On Nov. 13, 2010, an 83 year-old Joe Paterno addressed the media after his team’s 38-14 loss to Jim Tressel’s No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium.
Instead of being able to discuss win No. 401 with reporters, he answered questions about why his team couldn’t stop the Buckeyes’ rushing attack and the gravity of Michael Mauti’s shoulder injury.
Penn State’s discouraging loss would be the last matchup between Paterno and Tressel, the veteran coaches who had represented prestige and stability for their respective programs for many years.
In the nearly 24 months since, little has remained stable among two of the most storied programs in college football history. Sanctions, vacated wins and controversy have altered the landscape of both Penn State and Ohio State football.
But, perhaps downplayed amid the contention, there has been much turnover among coaching staffs on each side. Saturday will mark the third different head coaching matchup in as many years, as six different coaches will have taken part in this series after this weekend.
Although each program seems to have ultimately found its preferred head coach in Bill O’Brien and Urban Meyer, the road to reaching them diverges a lot along the way.
End of lengthy careers
Ohio State’s coaching carousel began to spin in May 2011 when Tressel resigned after the infamous tattoo-parlor scandal was made public a few months earlier. Taking over for the 10-year coach was assistant coach Luke Fickell on an interim basis for the entire 2011 season.
Several months later, Penn State’s Board of Trustees dismissed Paterno on Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse indictment. This brought assistant coach Tom Bradley to the helm.
The two interim coaches knew each other well from recruiting battles, and Bradley said last fall that he called Fickell prior to their matchup that took place on Nov. 19.
“[Fickell] said, ‘At least I got my start in May,’ “ Bradley said of the call.
The Nittany Lions outscored Fickell’s squad, 20-14 win, to claim a share of the regular season division title.
Quinn Barham, a senior tackle on last year’s team, said Bradley filled in well, but there is always an adjustment to be made when it comes to coaching changes —especially ones made as suddenly as this.
“You’re used to seeing certain faces on the sideline such as coach Paterno or coach [Mike] McQueary,” Barham said. “And then when you see a new head coach down there, and you see senior guys running the offense, it has a chance of messing with your head and deterring you from your job in that game.”
After Penn State’s win over the Buckeyes, both teams finished their seasons with back-to-back losses, setting up critical offseasons with many questions left to be answered.
Ushering in the new man
Meyer accepted the Ohio State head coach position just nine days following last November’s matchup between the schools. The NCAA allowed Ohio State to exceed the maximum number of coaches on a staff so Meyer could recruit in December and Fickell could coach the team until its bowl game. Meyer assumed all coaching responsibilities following the Buckeyes’ loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl.
Conversely, Penn State assembled a six-person committee to begin searching for the team’s next head coach toward the end of the season. On Jan. 7, the university announced O’Brien to be the Lions’ new head coach.
Both coaches, despite coming from very different backgrounds, entered their respective programs while they were still very much in the heat of a tumultuous time period — sanctions prevent both teams from competing in the postseason this year.
O’Brien said the most important thing he did to combat the challenges associated with the turbulence was bring in battle-tested coaches.
“I believe that one of the first things that I tried to do was put together the best staff that I could, and I think we did that,” O’Brien said.
“We brought in guys that had coached at different levels and guys that were honest guys that have been through some tough situations in their careers.”
Stability moving forward
So after months of unrest for both Penn State and Ohio State, successful starts to both their respective new eras have resulted in a general sense of stability.
Ohio State backup quarterback Kenny Guiton said having Meyer as a secure leader has given the Buckeyes, now 8-0, a chance to relax.
“We try not to let it distract us in the past, not knowing who was going to be our coach and everything,” Guiton said. “But now, having a stable one, we can take our minds off that and just go out and play ball.”
By the same token, O’Brien has assumed a calming presence for the Lions, who are 5-2 and on a five-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s game.
Senior fullback Michael Zordich said with the new coaching staff has come a fresh start for the upperclassmen who are hoping to go out with a bang.
“You get new life,” Zordich said. “You get new faces around and coach O’Brien, you can’t say enough about what he’s done not only on Saturdays, but just every other day in the building with the team. He’s just an honest guy.”
Of course, O’Brien and Meyer have said they are well aware of the obstacles both their programs face this season and beyond.
But, as Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days, he expects both himself and O’Brien to be far too worried about X’s and O’s to even consider any of these boundaries come gameday.
“I know what he’s saying,” Meyer said. “Play very good defense. Take care of the ball on third down,”
“That’s what coaches think about. They’re not worried about all the [other] stuff. Just make sure you execute very well on Saturday.”