UNIVERSITY PARK — If Dave Joyner were a football coach, he would be attracted to the job that has come open at Penn State.
Penn State’s director of athletics said Thursday that Happy Valley is a better landing spot than it was two years ago, when the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and uncertainties about possible NCAA sanctions hovered over the program. Now, Joyner is tasked with leading the search for Bill O’Brien’s successor.
O’Brien was confirmed as the head coach of the Houston Texans shortly before Joyner addressed reporters on Thursday for the first time since O’Brien’s departure.
With national signing day just a month away, Penn State has a small time frame to bring in a new coach who will lay the groundwork for the upcoming season. For now, former defensive line coach Larry Johnson is serving as interim head coach.
The search for a permanent coach shouldn’t take long, Joyner said, and will be conducted by a six-person committee led by Joyner.
The committee includes Vice President for Administration Tom Poole, Associate Athletic Director Charmelle Greene, Faculty Athletics Representative and distinguished professor Linda Caldwell, men’s soccer coach Bob Warming and Football Letterman’s Club Director Wally Richardson.
“We expect this search to be very timely,” Joyner said. “Our anticipation is that we’ll be counting this in a matter of days rather than weeks.”
The current situation is much different from the one Penn State experienced in 2011.
Then, Tom Bradley had taken over on an interim basis for Joe Paterno, who was fired Nov. 9. O’Brien, who still had the NFL postseason and eventually a Super Bowl to coach for the New England Patriots, was introduced as Bradley’s replacement on Jan. 6. Still, Penn State technically had more than a month for its search, the time from when Paterno was fired and Joyner took over the athletics department a week later to O’Brien’s hiring in January.
The future of the program also seems much brighter than it did when O’Brien took over.
The possibility of NCAA sanctions — which were eventually imposed in the summer of 2012 — hung over the team as O’Brien was hired. Now, the scholarship cuts and transfer waiver — seen by O’Brien as the toughest portion of the sanctions — have been lessened or lifted and Athletics Integrity Monitor George Mitchell refused to rule out further reductions of the sanctions, including a lifting of the remaining two years of the initial four-year bowl ban in time for the 2014-15 season.
“I think that the atmosphere around this search is entirely, very much, different than the last search,” Joyner said. “There are a lot of similarities, but it’s different in that I think it’s a lot more attractive at this point, although we had tremendous interest, even in spite of everything, two years ago.”
While Penn State’s second coaching search in three years will be an expedient process, Joyner also said it will be “robust” and that Penn State has already heard from a number of “tremendous coaches that have reached out to us.”
According to multiple sources, current Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, Miami’s Al Golden, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin and former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano are on Penn State’s short list of candidates. Joyner would not mention names or confirm or deny that Penn State has reached out or will reach out to any of those candidates.
“Myself, as well as the committee, we will not be commenting on any details of the search or personnel or people that you might think about or even read about,” Joyner said.
Joyner did not rule out Johnson or any other coach on the current staff. Calls to multiple O’Brien assistants have not been returned. Media reports Wednesday had receivers coach Stan Hixon moving with O’Brien to Houston, although Joyner said no remaining assistant coaches had been in contact with him either way.
Johnson was not in attendance at the press conference, but released a statement through Penn State.
“I’m humbled by the confidence that Penn State has bestowed upon me during this critical time for the football program and honored to do my part to help Penn State,” Johnson said. “My job will be made very easy since we have a team comprised of tremendous student-athletes, coaches, trainers and support staff who are second to none and care as much about Penn State as I do.”
Johnson was one of two former Paterno assistants O’Brien retained when he took over in 2012. The second, former linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, resigned from his post after the 2013 season.
Penn State made a last-ditch effort to keep O’Brien in Happy Valley. Joyner said he and Penn State President Rodney Erickson had ongoing discussions with O’Brien and his agent, Neil Cornrich, “to try to make his contract and his arrangement here as advantageous as we could possibly do.”
In the end, Joyner said, Houston was able to offer more. The Texans must pay Penn State an O’Brien buyout, which Joyner said would be around $6.5 million.
Although he hasn’t addressed his return to the NFL ranks with reporters yet, O’Brien is scheduled to be introduced by the Texans on Friday morning.
“I believe that Bill O’Brien was presented with just a tremendous opportunity that was one that, for his family and his future, he just could not pass up,” Joyner said. “So I believe he always had Penn State’s best interests at heart, and this is just something that came up that he couldn’t pass up. We wish him well.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.