Should Penn State name a "head coach in waiting"?
With the dawn of a new college football season, we will soon get answers to many of this year’s intriguing storylines. Having won the last five BCS championship games, will the SEC continue their recent string of dominance? Under the scrutiny of their recent Longhorn Network partnership with ESPN, will the Texas Longhorns rebound from last year’s dismal 5-7 campaign? Will Notre Dame live up to the preseason hype and make a BCS Bowl Game (judging by yesterday’s performance against South Florida, the answer to this is no)?
Additionally there is also the question that has been asked on an annual basis for the past five to ten years: Will this be the last year legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno is on the sideline for the Nittany Lions? Entering his 46th season as head coach, the now 84 year old Paterno has been dealing with inquiries regarding his future on an increasing level with each passing year. Critics debating whether or not Paterno should continue coaching were at their strongest following the 2004 season, as Penn State failed to win more than four games in consecutive seasons. Since then, his team went on one of the best five year runs in school history, compiling eleven wins in three seasons and winning two Conference titles.
Despite the recent success his teams have achieved and the fact that he continues to delegate greater responsibility to his assistant coaches, with the Lions struggling to a 7-6 record last season questions once again arose regarding Paterno and the future of the head coach position at Penn State. When presented with such questions Paterno tends to downplay the subject, preferring to focus on the season at hand and take it one year at a time. The University also avoids the topic, as Paterno is a living legend and in essence put Penn State on the map as a top football program. If the Athletic Department has an eventual successor in mind, they are keeping it close to the vest in deference to Paterno and what he means to both the University and State College community. The question on the minds of many fans of the program and followers of college football in general is whether or not Penn State should name a successor or designate a “head coach in waiting”.
In recent years, big name programs such as Texas, Florida State, and West Virginia have designated a “head coach in waiting”. This title is often given to current hot-shot offensive or defensive coordinators at the school making the designation, and for programs that currently employ head coaches getting up there in age. In doing so, these schools attempt to keep their top coaches from taking other head coaching jobs, and create an environment of stability for their programs and for future recruits.
This process often has mixed results. Florida State named Jimbo Fisher as head coach in waiting a few years ago to eventually replace coaching icon Bobby Bowden. Like Paterno, Bowden had built the Florida State program into a national power from the ground up, and many felt he should be afforded the opportunity to leave the school on his own terms. However, after a few down years even some of his most devoted supporters started calling for a change, and he unceremoniously retired after the 2009 season. Thus far the transition from Bowden to Fisher has been seamless, as Florida State had a successful 2010 season and is currently ranked in the 2011 top ten. Fisher has proven to be a top-flight recruiter, raking in back to back top five classes.
The University of Texas on the other hand jumped the gun when they prematurely named Will Muschamp as the eventual successor of Mack Brown in 2008. For starters, UT had been on a run of exceptional success under Brown, with high level recruiting classes flowing in year after year. Additionally, Brown was only 59 years old, planned on coaching for many years to come, and was under contract until 2016 at the time of the announcement. Due to the uncertainty surrounding when his time would come as the head man at UT, after the 2010 season Muschamp left the school to become the new head coach of the Florida Gators.
Given Paterno’s age, the situation at Penn State would resemble the Florida State/Bowden scenario if the school were to name a “head coach in waiting”. Unlike Florida State, it is hard to fathom Penn State alumni and boosters ever nudging Paterno towards the door, as health permitting the decision concerning how long he wants to coach seems to be his call. The school holds him in such high regard that I have a hard time believing they would even name his successor while he is still the head coach. I don’t think this is problem for the future of the program if Paterno’s eventual replacement is already on staff. Stability would be maintained as long tenured assistant (and oft mentioned potential replacement) coaches Galen Hall and Tom Bradley already do a bulk of the recruiting, handle most of the play calling (be it offensive or defensive), and are familiar with the traditions and culture of Happy Valley.
A bigger problem would emerge if the school decided to name an outsider as “head coach in waiting”, as this could lead to uncertainty amongst the current staff and players and negatively impact the decision of potential recruits. I could be wrong, but if Penn State was going to go this route in naming Joe Pa’s heir I feel they would have made the move years ago. Since the next coach of the Nittany Lions is more than likely on the current staff, I agree that there should be no urgency for the school to name Paterno’s successor. For the time being, college fans should enjoy each remaining game we see Paterno on the sidelines, as he is the last of a dying breed. In an era of increased mobility and coaches changing jobs on a regular basis, it’s unlikely we will ever see a coach with the allegiance to one school and staying power of Joe Paterno again.