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Penn State, Texas coaching searches complicated by power structures

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Two of the biggest jobs in college football, and the two biggest vacant ones at the moment, require coaches who aren't just good at winning football games.


If you have any doubt whatsoever that the top of college football belongs in its own division, that it has become its own separate sport, its own separate monster, take one look at Penn State and Texas and the burgeoning messes surrounding their head coaching searches.

In the wake of now-former Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien agreeing to join the Houston Texans, David Jones at wrote a startling column about a conversation he'd had with O'Brien just weeks prior, in which O'Brien's frustrations with the program's establishment were boiling over:

What I did confirm that day instead was how frustrated O'Brien seemed to be at Penn State. I grew to like the guy over two years because his personality is one I can understand. Like me, he tends toward boil-overs with multiple and often comical strings of F-bombs. While some people don't understand that type of behavior, I think such venting is healthy as long as it doesn't verbally abuse anyone. And O'Brien wasn't venting at me, just to me.

And, um, what a vent it was:

"You can print this: You can print that I don't really give a ---- what the ‘Paterno people' think about what I do with this program. I've done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I'm tired of it.

"For any ‘Paterno person' to have any objection to what I'm doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now."

He was just getting started:

"I'm trying to field the most competitive football team I can with near-death penalty ----ing sanctions. Every time I say something like that and somebody prints it, it's skewed as an excuse. And I'm not an excuse-maker. I'm trying to do the best I can for the kids in that program. That's all I care about is the kids in that program. As long as I'm the head football coach here."

This is problematic for Penn State, because it evidently hastened the departure of a coach who was nothing short of a miracle-worker for a program that needed it more than any other in college football.

Sure, he was an NFL coach at heart, one with no roots at Penn State that would make it harder to relocate. Personal history matters. But before we dismiss O'Brien as ungrateful (a common refrain in blustery criticisms of sports figures, as if humility and success have even a passing familiarity at the highest levels of competition), consider one question: is it more likely that O'Brien invented slights in his head from a pristine fan base and administration, or that his experience with everything that is not on-field coaching soured him on the school and on college football in general?

Basically: do you think Bill O'Brien is delusional?

Because if O'Brien's not delusional, one has to wonder whether some prospective coaches will — or should — balk at stepping into a situation like that. The Nittany Lions surely have qualified coaches showing interest, but how many others don't want to deal with the program's very well-known rigors?

Every program the size of Penn State's has to deal with this, but PSU's factions are more publicized than those found almost anywhere else.

The 85,000-seat stadiums don't build themselves. You can't have a cathedral of college football without the worship to fill it, and with all that comes the familiar, messy intersection of authority, money, and politics.

So let's talk about the other big-name program also looking for a new head coach: Texas.

Texas bid a fond farewell to Mack Brown, who "resigned" in December, and if there were a way to make the quotation marks on that 15,000 times bigger, I would have. Several signs still show Brown was forced out of Texas, and by a boss who was forced to force him out. Per Burnt Orange Nation:

With four loyalists of Governor Rick Perry on the Board of Regents, it would have taken another vote to oust Powers, and it was reported at the time of the crucial meeting on December 12 that Powers had received six votes in his favor -- two Regents would have had to turn on Powers that Saturday in the aftermath of the football banquet and the announcement of Nick Saban's contract extension at Alabama.

Perhaps Steve Hicks was one, as he was one of the principal's involved in the January discussions with Saban's agent, Jimmy Sexton.

And given that Powers was viewed as Brown's biggest supporter and seemingly a major reason why it appeared Brown was going to stay after the Friday football banquet that included multiple reports that Brown was indeed staying for at least one more season, it would have been a monumental change in position by Powers.

It's hard to read that and find anything that has anything to do with actually coaching college football, or with amateur athletics, or with anything a coach would ever want to involve himself with.

Of course, with that kind of influence comes both high expectations and the means to make it happen, which is why Texas' sights were set on alpha coach Nick Saban to start, then reportedly shifted to the likes of Jimbo Fisher, Art Briles, Charlie Strong, and James Franklin. That's a guy preparing for the BCS National Championship as we speak and a trifecta of coaches who have hit high levels of success at non-traditional powerhouse schools. If you can win at Vanderbilt, you can win at Texas. So the thought goes, anyway.

But at Vanderbilt, you don't have to deal with Texas' frightening soft power structure. You don't have to make sure the Longhorn Network gets what it needs out of you. And if Mack Brown hated it (lord did he ever, at least when Texas was losing), most coaches are going to hate it.

There's really no way to avoid all this. The only way to escape the off-field wranglers and their deep, influential pockets is to field a program that few are particularly emotionally invested in, and surprise, that's a D-II program. The differences between BCS-conference programs are incremental.

So it's a necessary evil, but necessary evils are still evil. And some coaches — coaches who are better at winning football games — might decide they're not worth the trouble to deal with. You think Mark Dantonio, a coach whose recent resume stands up nicely next to just about anyone else on Texas' list, has any desire to take on any more drama than he already has to at the comparatively quiet Michigan State?

All of this is, to an extent, moot if Texas and Penn State bring in coaches who relish, or at the very least doesn't mind, that outside attention. And there is a type that's okay with it.

But there's also a type that can do without it, and if the coach who gives your program the best chance to win games is turned off by your program's culture — like, let's say, Bill O'Brien at Penn State — what does it say about your program?

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