Penn State Hypotheticals
When LSU fired Les Miles this week, it put an end to a standoff years in the making - on the one side, an embittered portion of the fanbase that was never satisfied with Les Miles’ approach, and on the other, a coach who never won enough of the big games to satisfy his haters. Winning can cure all, but if the fan base isn’t sold on the man in charge, sometimes it only works as a band-aid until a rough patch comes along.
And, in the end, LSU chose a more dramatic and expensive course of action by letting Miles go - even though, little over a year earlier, it went without paying John Chavis the money to keep around one of the game’s top defensive coordinators. That move contributed to the slide in performance for the Tigers in 2015, which was a part of the build-up and general frustration that culminated this week.
Penn State is in a very similar circumstance at the moment. James Franklin is in the hot seat right now - some might argue that he’s not or shouldn’t be, but that’s also the situation Les was in at the start of last year - and Franklin has still not won over some of Penn State’s most vocal supporters.
That's the difficulty (Penn State’s AD Sandy) Barbour faces; for many it doesn't matter that Penn State has had some of the absolute worst luck with injuries the past two seasons or that scholarship restrictions are the nuclear fallout of penalties. Or that finally having 85 scholarships and good recruiting classes is the kind of thing that takes years to fully integrate into a program.
For the past several years Penn State has existed in a soup of realities and NCAA imposed hurdles that often makes it difficult to separate avoidable missteps from unavoidable handicaps. It's easy to conceptually understand how the sanctions have hurt the program; it's harder to see it and point to a single mistake or a single loss and say "that's the sanctions at work" and know for certain that it wasn't something else.
And that makes the next few weeks some of the most interesting in the Franklin era.
Ultimately, Les Miles’ resume wasn’t enough to save him in Baton Rouge. James Franklin is in a similar, and tricky, predicament, with a banged-up team and several more challenging games ahead: Minnesota (Week 5), Maryland (6), Ohio State (8), Iowa (10), Indiana (11), and Michigan State (13). Going 3-3 in those games could be disastrous, if the fans feel like the program is backsliding.
In the background of all this is the fact that the program wasn’t able to hold on to their own star defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, this past off-season when he bolted for Tennessee. Penn State is looking noticeably worse on that side of the ball, and while one could say it’s not quite Franklin’s fault, it does feel like he will ultimately be the scapegoat.
So, What If Franklin Is Let Go?
If Franklin does get let go at season’s end, you can bet Penn State would be willing to reach deep into their coffers for a top coaching candidate. Tom Herman is the big name out there, and he’d certainly be a fascinating addition to the Big Ten East, where he used to coach. Herman’s offense would present unique challenges in the Big Ten, and his hire would give a jolt of energy to a fan base that feels they need it.
Some other interesting candidates from the AAC are Temple’s Matt Rhule, who led his team to a 10-win season this past year in his third as head coach, and UCF’s Scott Frost, who has immediately made the Knights competitive after a winless campaign a year ago.
Another familiar name from a G5 conference is P.J. Fleck, who has Western Michigan at 4-0 this season and is 20-10 since his first season in Kalamazoo. Also, Boise State’s Bryan Harsin is 24-6 so far with the Broncos, and is due for a large pay raise this off-season.
It would be cheeky, to say the least, to steal from the SEC’s head coaching ranks again, but the SEC has become an interesting mine for talent, given some fans’ restless sentiments and the difficulty competing with top programs right away. MSU’s Dan Mullen has seemed interested in job openings in the past, but you can bet the name “Jeffery Simmons” would come up a lot.
Kevin Sumlin has been on the hot seat at A&M, but he’s off to a 4-0 start this season, so it’s more likely than not that he’ll stay in College Station.
What If Franklin Is Not Fired?
Franklin’s contract is simply not amenable for Penn State to buy out. He’ll be owed a whopping $12.6 million if Penn State wanted to move on this December. That figure would drop to $8.8 million after next season, and $4.5 million the year after.
What would probably have to happen this off-season, though, is the search for a new defensive coordinator and a shot in the arm - essentially, what LSU did with Dave Aranda. Yes, this path looks familiar, and some of it may have been avoided by ponying up for Bob Shoop.
But the frustration in the fan base, and the shorter clock that coaches have these days to produce results, are also key factors. They’re factors that James Franklin will have to find some way to navigate if he wants to stay in Happy Valley long-term.
One Thought On Wisconsin
Football is full of its own cliches, truisms, rules of physics, and absolutes. One of more steadfast and reliable rules is this: coaches are much, much more important to a team’s success than players.
You get Urban Meyer, you’re going to get wins. You lose a good player ... well, that’s often more manageable. It isn’t true every time, but it’s steadfast. Reliable. Solid.
However, I’ve never seen a program handle their coaches like Wisconsin has. Barry Alvarez, the athletic director, is the real man in charge; the coaches seem almost ... irrelevant?
Bret Bielema leaves? That’s all right. Gary Andersen takes off? Hey, that’s fine, too. Dave Aranda? You know, he’s not worth the money. The Badgers just keep on rolling.
All my experience told me this would come back to bite them, sooner or later. Talented coaches usually aren’t replaceable like that - especially not head coaches. But consider this: Wisconsin has now experienced a 10-win season seven different times since 2005, and they’ve done it with four head coaches.