, James Franklin going to Texas and Mike Munchak staying in Nashville.

I think that Al Golden still finds a way to get his Lasch Building office next season, and I think that his defensive coordinator is Larry Johnson. I think the only way Johnson stays and isn’t named head coach is if his former co-worker, Golden, is the headman.

I do think if Golden falls through, Johnson is the guy who gets the job. I don’t think Franklin is going to pass up a shot at being Mack Brown’s successor and I think Munchak is not interested, regardless of his past with Penn State.

Either way, much like the last coaching search, the key to the coaching choice is to keep Johnson on staff.

Penn State Coaching Search: Reviewing Al Golden

Here is a quick look at one of the top coaching candidates for the Penn State position:

Al Golden

 

Name: Al Golden
Age: 44
Current Position: Miami Hurricanes (HC)
HC Record: 49-49 (.500)
HC Experience: 8 seasons
Other Positions: DC (5 seasons), LB Coach (4 seasons)
Penn State Ties: 1987-91 (as player), 2000 (as coach)

If someone would have asked me to name my top-10 list for potential coaches to replace Bill O’Brien right after the Wisconsin game, I doubt Al Golden would have sniffed the top half of the list. In fact, I doubt his name would have even come up as a potential entrant at all. I wasn’t in awe of him during his tenure at Temple, though in hindsight what he did in Philadelphia should have been one of the best coaching jobs in the last decade. And when his name was put out there as one of the potential candidates for the Penn State head-coaching job after the Jerry Sandusky, I was very uninspired about what he could do for the Blue and White.

I may have been wrong, and with his name out there for this year’s coaching search, he has drawn me in a little more.

WHO IS AL GOLDEN? 

Al Golden, as most of you know, is currently the head coach of the Miami Hurricanes. He played tight end for the Nittany Lions from 1987-1991 before a short stint in the NFL. He became a graduate assistant at Virginia in 1994, and stayed there until 1996. He was nabbed up as a linebacker coach at Boston College (1997-99) and Penn State (2000) before then Virginia head coach Al Groh nabbed him up to be his defensive coordinator in 2001.

He stayed in Charlottesville from 2001-05 before heading up the Temple program in 2006. At the time, Temple had just been kicked out of the Big East and was 0-11 in 2005. Golden, who became the second youngest head coach in the NCAA when he was hired, was able to improve the team each season.

In 2009, Temple posted their first winning season since 1990 when they went 9-3 and won the MAC Eastern Division title. All told, Temple went 27-34 (20-12 in the MAC) during Golden’s five-season tenure at Temple. Keep in mind; Temple went 5-19 in the first two years of that five-year arch.

In 2010, Miami hired Golden to becoming their head coach. Miami was not allowed to play in the post-season in his first two seasons, after Miami booster Nevin Shapiro used $2 million investor funds as donations to the Hurricane athletic program.

Last season, Golden’s Hurricanes went 9-4 (5-3 in the ACC), ending up second in the ACC Coastal division. The team was very much in the race for a majority of the season before Duke was able to win on the last weekend of the season for the division title.

Golden also put together the 6th ranked group for the 2014 recruiting class. He has shown an innate ability to connect with his players, and also has been able to get everything he can out of players that other people don’t see much in. As a bonus, he is someone who can and will recruit inner city players, which is something I am very much for adding to Penn State’s arsenal.

 

DOES HE FIT?

Al Golden is a fit. No doubt about that. He appeases the “we need a Penn State guy” crowd as well as the part of the fan base that is looking to move forward. He can recruit, he can motivate and it seems like he can win anywhere, under any circumstances.

I guess what I like best about Golden is that he can deal with negative backlash from a rabid fan base. Miami supporters really have never gotten behind Golden. So now, if he comes home to Penn State, he’ll have a lot more support to start, and likely wont lose too many along the way due to his ties with the old guard.

He also has an amazing track record with helping develop players into NFL caliber talent.

Where one is going to have a tough time accepting Al Golden, is if his great recruiting jobs of the past don’t translate to Penn State. See, campuses in Miami and in Philadelphia are a little easier to sell than a campus in the middle of Pennsylvania, over three hours away from any major metropolitan center. If the right man isn’t recruiting, it’s a lot harder to do.

Another question will be about what staff will come with Golden should he come to Happy Valley. Does Larry Johnson Sr. stay on? What kind of offense will be run? Etc. But, if Golden does come to town, and he keeps Johnson on, that could be the best thing for the program going forward.

PREDICTION

Reports are increasingly skewing towards Golden’s hiring. Word could come out as soon as tonight, though I doubt it. I think if Golden is hired, we won’t know until after Sunday’s interview with Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.

I do think Al Golden will be Penn State’s next coach, and I do think we get both Larry Johnson Sr. and Craig Fitzgerald. I also believe that a good chunk of the recruiting class stays, and the players who decide to check out will be replaced by a few of the names on Miami’s recruiting class.

I also think the move ultimately works out, if not initially, for Penn State. I do think this leads to something good, but I think the upward trend that Penn State has been on over the last two seasons stalls a little over the next two seasons or so. I get the two seasons as a timetable from the track record of Al Golden (who usually sees a huge upswing in production in season three) rather than the potential for a bowl ban being lifted.

Only time will tell.