The Short List: Tom Bradley, Larry Johnson, and Rob Vanderlinden

At most schools, an open coordinator position wouldn't be cause for serious contemplation. Coordinators come and go, in most circumstances. Iowa football isn't most schools, though; the program hasn't hired a new coordinator in thirteen years, and a full-on head coaching search looks to be years away. Defensive Coordinator LET'S TALK ABOUT IT.

There's always been a connection between Kirk Ferentz and Penn State. Ferentz grew up in western Pennsylvania, and years ago said he had dreamed of playing for the Nittany Lions as a kid ("I was the only football player in western Pennsylvania to not get an offer from Joe Paterno" he once joked). Ferentz also started his college coaching career with Jackie Sherrill at Pitt, at the height of both Sherrill's and Paterno's power (and before PSU had banned Pitt from the schedule). Ferentz has always denied it, but Penn State has been circled in red ink on the Iowa schedule since he arrived.


It's presumed that Penn State will be cleaning house following the Sandusky scandal and Paterno termination (though that presumption appears to be under some serious scrutiny now) and the entire defensive coaching staff, including defensive coordinator (and erstwhile coach-in-waiting) Tom Bradley, defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., and linebackers coach Rob Vanderlinden, would be part of that purge. As shown with the hiring of Erik Campbell following the retirement of Lloyd Carr at Michigan, Ferentz will gladly pick off the assistants from a dying regime he respects, and I doubt there is any coaching staff he reveres more than Paterno's. So the question is: Would Ferentz hire a former PSU assistant for his defensive coordinator spot?

The bio paragraph for each of the three coaches is similarly brief. Tom Bradley played for Penn State from 1975-1978, became a graduate assistant in 1979, and joined Paterno's staff full-time in 1980 as secondary coach. He's never left. When Sandusky retired in 2000, Bradley became defensive coordinator. When Paterno was injured in 2006, Bradley and Galen Hall acted as co-coaches. When Paterno was fired in November, Bradley became interim coach. Over the last fifteen years, he's been joined by Larry Johnson (who has been defensive line coach since 2000); linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden has been at Penn State for the last eleven years after stints at Colorado and Northwestern (and an ill-fated stop as head coach of Maryland). All three have more than enough experience and success to be in contention for the defensive coordinator position; even in the current horrendous circumstances, Penn State has led the Big Ten in scoring defense and ranked fourth in total defense. It marks the ninth consecutive season that the Nittany Lion defense finished in the conference's top four in total defense.

The upside of any one of these three taking the Iowa defensive coordinator spot is obvious. Iowa would add an experienced coach to the staff, cut from the same cloth as Norm Parker and the rest of the current staff (conservative, assignment-based defensive philosophy, with little emphasis on such newfangled concepts as the blitz). The Hawkeyes would also be adding a proven recruiter in an area where they want to compete (and where Urban Meyer has everyone running scared); Bradley owns Pennsylvania, Vanderlinden recruits eastern PA, New Jersey, and Michigan, and Larry Johnson, a legendary Maryland high school coach before going to Penn State, is one of the best mid-Atlantic recruiters in the country. Finally, given their ridiculous amount of experience, each coach would provide institutional knowledge of the conference that most other outside hires do not possess.

The question marks and negatives aren't as obvious. Bradley is as steadfast in his dedication to cover 3 as Norm Parker is to cover 2, so a move for him (and, to a lesser extent, Vanderlinden and Johnson) would likely necessitate a fundamental scheme change. There's also the issue of whether any of the three would be interested. Larry Johnson turned down the Illinois defensive coordinator job in the past, has been rumored to be looking at retirement, and has far more ties to the east coast than the Midwest. Bradley hasn't left Pennsylvania in 36 years. All three are likely looking for a bigger paycheck than anyone on the current Iowa defensive staff, and there are rumors that the Iowa athletics budget is tightening after disappointing revenues from football and basketball in 2011. And, of course, should Bradley get the head coaching position at Penn State, this whole post is moot.

The questions over whether any member of the Penn State staff would accept the job are one thing. The questions over what happens if they do are quite another. Rightly or wrongly, any move for a Penn State assistant is going to draw questions over their involvement in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. It's going to raise Iowa's own issues with football scandal. And, since this is Iowa City, where pink urinals draw demonstrations, there will be protests. This is the sort of thing that doesn't bother Kirk Ferentz; this much we know. It is, however, also the kind of thing most athletic departments avoid like the plague, and it's certainly questionable whether Ferentz is willing to spend his department equity on an outside assistant where the in-house guys are ready to go. Erik Campbell makes this move plausible. Jerry Sandusky and Gary Barta prevent it from being any more than that.

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