Ex-PSU search committee members offer insight to ongoing football coach hunt
On New Year’s Eve 2011, Penn State women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose was participating in a conference call when the other parties heard a ruckus in the background. Fireworks, Rose explained, adding that he was speaking from Italy, “Milan or wherever we were at the time.”
Vacations are allowed, but the mission and importance of hiring a football coach never lapses. This is especially true at big-time, high-profile programs like Penn State, where everything is magnified. For the six-member search committee that sifted through the candidates before recommending Bill O’Brien, information and opinions flowed freely regardless of the time — or continent.
“We might have felt different ways about different candidates,” Rose said. “But there was never a time I felt anyone’s opinion wasn’t valued and listened to.”
Two years later, another Penn State selection committee is mulling another batch of names to help determine the choice to replace O’Brien, who resigned last week to become head coach of the NFL Houston Texans. The process this time is expected to be far more expedient than the six-week search that began in November 2011 and spilled into the new year. Athletic director Dave Joyner, who chaired the committee then and has the same task again, said Thursday the hiring of a coach “should take a matter of days, not weeks.”
But things were different two years ago. Penn State was reeling from the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal and the resultant dismissals of legendary coach Joe Paterno, president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley. Spirits were low, tensions high and emotions boiling. Remnants of the mess remain, but the keel is more even now, due mainly to the passage of time and the work of O’Brien and his staff, and the players who chose to stay rather than leave without penalty.
“The situation, the waters, were really troubled at that time,” said John S. Nichols, who like Rose served on the first committee but is not on the current one.
“The other part of it is we were essentially starting from scratch. At most established programs, the president and the athletic director have a working list (of candidates), and they can move fairly quickly. We had to start from zero. And the stakes were really high. We had to make sure the person we hired was of the highest level of integrity. And that’s not an easy task.”
Integrity remains a foremost consideration, Joyner said. Other elements of the search also figure to remain constant. Some of the candidates will be considered briefly or discarded immediately. Again there will be discussions, background checks and interviews. Outside chatter will be loud — it already is — and misinformation will spread.
“Boy, that was a learning experience,” said Nichols a Penn State professor emeritus of communications. “Some of it was eye-openingly distasteful. Speculation was reported as fact. The manipulation and in some cases the malevolence of agents was troubling. They would plant stories to either further their candidates or undermine other candidates. Coaches who said they were not candidates and had absolutely no interest in the job, the week before I was sitting across the table from them.”
As for the ceaseless media reports, Nichols said he eventually turned off the TV “completely.” He pulled the plug and stuck it in a closet.
Even though Joyner, on the job for more than two years, keeps his own list of potential candidates, he solicits comment, opinion and insight, Nichols said. Likewise, the committee members also seek information. Nichols, who taught at Penn State for 33 years, was not averse to calling sportswriter friends for the lowdown on named candidates, as long as nothing confidential was revealed.
Rose, who has coached 35 years at Penn State, winning five NCAA championships in the past seven seasons, said he talked to agents “to kind of get a handle on the procedure” and to NCAA officials and other coaches “to find out information about some candidates, making sure they didn’t have a history that we were gonna have to worry about if they were going to be in our final selection pool.”
Nichols said the committee met frequently, “face-to-face and on the phone,” adding that university president Rodney Erickson constantly remained in the loop. Erickson, Nichols said, made it a point to stress diversity, and “there was a strong commitment to integrity, both personal and academic.”
Nichols said several of the early discussions were held with “intermediaries,” that is, agents and other representatives. Interviews were conducted in person, mostly away from State College, or via video conferencing. “You could pack a lot of hourlong interviews into one sitting by using Skype,” Nichols said.
Disagreement was rare, Nichols said, although “it was very healthy to compare and contrast (candidates), and if someone felt very strongly about someone, you’d ask, ‘Why is that?’ It was a very collegial process. … A lot of names were mentioned. And a lot of names went by the wayside.”
Some went by faster than others. After Nichols tossed out a name a friend had suggested, “there were enough eyebrows raised that it was the end of the discussion,” he said.
Nichols adamantly denied reports that O’Brien was muscled through the committee by Ira Lubert, a wealthy, influential donor and Board of Trustees member.
“There were rumors going around that it was all a big fix,” Nichols said. “That absolutely was not true.”
Nichols recalled sitting on a plane preparing to head to an interview when three folders were handed to each committee member. One of them was about O’Brien, with whom Nichols said he was unfamiliar. But that changed. Nichols said he liked what he saw, and so did the others. O’Brien’s three interviews further raised his profile.
“Each time his name came up, each time I would make a call, each time he was interviewed, he kept steadily moving up,” Nichols said. “It was a progression from completely unknown to my top candidate, and he was everyone else’s top candidate.”