There are two possibilities.
The first, and simplest, is that James Franklin, all his talk of loyalty be damned, realized that his offensive coordinator wasn't getting the job done. That despite the sanctions, the injuries, the offensive line struggles, the square-peg-round-hole fit between Christian Hackenberg and the Franklin-John Donovan offensive schemata, the relative youth, and every other conceivable excuse one could make for two years of unwatchable football, he looked to what Donovan could control and made the same realization we all did. Here was a coordinator unwilling – or worse, unable – to meld his system to the personnel at hand, to make in-game adjustments, even (seemingly) to determine the strengths and weaknesses of his players and utilize them accordingly. Simply put, Donovan didn't put his players in the best position to succeed, and turned a unit oozing with skill into far less than the sum of its parts.
The other, of course, is that the big money boosters, much like the rest of the Penn State fanbase, demanded change; the only difference, of course, being that they actually had the means to effectuate it.
We'll probably never know which was the true motivator; odds are each, in a way, played a part. But as the clock ticked down on Saturday afternoon's debacle, and the Franklin era officially hit its nadir – as we finally realized just how far the chasm was between Penn State and the upper tier of the Big Ten – never before was it more clear that something needed to happen if we were ever to span that gap.
And along the way, what had begun as a premature, almost personal crusade became a rallying cry for a fanbase, something even the often-uncritical Nittany Lion beat acknowledged as a necessity. To the extent that fans can influence coaching decisions, let us rejoice. We did it. While it's an unfortunate part of something like this, try not to dwell on the fact that we cost a man his livelihood. He'll certainly find a new job, and if Greg Davis can learn new tricks this late in his career, perhaps Donovan will too. This hustle is part of the game, and it's what he signed up for all those years ago. The only shame is that it had to come to this.
As James Franklin has faced mounting criticism, those most inclined to chastise him have focused in on the empty promises and coach-speak BS emanating out of his press conferences. Instead, Penn State's head football coach at least proved one thing: He can be responsive, and he can make the difficult decisions and he can follow through, sometimes, on his repeated commitment to always getting better.
The irony, perhaps, is that John Donovan may have called his finest game as Penn State's offensive coordinator Saturday afternoon, even as the Lions squandered red zone opportunities and committed the most inopportune of turnovers. Donovan wasn't beyond salvage as a coach, even I'll admit that. This offense showed more of a spark, more signs of life this year (even if they were, almost entirely, due to the twin emergences of a pair of budding superstars in Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin) than one might have thought likely, or even possible. That Penn State could have offensive performances like the ones against Illinois and Indiana and Rutgers and still be this bad, still finish 105th in total offense, is the greatest indictment against Donovan, the reason he needed to be fired.
John Donovan couldn't get out of his own way.
* * * * *
It would have been very, very easy for James Franklin to retain John Donovan. So easy, in fact, that the joyous, blissful news from Sunday afternoon came very much as a surprise. This is Franklin, who preaches loyalty among his assistants over all else, who has worked (and, to a degree won) with Donovan for twelve years, an eternity in college football terms. This is Franklin, who has run a ship so tight one might call it insular, almost parochial, with nary a leak or hint that he was anything but content with his assistants.
This is Franklin, so deeply (and often rightfully) criticized himself by a fanbase that had once embraced him wholeheartedly, eliminating the easiest, most visible target before what promises to be a rebuilding year redolent with the growing pains that have stained his tenure thus far.
From a practical standpoint, the realpolitik of football coaching, it's the last point that always pointed to Donovan's firing, almost as much as the first ones tended to his retention: what promises to be a struggle in 2016 will give way to a make-or-break 2017 campaign. If there was to be a tie-breaker on Donovan's future, it should have been that ending up in the same place this time next year would bode exceptionally poorly for Franklin, forcing him, essentially, to rely on a new offensive coordinator to install a new scheme in Franklin's fourth, potentially decisive, season.
Bscaff, more than I, has (and surely will) clearly and eloquently describe just what, exactly, was so wrong with Donovan's schemes, playcalling, and decision-making. But even those of us without no experience reading a playbook beyond examining one in Madden could glimpse the problems – they were that numerous, that blatant. Too often were receivers--and defensive backs--bunched in one area. Too often did short-yardage scenarios merit outside or delayed runs. Too often did talented receivers disappear for games on end. Too often were receivers tackled well short of the sticks on third and even fourth downs. Too often did a position of strength seem lost in the shuffle, made all the more dispiriting by the fact that the tight end group was, in fact, Donovan's bailiwick. And too often, of course, did the Christian Hackenberg we'd seen in 2013, the one who'd seemed poised to live up to his 5-star pedigree and destined to be a high first round draft pick seem utterly and openly ill-at-ease in an offense that saw him complete less than half of his passes more often than he completed more than 60 percent.
To put it bluntly, you don't put up results as ugly as John Donovan offenses have put up for a lack of trying. Penn State finished this season 126th out of 128 teams in third down conversion percentage. It was the fourth time in five years that a John Donovan offense finished worse than 105th in that category. Name an area where this Nittany Lion group has failed in the past two years, and you will see a trail of similar results leading back to Vanderbilt. Obviously, it's nobody's design to perform so poorly. But neither is it an accident. Penn State, these past two years, hasn't produced an ideal scenario for any offensive coordinator. But Donovan was particularly ill-suited to salvage something, anything out of it.
John Donovan wasn't just a scapegoat, is what I'm saying.
* * * * *
It's now time to get very, very excited about the prospect of a new offensive coordinator, working with the embarrassment of riches Penn State features on offense, especially at the skill positions. It's suddenly a possibility – a remote pipe dream, sure, but a tiny, tiny chance – that Christian Hackenberg might return to prove himself in a real system under, maybe, someone who is a better molder of quarterbacks, and reclaim his draft stock. Even if Hack does indeed leave for the NFL, we'll be able to see what should be a very real, very fun quarterback competition between Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens, and Jake Zembeic, each on equal footing in a new system.
Barkley will be back. Godwin will be back. DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall and Geno Lewis and Mike Gesicki and Adam Breneman and DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk will be back. We'll get to see Juwan Johnson, Irvin Charles, Nick Bowers, Danny Dalton, and Miles Sanders. Not all of these guys are going to pan out, of course, but the amount of talent that James Franklin has amassed among his pass-catchers and ball-carriers is genuinely insane. Provided that this nation-wide search is legitimate, and that Penn State's commitment to opening up its checkbook to pay assistant coaches continues, we're gong to get a coach up to the challenge of putting them all in a position to succeed. That's something Penn State fans haven't seen since, what? The halcyon days of Fran Ganter? The future of Nittany Lion football was much brighter when we woke up today than it was when we arose Sunday morning.
It's even going to be exciting as we guess and forecast who Franklin will tab as Donovan's successor, even though we'll all inevitably be upset when it turns out to be a highly-respected assistant at a major program rather than, say Bob Stitt or Bobby Engram or Kevin Wilson. Until then, we can read the tea leaves and play the guessing games, and wonder whether it'll be a pro-style guy or another spread scheme, or maybe the dreaded, cliched "multiple" offense. Will he be a better recruiter than Donovan? (Okay, that one's easy.) Are there more dominoes to fall? Is Ricky Rahne or Herb Hand going to follow? It's not quite silly season in State College, but Franklin's willingness to cut ties with Donovan begs the question: what's next?
Regardless of who inhabits the coaching offices in Lasch next year, Franklin knows how much the hire means for his own future at Penn State. At Georgia, Mark Richt replaced the much-detested Mike Bobo with Brian Schottenheimer, and, well, if the new guy fails too, that's not an excuse. Richt learned that the hard way. This firing bought James Franklin some time, and some goodwill with a fanbase that has been scrutinizing his many, visible flaws.
The good news? We just learned that blind loyalty isn't one of them.