Before anyone gets too excited, there is every indication that Joe Paterno will be the head coach at Penn State when the team opens the 2011 season in September. However, 2011 will be the last year of Paterno's three-year extension, signed in 2008. Further, with his health being what it is at 84, and with rumors constantly swirling about the future of his assistants, there is nothing certain about Paterno's future.
So whether this list is applicable in 2011 or 2012 remains to be seen. However, these five candidates should all make the shortlist whenever the time comes for Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley to conduct a national search for the next Penn State head coach.
5. Al Golden, head coach, Miami. Golden made waves among the Penn State faithful this offseason when he accepted the head coaching position at Miami University, and then immediately began recruiting against his alma mater. To be fair, Golden had always been recruiting against Penn State, but at Miami he has considerably more resources and name cache than he did at Temple. Golden's name has routinely been attached to the Penn State job when the "Who should replace Paterno?" conversation comes up. It is highly unlikely that Golden would leave Miami so soon after taking the head position, but if PSU were able to lure him away, the Nittany Lions would get one of the best young coaches in the game today. Golden is 41, a graduate of Penn State, and was born in New Jersey.
4. Gary Patterson, head coach, TCU. A defensive-minded coach, Patterson has led the Horned Frogs to top-15 total defense rankings each of the last five years, including the top overall ranking in each of the last three. Playing in a non-automatic-BCS-qualifying conference, Patterson has a tough hill to climb to get the national championship every coach desires. His TCU team went a perfect 12-0 this season, but could only get to the Rose Bowl, a game they won. Granted, they were kept out of the title game by also-perfect Auburn and Oregon, but there are no guarantees that a one-loss major conference team wouldn't jump the Frogs in another year. Coming to Penn State and playing in the increasingly tough Big Ten would give Patterson the chance to play for the crown. Patterson will be 51 next month, attended Kansas State, and was born in Kansas.
3. Brady Hoke, head coach, San Diego State. Hoke's name has been mentioned in connection with many other schools this offseason, including Michigan, but he remains at SDSU for now. A Midwesterner by birth, Hoke has spent time coaching at Michigan (for seven years), Ball State (for six years) and now San Diego State for two years. Like Patterson, Hoke is defense-minded, spending the entirety of his assistant coaching career on the defensive side of the ball before taking over at Ball State (and later SDSU). Finally, as a part of the 2008 Ball State run (that finished the regular season 12-1), Hoke beat the Indiana Hoosiers in Indiana, so he can win in the Big Ten. Hoke is 52 years old, played linebacker at Ball State, and was born in Dayton, Ohio.
2. Kirk Ferentz, head coach, Iowa. Ferentz seems to meet all of the assumed criteria for a Penn State head coach: he is from the area (played high school football at Upper St. Clair), had a strong defensive reputation while at Iowa, and, despite recent controversy that might suggest otherwise, he runs his team honorably. Whether Ferentz would leave Iowa for Penn State is a different story, as these two teams have a recent history of epic battles (usually won by Ferentz). There is no recent precedent of a head coach making a lateral move within the Big Ten, but that shouldn't be a reason NOT to take a job. Ferentz has also spent a brief time on the Pitt coaching staff, so he could bring a knowledge of the Panthers that few possess. More importantly, he could bring a desire to rekindle the once-great rivalry between the Nittany Lions and the Panthers. Ferentz is 55, played linebacker at UConn, and was born in Michigan but raised in Upper St. Clair.
1. Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern. For more Penn State fans, Golden's hire by Miami catapulted Fitzgerald's name to the top of the list. He is a young, energetic head coach with strong Midwestern ties. He is extremely loyal, which may be his only negative, as he seems set on taking Northwestern to new heights. However, the resources and prestige offered by Penn State are hard to top in the Big Ten, and Northwestern certainly does not come close. Like Ferentz, Fitzgerald would be making a lateral Big Ten move, but a Northwestern-to-Penn-State jump is different than an Iowa-to-Penn-State move. (For example, Ferentz makes more than $3.5 million annually with the Hawkeyes, while Fitzgerald earns just under $1 million per year.) Fitzgerald also fits the running theme of the list, in that he is a defense-first coach; he was a linebacker in school, and coached linebackers at Maryland, Colorado, and Idaho before taking the same position at Northwestern. He was then promoted to head coach in 2006, where he has amassed a winning record in five years. Fitzgerald is 36, played linebacker for Northwestern, and was born in Illinois.
Notably absent from this list are any current Penn State coaches. The most likely in-house candidate, Tom Bradley, could easily take a head coaching job with another school before next season starts. Should Bradley return for the 2011 season, his name would be right in the middle of this list, if not at the top. However, there is a growing sentiment among Penn State fans that a new regime is necessary. That's not to say there aren't some great assistant coaches on the staff, some of whom would hopefully be retained by the new coach. Larry Johnson is a great position coach for the defensive linemen and could be a potential defensive coordinator. Similarly, Ron Vanderlinden does a great job with the linebackers while Mike McQuery has been doing an excellent job as recruiting coordinator for the past few years.
When the time comes, Spanier and Curley will take their time and do their due diligence. Who they select is still anyone's guess, but as long as they adhere to the philosophy of coaching of which Paterno has long been the face, the replacement will be met with open arms by the supportive and loyal fanbase in State College and around the world.