Among other things, Bill O'Brien leaves Penn State having proved that this program, one racked by scandal, should not wither and fade under the strict limitations of NCAA sanctions. That he leaves at all, however, and does so soon, creates two interesting scenarios.
The first involves the school's upcoming search. Did O'Brien, who agreed Tuesday to join the Houston Texans, make Penn State a more appealing job than it appeared two years ago? Even if only two years, O'Brien's tenure — one that did a good portion of the dirty work — certainly helps PSU attract a strong pool of candidates.
The second: How will O'Brien be viewed by the Penn State fan base? It's a base weaned on Joe Paterno, remember, who spent nearly a half-century in the Nittany Lions' top spot. For some, perhaps, the two-and-gone tenure is absolutely inexcusable; for others, what O'Brien achieved during his two years will have him remembered fondly.
But the search is on for O'Brien's replacement. Who fits PSU's criteria?
What's good about the job
Some of the hard work has been done. In other words, O'Brien's successor inherits a situation far removed from the predicament Penn State faced two years ago — one that looks even more daunting in hindsight. NCAA sanctions cost Penn State scholarships, for one; it also allowed current players to transfer without incurring a lost season of eligibility, leading to further attrition. Remember the theme 24 months ago: Penn State football is cooked. O'Brien first disproved that theory, and then showed how a team short on prototypical numbers and depth can still compete for eight or nine wins in the tougher of the Big Ten's two divisions.
Penn State is still very much a marquee brand in college football — one of the true blueblood programs — and, as such, retains that prestige and marketability on the recruiting trail, for example. (It will also attract a more proven class of coach, as noted below.) More than that, however, Penn State stands to retain its spot among the nation's elite once the Nittany Lions fully leave the cloud of NCAA sanctions. What this means: Penn State is still a place where a coach can play for and win national championships.
The NCAA has already begun the process of restoring lost scholarships because of the school's "continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity." Five restored scholarships will give the Nittany Lions the use of 75 scholarships in 2014-15; another five in 2015-16 boosts that number to 80, and another five in 2016-17 lifts PSU back to the allotted 85-scholarship total.
There's a nice young nucleus of talent in 2014. One name worth considering is Christian Hackenberg, who flourished as a true freshman under O'Brien's direction. Is Hackenberg's development vital enough to focus this search entirely on coaches with an offense-first history, if not a background working with quarterbacks directly?
What's bad about the job
O'Brien's gift — the idea that PSU doesn't have to wilt away — could be viewed as a negative, in a way. Think about it: PSU might have once been happy merely surviving these sanctions; now, after O'Brien had 15 wins in two years, falling back to 3-9 or 4-8 will be viewed as unacceptable. Once, maybe. But with scholarships returning and a light clearly seen at the end of the tunnel, O'Brien's successor will be asked to keep the Nittany Lions very relevant despite the postseason ban.
Every team sees a degree of turnover after every season. At Penn State, however, the losses are magnified by the battle for usefulness from each and every scholarship. After this season, for example, the Nittany Lions must replace leaders along both lines — John Urschel and DaQuan Jones, for starters — and could lose All-America wide receiver Allen Robinson, if he decides to leave a year ahead of schedule. Such personnel losses would task the average team; they stretch PSU more than anyone.
Who are the likely candidates
A background on offense is a plus — because of players such as Hackenberg — but should not be a prerequisite. Rather than focusing solely on coaches, such as O'Brien, who specialize in quarterbacks, Penn State will include candidates with a big-picture view of what it takes to run a successful college program.
Familiarity with the Big Ten and a knowledge of the local recruiting base are positives, of course. Even if PSU does recruit itself, in a way, the Nittany Lions won't survive in a rough-and-tumble Big Ten East Division — set to premiere in 2014 — without making the most of each available scholarship. Until the sanctions abate, recruiting might be more important at PSU than anywhere else.
One more thing: Penn State needs a coach who will stay. In the future, after the dust has cleared, O'Brien might very well be viewed positively by the overwhelming majority of PSU's fan base. But his two-and-gone tenure reinforces the program's desire for having a coach in the mix for the long haul — if not 60-plus years, like Joe Paterno, how about 15 years?
A few names on the school's radar, listed alphabetically:
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin
Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden
Ball State coach Pete Lembo
Brigham Young coach Bronco Mendenhall
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen
Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak
San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano
The ideal candidates
Golden played for Paterno, spent one year as a Paterno assistant and was in the mix for the position prior to the 2012 season. Despite what seem like strong ties to his alma mater, why would Golden leave one project — the task of leading Miami under the NCAA's watchful gaze — and take on another? It's hard to imagine.
Penn State could make a strong run at Franklin — if a school such as Texas doesn't wrest him away first. Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, fits what PSU wants to the letter: He's energetic, a wonderful recruiter, a seller — meaning someone who will serve as the national face and voice of the program — and an offense-first coach with a background in quarterback work.
Then there's Schiano, who developed a sterling reputation during his run at Rutgers but has since drawn negativity for his work with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's good news for PSU: Schiano might be more willing to listen to college offers after being fired following a 11-21 record in two NFL seasons.
Ball State coach Pete Lembo doesn't have the prime-time experience of candidates such as Golden, Franklin or Schiano, but he brings extensive college experience — all positive — and ties to the Northeast. Lembo spent eight years at Lehigh, an FCS program in Bethlehem, Pa., and went 44-14 as the Mountain Hawks' coach from 2001-05.
If the school wants to begin its search with candidates with FBS experience, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak would be a very viable and impressive fallback option for the Nittany Lions. In fact, that PSU could view Lembo and Munchak as secondary targets speaks to the strong list of candidates for the position.
In terms of the total package, Schiano's level of experience — not just as a college coach but also in New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic area — makes him a very, very strong candidate. But would PSU be swayed by Franklin's vision and energy?
COLLEGE FOOTBALL COACHING CAROUSEL