Successful head coach in the Big East goes to take over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. High-profile offensive assistant for the NFL’s Patriots moves into Happy Valley to coach Penn State University. Shouldn’t this be the other way around?
More importantly, does either move for Greg Schiano and Bill O’Brien have a shot at success? College football and pro football are the same sport. They are not the same game.
Word is that Schiano rebuffed the Nittany Lions when they courted him to replace Joe Paterno. Schiano was the most prominent coach east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon Line and he was on Penn State’s radar after spending six seasons as defensive backfield coach from 1991 through ’96. A long run in Happy Valley was the next natural step for both coach and school.
Rutgers and the Big East face great uncertainty. The Big East is a troubled conference. Rumors of Big Ten Conference interest in Rutgers never panned out. Ohio State and Michigan looked elsewhere to fill vacancies in their programs. What’s an ambitious young NCAA coach to do?
Tampa Bay to the rescue
The Buccaneers are flying against history in signing Schiano as head coach. The NFL has stumped many a fine college coach, including Nick Saban, Dennis Erickson, Steve Spurrier, John Robinson, Lou Holtz, Bobby Petrino and Lane Kiffin. The Bucs’ own John McKay finished his nine-year run in Tampa with a 44-88-1 record after winning four national championships at Southern Cal.
Schiano can look to two successes for inspiration. Stanford’s John Harbaugh took the woebegone San Francisco 49ers to the verge of the NFC championship in one season. There is no explanation for Harbaugh except that he is a force of nature.
Jimmy Johnson left the University of Miami to lead the Dallas Cowboys to two of their three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s. Johnson then clashed with team owner Jerry Jones, or was it the other way around. Jones kicked Johnson off the team and replaced him with Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer who won the Super Bowl two seasons later.
It’s a rare college man who can win in the pros
Johnson and Switzer are the only two coaches to win both national NCAA titles and Super Bowl championships, but Dallas was already a Super Bowl-ready team when Switzer joined them. Thus, he does not count in any discussion about team turnarounds.
Johnson was on the winning side of the stupidest deal in NFL history, the 1989 Herschel Walker trade with the Minnesota Vikings. Johnson and Jones stocked the Cowboys with Pro Bowl and Hall of Fame talent while driving Minnesota’s GM Mike Lynn out of football and, for his own safety, out of the State.
Schiano may be a force of nature, but no other team offers to throw excessive draft picks at Tampa Bay to make them a champion. Tampa Bay’s “youngry” players may be why the Glazer family and GM Mark Dominik consistently pursued college coaches. Youngry means they don’t know how to close the deal against the Saints or the Falcons.
Before Schiano, Tampa Bay offered the job to Oregon’s Chip Kelly who flirted with the idea before deciding to remain with the Ducks.
Maybe next year, or year after, for Schiano and the Bucs
NFL coaches bring their network with them. The best candidates insist on hiring their own assistants who can hit the ground running. They know the new playbook and how to assess players that fit. That’s a red flag for the Buccaneers.
As I write this, the team web site shows only two coaches, Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, former quarterback coach for the New York Giants. Florida Gators’ defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Crimson Tide O-line coach Jeff Stoutland (more college guys) turned down offers for similar posts with Tampa Bay.
Dominik is trying to help. Tampa Bay signed Jimmy Raye and Butch Davis to be advisory assistants on the coaching staff. They become Obi-Wan to Schiano’s Skywalker. They will not be game planning opponents or coaching Tampa Bay’s young players for NFL competition.
Schiano excelled in recruiting kids who played his scheme and who would graduate as he prepped them for the pros. His network is the corps of high school coaches who streamed talent his way. Schiano was careful about scheduling non-conference teams he could beat. Those attributes are perfect for Penn State, but will not help in the NFL where schemes are precise, talent gaps are narrow and coaches have short windows to win.
In Schiano, the Glazers made another unconventional coach decision just as they did when they traded Draft picks to Oakland for Jon Gruden, then replaced Gruden with unknown assistant Raheem Morris. Schiano will not get nine years to win like Hugh Culverhouse gave John McKay. That’s too bad. Schiano will need two or three seasons just to stabilize his staff and coach his team above .500.
For a faster start, the Bucs might have signed Jeff Fisher, Chuck Pagano, Romeo Crennel…or, Bill O’Brien.
Penn State, the job no college coach wants
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted an unnamed agent for NCAA coaches in December who said, “The Penn State job is a toxic situation — everybody is steering clear of it.”
Why on earth would a college coach shy from a program that Forbes Magazine lists as the third most valuable NCAA football team in the country? Perhaps they listened to the high school coaches in their feeder stream who whispered concerns about collateral damage of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that will only get worse when the matter comes to trial.
Penn State’s program is taking a hit just when Urban Meyer lands around the corner at Ohio State. That’s a problem. In hiring O’Brien, the Lions got a NFL-caliber solution to a BCS recruiting problem.
This is college football, where Jimmies and Joes count more than Xs and Os. Recruiting players trumps coaching skill. Talent differences between the top and bottom of your conference can be great and greater between your team and the beat-’em-up non-conference patsy you pay to visit so you can pad the score for BCS ranking.
For the trying days to come, Penn State needs what Schiano does best, recruit talent that can win while following the rules. O’Brien has strengths in pro-level coaching, but Penn State fell off the map for recruiting. Rivals.com ranked Ohio State ranked fourth and Michigan seventh in 2012 recruiting on February 1, National Letter of Intent day — the BCS version of the NFL Draft. Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and three other Big Ten schools placed in the Top 50. The Nittany Lions not at all.
We’ll leave it to our colleagues at Crystal Ball Run to chronicle how badly things go for Penn State where everyone understands the challenge and will make allowances for it. The Sandusky scandal would have given Schiano a longer and oddly safer run in State College than he will ever get in Tampa.