Remember The Ironmen

Dan Cagley returns with his popular article, "Remember The Ironmen." In this issue, he discusses the downfall of Penn State and the similarities between Coach Fry's departure and the possibly soon departure of Coach Paterno.

Hayden Fry won 143 games as the head football coach at the University of Iowa. Although it took him 20 seasons in Iowa City (1979-1998) to amass that many victories, he still averaged over 7 wins a season. What makes that even more impressive is that he rebuilt a once-proud program that hadn't had a winning season since 1961. If you throw out his first two seasons in which the Hawks were 5-6 and 4-7, and also drop his final Iowa team that finished 3-8, Coach Fry averaged almost 8 wins a season. To put his success in perspective, Iowa won more games from 1981-1988 than any other Big Ten team, and only Michigan won more games from 1981-1996.

Very few coaches are successful enough to reach 200 career victories, but Coach Fry was able to join that exclusive group even though he took three different head coaching jobs for football programs that had little recent tradition when he was hired. Besides his amazing success at Iowa City, Hayden also turned around losing programs at Southern Methodist University and North Texas State. Being from the state of Texas, he could have stayed in the region and waited for a traditional Southwest Conference position to open up, but instead he took the Iowa job because he wanted to coach in the Big Ten at a place where people are passionate about football. The fan support and financial resources being devoted to football were big factors in getting Hayden to Iowa City, but he always used to joke about another reason why he came to Iowa. He always claimed that he wanted to coach a program that was the "University of Something instead of Something University or College!"

While Hayden found success in turning programs around, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno found success in Happy Valley and stayed there. "Joe Pa" has coached as long as Hayden did, but he has done it all at Penn State. After being on the Nittany Lion staff for many years, Paterno was named head coach in 1966. Although the first couple of seasons were rocky, Paterno turned Penn State Football into one of the powers of college football. He has won 322 games in his 36 seasons at the helm. In addition to being one of the biggest independent football powers on the East Coast for decades, the Nittany Lions went undefeated in 1968, 1969, 1973, 1986, and 1994.

Penn State under Paterno has done well in the Big Ten Conference. Besides finishing in the top-half of the league almost every season since they joined in 1993, PSU won the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl in 1994. However, it seems as if playing in the Big Ten has taken its toll on the success of the program. After decades of having teams that contended for the national title almost every year, the Nittany Lions have not finished the regular season within striking range of the title in years. Paterno has admitted that playing in the Big Ten has made it much more difficult for his program to consistently win 10 or more games the way that they used to, and that no conference provides the depth and consistent challenges that the Big Ten provides on a weekly and yearly basis.

The Big Ten has depth of quality, but that does not fully explain the drop in the PSU program over the last 18 games. After starting 8-0 and having a decent chance at winning the national title in 1999, the Nittany Lions lost their last three regular season games and have lost 12 of their last 18 games overall since that time. They are currently 0-2 on the season and have been out-gained in those games, 1054-454. As bad as the yardage differences are, Miami had almost all of their yards and points at the end of the first half before calling off the dogs.

Besides winning a lot of games, Paterno and Coach Fry also seem to share how their respectively brilliant careers end. Fry and his 1997 Hawkeye unit were at one point 4-0 and had a large amount of returning talent at the skill positions and on defense from a 9-3 team the previous year. Although the team wasn't perfect, it was the kind of team that Coach Fry usually could get at least 8 or 9 nine wins from. Although injuries and a lack of depth had a lot to do with their record, the 1997 team frustrated everyone by finishing 7-5. The 1997 Hawks and the 1999 Nittany Lions and their great defense both did the same thing – underachieved according to their talent level despite having a legendary coach.

When a team has great talent and does not play up to expectations, it becomes even harder to handle when the best players graduate. Iowa still had some talent left after Tim Dwight, Tavian Banks, and other good seniors graduated, but the talent, expectations, and stability of the program would have been much better or looked much better in 1998 had Dwight and company won 10 or 11 games in 1997. Penn State would have been better than 5-7 in 2000 if Courtney Brown, LeVar Arrington, Brandon Short, and other top graduated players from the 1999 team had found a way to win 10 to 12 games. Both coaches mirror each other in that they had a talented team at the end of their career that underachieved, and that made it even easier for the following groups to fall short of the traditional expectations.

Iowa went 3-8 in Hayden's last season, and he retired. Penn State was 5-7 last season and 0-2 so far this year, and if things don't turn around, Paterno will soon be moving on. It wasn't as if the 1998 Iowa squad and the 2000 Nittany Lion gridiron units were devoid of talent – they both had defensive talent. The problem with both teams rested more with the fact that neither program had the offensive line talent and depth that they used to have. For good measure, neither program had the overall depth that they once had. As a result, when players like Matt Hughes or Vernon Rollins got hurt, the teams really suffered.

Can Paterno avoid the same fate as Hayden? I doubt it. Every Penn State game continues to show what every football analyst already knows – Penn State doesn't block like it used to. Talk shows around Happy Valley have blamed the problems of the last few years on scheme and coaching problems like choosing not to use the shotgun formation or a short passing game to defeat blitzes. I contend that the game has not passed Joe Pa by, but rather he does not have the OL personnel to carry out what he wants to do. Ultimately, Joe Pa has to take the blame for the lack of an OL as either he gave the wrong players scholarships or he and his staff failed to develop the talent that they signed.

Bad luck can strike a position like it did the Iowa OL for a few years, but beyond injuries, player development and bad recruiting usually fit into the puzzle for what went wrong. It seems very simple to blame Penn State's performance over the last 18 games on the OL, but that is where I believe it started. When one position that plays a major role in determining the outcome of a game plays at a very substandard level, it affects the whole team. The 1998 Iowa team at the end of the season couldn't run, pass, tackle, block, or cover anyone, but early in the season they could do most of these things fairly well except blocking, which of course affected the entire offense. Eventually, the losing and additional pressure of trying to cover for the position affected the entire team.

Penn State has committed a ton of bad penalties over the last 18 games. In the first two games of this season, the defense has not tackled well and has given up way too many yards. The whole team looks disorganized at times, but I still think that what has affected the team is a sort of virus that has spread from the OL.

The lack of an offensive line also says a lot about the coaching staff of a program and the ability to recruit. Linemen are sometimes the biggest projections and the toughest to evaluate for the Big Ten level because most high school prospects have to get so much bigger and stronger than they are when they are being recruited. As a result, it is very easy to guess wrong on a tackle prospect whereas a running back prospect might be more of a sure thing since they are more prepared to play college ball in certain phases of the game. Also, since offensive linemen are more of a development project position than other positions, coaching and development are even more paramount. If a staff isn't recruiting wisely or doesn't develop players well, the OL is one of the positions that will show it.

Hayden and Joe Pa may not have been as good of coaches at 65 as they were at 55, but their ability to recruit may have been altered by outside factors rather than their ability. Hayden certainly did not have the coaching staff in 1997 that he had in 1987, and not only did the 1987 staff recruit better, but they developed linemen better than the 1997 staff. In addition, Hayden had to recruit against schools that were negatively recruiting against Iowa by saying that Coach Fry would retire before a recruit finished his career in Iowa City. Paterno has also had to deal with this over the last 5-6 years.

The career and 2001 season of Joe Paterno are certainly not over yet. If they were to pull off an upset in Iowa City on Saturday, the Hawkeye faithful would be screaming as loudly as PSU fans are right now. However, I believe such an upset would be putting off the inevitable reality that the Penn State legend could be on his way out after this season or next season. They may win 2-3 games this season, but I wouldn't bet on much more than that.

Much like the career of Hayden, after a few years most fans will look back and see Joe Pa's career for its excellence, not these last couple of dozen games. After all of his success, he deserves to be remembered for the great accomplishments of his long career and not two tough seasons.


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