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The Five Fallacies of Hiring a Head Coach: The Challenges Faced by Penn State

A week ago, Tennessee Titans head coach and former Penn State offensive lineman Mike Munchak was slated to be the successor to Joe Paterno. A few days ago, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was allegedly getting the job. Now, CBS Pittsburgh is reporting that San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman “is reportedly on a “short list” of candidates to replace Joe Paterno as Penn State’s next head football coach.”

Penn State needs to look down the road to the situation Pittsburgh found itself in last year. The major danger Penn State faces is that they find themselves in a situation where they may be expecting the act of hiring a football coach to be able to solve some problems which it inherently cannot.

I’m going to do a major quoting of a piece posted a year ago, because it outlines perfectly all the pitfalls a Penn State is facing in its search for a head coach.  Pittsburgh hired Mike Haywood was hired last year, then was fired less than three weeks later when he was arrested on a felony domestic battery charge.

The following two paragraphs describe the problem:

It is crucial to understand what this situation indicates. This is not about whether it is right to fire a guy on that whole “innocent until proven guilty” argument. This is not about how football coaches jump from job to job. This is about what happens when you hire people into jobs based an anything other than that individual’s ability to do the job.

Coaching in college football is such a wonderful example of this. Coaches so easily become the face of so many other things besides football that it becomes monstrously easy to lose sight of what a football coach is supposed to do. The two core competencies of a college football coach are 1) recruit players and 2) lead those players on Saturday afternoon.  The minute you stray away from those two criteria in selecting a coach, you run the risk of disaster. As shown by example below, there are five main fallacies that derail coaching hires.

Obviously, whoever takes the Penn State job is going to face some monstrous challenges.  But more importantly, Penn State needs to understand that it can’t afford to get desperate and make a bad hire. Just revisit the “five fallacies:”

Example #1 – Mike Price

The Fallacy: “Let’s not overthink this decision because nobody could be as bad as the guy we just fired.”

The Story: In order to get this one you need to follow a real halibut. Enter Dennis Franchione. Franchione was a terrible hire at Alabama, and when they finally ended the relationship, Mike Price was just coming off taking Washington State to a Rose Bowl. That was all “Roll Tide” Nation needed to hear; Price was named their new head coach. However, Price would coach the same number of games in Tuscaloosa as Haywood will in Pittsburgh; it took no time at all for Price to get caught paying for lap dances with his University credit card.

The Lesson: Just because a guy is a winner doesn’t mean he isn’t either dumb or have character issues.

In Penn State’s case, this should be self-explanatory. Imagine the public relations nightmare they would have on their hands if they hire a guy who immediately creates another scandal.

Example #2 – George O’Leary

The Fallacy: “We don’t need to check anything. This is our guy.”

The Story: This happens when a major power broker in your program gets to make arbitrary decisions. Some guy who wields an inordinate amount of power picks out the coach he wants, and nobody else has the seeds to challenge the power says anything, and worse yet, nobody bothers with doing the due diligence. That’s how Notre Dame hired a coach, THEN discovered his resume belonged in the Saturday Review of Fiction.

The Lesson: There’s no excuse for not doing the required reading; due diligence exists for a reason.

You can totally see this happening in State College, because it is very clear there is a well-defined power structure within the University and the athletic department, and it’s also very clear they are adept at not seeing things they don’t want to see.

Example #3 – Dan Hawkins

The Fallacy:  “He won there, he can win here.”

The Story: Here’s another example there’s a big difference between the “Big” conferences and the smaller schools. Hawkins is another example of a guy who won small, but had no idea of the difference. For example, if you going to make your kid the quarterback, you can get away with it if your kid is John Elway.

The Lesson: Winning isn’t universal. Hire a coach who can grow beyond the role of a glorified high-school coach.

It concerns me that none of the three names mentioned at the beginning of this article have any real head-coaching experience at the college level…not so much because of what it says about those coaches, but that the search committee may not be able to get an existing college coach to even return their phone calls.

Example #4 – Rich Rodriguez

The Fallacy: “This is the best guy out there, so we better grab him.”

The Story: This one just ended, and it ended badly. We all saw that, but we may not have seen why it failed so badly. Rodriguez is one of those “gimmick” coaches; the kind that has some quirky offense that allowed him to get some success in a place where he had enough time to recruit a base and institutionalize his gimmickry. Urban Meyer got everybody to buy that “spread option” crap, but then again he had this guy named Tebow.  RichRod can’t get a guy like that, so hiring him means losing to MAC teams and Purdue.

The Lesson: The “best guy out there” isn’t the best if he doesn’t fit; you can’t put a Cadillac engine into Ford Taurus.

This is where the Mike Munchak possibility scares me a bit. He is a successful pro coach, but he is also “part of the family; ” being a Penn State alum. Family members don’t do very well when they have to change the family culture, and being part of a major culture change is going to be a major part of this job.

Example #5 – Mike Locksley

The Fallacy: “Our head coach has to be a certain kind of individual.”

The Story: This can be the deadliest of the fallacies listed here, because it can be a three-headed dragon.

1) “We need a guy who excites the fan base.” Please tell me if you have the foggiest notion of what that is supposed to mean.

2) “We need a guy who can move the program in the right direction.” I love it when I hear this one; isn’t it assumed you would want to do that? Does anybody hire the guy who they hope destroys their program?

3) “We need to hire a black guy.”

The Lesson: Let’s cut through the politically-correct crap here. This conversation happens all the time, and terrible coaches get hired all the time because of it. This is because we have a false belief operating in America that any vocation that has a lack of black participation is undoubtedly practicing racism. This is how we get coaches like Mike Locksley.

Last year, it was clear that Pittsburgh fell victim to all five of the above listed fallacies involved in hiring a head coach. That happened because the former head coach had clearly left a bad taste in somebody’s mouth, considering the way he was hastily kicked off the island.

That situation got magnified in the Paterno case, and it also shares the same sense of urgency considering it certainly feels like somebody decided Penn State needed to get a coach in place fast because, amongst other reasons, national signing day was right around the corner.

Like I’ve said before, every hire has at least one of these fallacies. Good ones have only one. Catastrophic hires have three. But when you hit all five, you have clearly hit rock bottom in making hiring decisions, and desperation is the best way to do that.

About J-Dub

What your view of sports would be if you had too many concussions

7 comments on “The Five Fallacies of Hiring a Head Coach: The Challenges Faced by Penn State

  1. I hear Raheem Morris is available.

    Like

    • JW
      January 3, 2012

      Not even if you threw in Mercury Morris.

      Like

  2. sportsattitudes
    January 3, 2012

    It is not always an easy decision to determine who to bring on board…admittedly this one at PSU is an all-time doozy. You highlight some of the instances where administrators thought they knew what they were getting…without thinking it through completely. State seems to be scrambling now. You know people want a shot at the job. I just don’t know what they consider a priority now. In-house, totally-removed from the program, etc.

    Like

    • JW
      January 3, 2012

      I think what they want is A) a guy who will even take the job now not knowing what sort of ugliness could be coming ) a guy who isn’t going to want a big paycheck to endure said ugliness.

      Worse come to worse, there’s always Houston Nutt.

      Like

  3. Jb Knox
    January 3, 2012

    Rumor ha sit that they are approaching Bill O’Brien the OC of the NE Pats. How much do you think his chastising of Brady on the sidelines has Penn State thinking “He won’t take shit from anybody, this is the guy we need?” I like Bill O’B, but I’m not sure a guy with his volatility deserves to be in charge of the whole sideline. I see Bobby Knight personality disorder written all over this guy. I have visions of Gomer Pile dancing in my head and I can’t imagine after having young men raped on your campus that beating and hazing is a possibility they want to mess with. I may be wrong, of course, but OB has that crazy drunken, New England Irish temper in his blood.

    Like

    • JW
      January 3, 2012

      It is a hell of a pickle, isn’t it? No matter what happens, we’re into new territory because nobody has had to rebuild from such a complete cultural meltdown like this. Anybody who takes that job is going to get their downside magnified.

      Like

  4. David Casarez
    January 3, 2012

    Wonderful comparisons JW! Enjoyed seeing how each of the “fallacy” coaches were over-hyped beyond imagination.

    Like

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