Penn State could have a new football coach before the Nittany Lions play their next game.
The Nittany Lions should know their bowl destination by Sunday evening, but athletic director David Joyner and a recently appointed search committee are already weighing permanent replacements for longtime coach Joe Paterno, who was fired earlier this month in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Who will it be? Here’s a short list of potential successors. It includes some coaches who might not be as likely to receive consideration (or want the job at all) but will be talked about over the next few days or weeks.
Tom Bradley, interim head coach, Penn State
If Joyner wants to go outside the Penn State family, as it were, Bradley and top assistants Ron Vanderlinden and Larry Johnson (both of whom would be intriguing head coaching candidates themselves) will clearly not be considered.
If Joyner is not putting such restrictions on the search, Bradley would merit serious consideration. His track record as a defensive coordinator is superb, he has deep recruiting ties in Western Pennsylvania and he would likely do his best to keep Vanderlinden and Johnson on staff. Bradley has guided the Nittany Lions through a chaotic time with a firm hand and his permanent hire would aid (though not entirely ensure) recruiting stability.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State
The 39-year-old Mullen is best known for helping Florida to two national championships as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach — he tutored Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow — in Gainesville. He also worked with Meyer at Bowling Green and Utah. Mullen is 20-17 in three seasons in Starkville, with many of those losses coming to SEC powers Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Florida.
A New Hampshire native, Mullen has Pennsylvania roots — he played tight end at Ursinus College — and there is a good chance he would bring offensive line coach John Hevesy (another former Meyer assistant who helped the Bulldogs finish first in the SEC in rushing last season) and strength coach Matt Balis, who — you guessed it — was an assistant strength coach during Florida’s 2006 championship season.
Mullen helped Meyer build an innovative spread offense at Florida and could be dangerous if he is able to coach the kind of athletes he would have access to at a more established program.
Chris Petersen, head coach, Boise State
Few coaches have taken a program from obscurity to national prominence as swiftly as Petersen has in Boise. Petersen, 48, is a hot name in several other coaching searches right now, including the one at UCLA.
After spending six seasons at the wide receivers coach at Oregon and five as the offensive coordinator under Dan Hawkins at Boise State, Petersen replaced Hawkins in 2006. Since, the Broncos have gone 71-6, won four of the last five Western Athletic Conference Championships (they’ve since moved to the Mountain West Conference) and a pair of Fiesta Bowl wins.
According to a USA Today report, Petersen is making $1.525 million this season. He’ll have options to make significantly more should he decide he wants to prove himself in a big conference.
(Editor's Note: The remainder of this story appeared in Wednesday's newspaper but had not previously appeared online due to a publishing glitch.)
Mike London, head coach, Virginia
The 51-year-old London, a native of West Point, N.Y., and a former defensive back at the University of Richmond, had two stints as an assistant coach at his alma mater and two more stints as an assistant in Charlottesville. In between, he was the defensive line coach at both William & Mary and Boston College and the line coach for the NFL’s Houston Texans.
In 2008, London took the head job at Richmond, leading the Spiders to a 24-5 record and the 2008 FCS national championship, the first in the school’s history. He took over at Virginia for Al Groh in 2010, and was named ACC Coach of the Year this week after leading the Cavaliers to an 8-4 mark.
Charlie Strong, head coach, Louisville
While Meyer and Mullen ran the offense at Florida, Strong directed the defense as the Gators’ defensive coordinator from 2002-09 and was the interim head coach when Ron Zook was fired after the 2004 season; Strong led the Gators to a loss in the Peach Bowl. The 51-year-old Arkansas native had previous stops at Ole Miss, Notre Dame and South Carolina.
Strong led Louisville to a 7-6 record and a win in the Beef O’ Brady’s bowl last season and to a 7-5 mark and Big East championship this fall. He doesn’t have much of an offensive background but is known as a strong recruiter.
Greg Schiano, head coach, Rutgers
Five years ago, the former Penn State defensive backs coach might have had his name at the top of Penn State’s candidate list. But the Scarlet Knights have won an average of 7.4 games over the last five seasons, which is not exactly lighting it up in one of the nation’s weakest major conferences.
Schiano, 45, is 67-67 in 11 seasons in New Brunswick, with a 4-1 record in bowl games. He has yet to win a Big East title. Schiano’s history with Penn State — he coached under Sandusky — could hurt his chances, if he even has interest in the job.
Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern
Fitzgerald, the second-youngest coach in the FBS at 36, currently directs the only Big Ten program that has consistently outperformed Penn State in the classroom during the past several years. That, his no-nonsense approach and his ability to relate to his players make him a desirable option. But although success must be judged a little differently in Evanston (for the academic reasons mentioned above and others), the Wildcats have been just four games over .500 since 2009, and Fitzgerald is 0-3 in bowl games.
Fitzgerald held Paterno in great regard. You have to wonder if he would hesitate to become his immediate successor.
Dabo Swinney, head coach, Clemson
To say Swinney has Southern roots doesn’t do the phrase justice. He spent three seasons at Alabama, where he played wide receiver, as a graduate assistant before joining the staff as the receivers and tight ends coach from 1996-01. He was Tommy Bowden’s assistant head coach at Clemson from 2003-08 before taking over the program six games into the 2008 season after Bowden’s ouster.
Swinney, whose given name is William, led the Tigers to a 9-3 finish and ACC Atlantic Division crown this season and might be the most highly regarded recruiter on this list; his first three recruiting classes at Clemson were ranked 37th, 19th and 8th in the nation by Rivals.com, which has the Tigers’ 2012 class ranked 10th in the country.