John Donovan's firing didn't come as a huge surprise, but the timing of the move came out of left field. Not even 24 hours after Penn State's season finale against Michigan State, news came down that Penn State's much-maligned offensive coordinator had gotten axed. It was almost jarring, the kind of thing that nobody expected out of James Franklin (especially considering there were a lot of people who hypothesized that he would give Donovan one more year at the helm).
Now that the dust has settled, the BSD staff has come together to answer a simple question: Was firing John Donovan the right decision? The results were mostly what you would expect. Here's what we had to say (as you can guess, we had a lot to say) –
Jared: Yes, by all means, YES. I am a firm believer in patience when it comes to coaches, because to build a program to the lofty heights Penn State strives for, consistency is absolutely necessary. It nearly always benefits the players development to continue learning under the same system, rather than having the rug pulled out beneath them just to start from the beginning all over again. In this age where instant gratification is demanded, there have been far too many programs that have acted hastily in firing coaches just to set their program back for years, sometimes decades, because of a lack of patience.
However, none of this is the case with Donovan. Penn State absolutely needed to part ways with him after two years of almost no progress on the offensive side of the ball. While Penn State's offense is still young, it absolutely had the talent to avoid being among the worst offenses in the nation. However, a complete lack of imagination or ability to attack an opponent's obvious weakness, has doomed this offense for two full seasons and cost the team several victories that were nestled firmly in their hands. No matter the frequency and obviousness of Penn State's failures on offense, Donovan seemed dead set in trying the same things over and over again, hoping that different results would magically appear.
The time has come for a change. Penn State has the horses to become a high-octane offense, especially considering the amount of incredible athletes who continue to join the program each signing day. All that is needed is a new leader who knows how to use them.
Cari: After the 2014 season, I was definitely a member of the camp that thought John Donovan deserved more time. Not that I thought his offenses, and his play calling and time management, had done well enough to warrant another year; but rather, the impact of the sanctions and youth and inexperience surrounding the Penn State offense of last season were insufficient to give him a complete grade, and it would be unfair to fully judge him under all of those circumstances.
Less than halfway through the 2015 season, I was ready for him to be replaced. I wasn't convinced that James Franklin would make a change at offensive coordinator, but after an off-season of working with mostly the same players, players with a very high ceiling of talent and ostensibly getting them even more comfortable with the offense, I, like so many others, was incredibly dismayed to see that the very same issues were occurring in 2015 that occurred the previous season. Issues that couldn't be explained away by youth and inexperience--because those are still there--but an offensive coordinator, one that wants to coach at a high level program (maybe not elite, but a program that aspires to become elite) needs to be able to work around youth and inexperience, and become at least moderately successful despite such hindrances. John Donovan was unwilling or simply unable to do so. And thus he is no longer with the Penn State football program.
And kudos to Franklin for making this change, a change that all of us were surprised happened so quickly--and some of us were beginning to doubt would happen at all. Franklin has been fairly clear in that he prizes loyalty, but he obviously does not place loyalty above doing your job. And that I respect more than I can state. Whether the ultimate decision was his or not, as the head coach the blame and praise will always fall to him, and so will the tough decisions. And this was a quick and decisive one, and it shows that he will do what is best for the program even if it means cutting ties with a friend and coworker of a number of years. I've been vocal about seeing positives in the program, and looking forward to the future of Penn State football, and with this announcement Sunday morning, that hasn't been more true for me all season.
Eli: Short answer: I don't know. Long answer, a little bit of yes and a little bit of no. I was one of the few people who remained neutral on Donovan, accepting that he may have had a low ceiling while also acknowledging that the odds were stacked against him (and any OC who would have come in to what he did). Taking over an offense full of freshmen and sophomores, with a line that lacked the talent and depth to compete in the big ten, and installing a brand new offense, was going to be a challenge. We just didn't expect the challenge to be this daunting.
I've been told many times that any competent OC would have found ways to mitigate those challenges and make a competent offense out of this group, and I believe to a certain extent that this is true. But I think a lot of people place too much emphasis on coaching and not enough on talent and experience. Case in point, Bob Shoop looks like a genius for taking over a really experienced defense in 2014. So much so that we are willing to overlook his weaknesses, which were there last year too, namely when he had to scheme against mobile quarterbacks. Donovan didn't have the luxury of so many talented players ready to step in, with acceptable depth, even if young, waiting in the wings. That said, Donovan did try to run an offense that didn't seem fully capable of taking advantage of the talent at hand. And maybe his plan was to take his lumps early and get everyone used to the offense he wanted to run by the time the talent and depth were balanced out, but that strategy looked like incompetence to most.
If Franklin believed that the offense wasn't going to get much better than it was and Donovan was holding the team back, then it was the right decision. If Franklin was simply looking to scapegoat someone and placate the masses, then it was the wrong decision. The reality of the matter, though, is that we won't know if it was a bad decision or not until this time next year, when we've been able to fully assess the new coordinator and can say with certainty that the offense is in better hands. So we'll talk then.
Matt: Absolutely. Sure, many of the inherent issues behind Penn State's offensive struggles over the last 25 games were not of his doing. However, it is more than fair to say that the offensive staff, which is lead by John Donovan, had done very little to game plan around those problems. More specifically, faced with mounting evidence things were not working, Donovan failed to adapt. That, to me, is the biggest indictment of him as a coordinator. Make no mistake, this group of PSU offensive personnel was not going to be mistaken for the 1994 Nittany Lions, but the parts have certainly been there to produce a better product than what we saw for two seasons.
Noel: Yes. Unequivocally. It was the best crunch time decision James Franklin has made all year. Despite the amount of strange revisionist history going around thanks to some tweet from a grad assistant who blamed Franklin for Donovan's troubles coordinating ("handcuffing" him to an offense he did like), it is undeniably the right move. For one, no, John Donovan is not secretly an excellent offensive coordinator hindered by James Franklin's passionate love for play action jet sweeps. We have five years of data to prove that he is, at best, terrible. Hell, mediocre would've been a massive improvement over what his offenses at Vandy and PSU accomplished. Yes, he was saddled with a bad o-line, one so bad that it was a legitimate liability. That is something anyone who has watched this team can acknowledge.
However, the culpability falls most squarely with Donovan himself. Rather than analyzing the skill sets of players already on the roster and playing to their strengths, he tried to fit square pegs into round holes. This, even though everyone in the universe knew the pegs fit into their old square holes incredibly well. Instead of building a playbook and scheme that would most effectively utilize the talent on hand, John Donovan chose to run a system that, by design, utilized high-risk, low-reward play calls as a crucial element to the offense. It was never going to work, and we knew it from the second game of 2014.
John Donovan chose to run a system that turned Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki, two receiving tight ends with very limited blocking ability, into blocking tight ends in two TE sets. John Donovan chose to give Brent Wilkerson, a tight end whose plus skill I have yet to ascertain, the third-most snaps of any skill position player on the team. John Donovan chose to have elite pocket passer Christian Hackenberg run read options that were doomed to fail before the ball was even snapped. John Donovan decided to then take said passer, constantly move him out of his ever-shrinking pocket to roll out and throw, as opposed to utilizing a quicker drop scheme. John Donovan and anyone who owned a television knew that Hack struggled in the horizontal passing game, but threw ten wide receiver screens per game anyway. John Donovan committed a cardinal sin of coaching; he consistently put his players in positions where they were likely to be unsuccessful, and when the whole world knew he was sending soldiers in to slaughter against even competent defenses, he never once thought that a retreat and tactical adjustment was the proper response. He just kept wildcatting and wildcatting until someone had the good sense to realize that he was either too obtuse, too incompetent, or both, to continue in his role as Penn State's offensive coordinators. John Donovan ran an offense that worked best when it abandoned his ideas, but then went to that strategy most often out of desperation. John Donovan's name became a curse word in Happy Valley, a moniker referred to most often in conjunction with drinking copious amounts of alcohol to ease the pain of watching his ideas play out on the field. John Donovan set up young men for failure every fall Saturday for two years, and when they succeeded, it was almost always in spite of him. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then I wish James Franklin would've hired Nurse Ratched as the head trainer. John Donovan made people miss Galen Freaking Hall.
I have no ill will towards John Donovan on a personal level. He's a seemingly good man with four young kids. But John Donovan deserved, based on performance, to lose his job. It was a very public job that had a direct impact on both metaphorical employees and their future careers, and the consumers of on-field product, and John Donovan was terrible at it. People who are terrible at their jobs shouldn't get to keep them just because they're seemingly nice, good people. If both the process and results are consistently sub-standard, especially after this long of a sample, change is in order.
So, if you don't think firing John Donovan was the right decision, just who the hell do you think deserves to ever be fired?
bscaff: Following the 2004 season, Joe Paterno told disbelieving fans that his offense was just a player or two away. He was right, and the 05 squad won the Orange Bowl. John Donovan couldn't make the same claim, and James Franklin knew it. Let's illustrate one simple reason why.
Like 2004, the 2010 and 2011 Penn State offenses - Paterno's last two - were terrible. But those two squads finished 10th and 5th nationally in tackles for loss allowed. They may not have moved the ball forward very often or very far, but they at least looked like they all knew what they wanted to accomplish, even if they struggled to get the job done (whether for lack of playmaking talent, and/or because everyone knew what was coming). That is to say, they were organized on the field of play (the rock-paper-scissors play calling routine is separate).
The 2014 and 2015 Penn State offenses finished 122nd and 115th nationally in tackles for loss allowed. Gaining positive yards frequently required an amazing feat of talent - Barkley hurdling defenders, Godwin winning contested balls and dragging DBs, Hackenberg throwing a perfect pass through traffic. Without the amazing feat / explosive play, they didn't appear to have any idea of what they wanted to accomplish, or how to go about it. Consequently, they went backwards a lot. That is to say, they were disorganized on the field of play (the painfully slow play calls are separate).
Here's another way to illustrate just how disorganized the 2015 Penn State offense was. Army West Point came to Beaver Stadium in mid-October and registered six tackles for loss, one week after they could muster just three against Eastern Michigan. Two weeks later, the Black Knights of the Hudson would tally only four TFLs against Bucknell. Bucknell, by the way, gained more total yards against Army than did Penn State.
It's been more than a century since Bucknell was an unfavorable comparison on the gridiron for Dear Old State. But that's our 2015 reality. And if you think the disorganization was all the result of unprecedented sanctions, try again. In three seasons at Vanderbilt, Donovan's offenses finished as follows in TFLs allowed, nationally: tied for 88th, 111th, 113th. Disorganization stands as the hallmark of all Donovan offenses, for five consecutive seasons, at two institutions.
The easy thing for James Franklin would have been to cite sanctions, and give his friend another season. He'd have found at least a few supporters for it, too, because none of Donovan's five seasons were spent under "perfect" coaching conditions. It's never just one thing. But this move was overdue. Good on James Franklin for making the tough decision.
Dan: I don't particularly enjoy citing the numbers when talking about Donovan because it allows for the conversation to brought back to the sanctions and the youth instead of focusing on how poorly he did with the things he can control. He ran far too often out of the shotgun despite it being clear that Christian Hackenberg is much more comfortable under center, with the rationale that it would negate some of the offensive line issues. He tried to combat poor play on the offensive line by throwing more blockers at the problem, despite the fact that those blockers (typically an extra offensive lineman or tight end) were not good at blocking. Instead of embracing his strengths (Hackenberg, Barkley, the wide receivers), he tried to fix his weaknesses at the expense of those strengths. If faced with the choice of sending out a Saeed Blacknall or Brandon Polk versus a Brent Wilkerson or Derek Dowrey, Donovan consistently chose a Wilkerson or Dowrey.
I watch every game twice for the purpose of putting together the Snap Counts post, so I got to noticing certain tendencies that I'm sure opposing coaches noticed too. Like how sending out Polk for the jet sweep/jet sweep fake was typically the first play of any drive in which they were starting beyond their own 20. Like how after a defensive timeout Donovan would send in the exact same lineup and formation that was out there before the timeout was called. Like how run vs. pass on third down was dictated entirely by the distance remaining regardless of game situation. John Donovan was predictable, and he wasn't even predictable in a way that played to the strengths of his players.
First off, firing someone sucks. Unless they committed a crime or were responsible for some sort of offense that is unacceptable in public, it's always hard to see someone get fired (although Donovan's offense certainly was unacceptable, hey ohhhhhhh). Seriously though, I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say that we wish John Donovan the very best with his future endeavors, and we hope he lands on his feet quickly.
From a pure football standpoint, however, it's hard to argue that John Donovan deserved to continue working as Penn State's offensive coordinator. He was stuck with a mediocre-at-best offensive line, sure. But bad offensive lines are something that coaches game-plan around every single year. That is ultimately why Donovan was fired, in my opinion. His ability to adjust his schemes (or lack thereof) was a huge issue for the Nittany Lions. Whether it was the continued use of an ineffective bubble screen in 2014, or a slow-developing lateral run in 2015, Donovan didn't show an aptitude for being able to change the way he called a game. There were flashes, sure. The opening drive of the 2015 Ohio State game, the 2015 Illinois game, the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College, and other pieces of games here and there featured a competent and effective offense. There was just no consistency, no feeling that he would ever continue to use plays that worked unless they were one of the five plays he called every quarter and no signals that things were getting better.
It seemed as if Donovan took everything that worked for Penn State's offense under Bill O'Brien, and pretended it didn't exist. An offense predicated on quick passes that keep his quarterback in rhythm? Gone. The ability to go up-tempo at any moment? Gone. The use of the tight ends as mismatch nightmare? Gone. It's almost impressive how significantly Donovan changed the entire offensive philosophy. That's not to say we should compare him with Bill O'Brien, because that's unfair to most people. But there were systems in place that worked upon his arrival, things that he could have let the players continue to do, and instead he tried to reinvent the wheel with an offense that had proved to be plenty capable, mere months before his arrival.
The struggles of the tight ends always bothered me a little bit more than most things, as well. To earn the right to be an offensive coordinator, one should show the ability to coach up his personal position group. In hindsight, with Breneman falling various injuries and Kyle Carter forgetting how to catch, this group wasn't quite as strong as it once seemed. The thing that bothered me, though, was that he didn't put his tight ends in a position to succeed. I understand that the line needed help picking up blockers, but these guys are pass-catchers, not blockers. They progressed in that area over the course of the past two seasons, but it would seem as if there is some major talent being wasted. We hardly ever saw a linebacker run up the seam with a linebacker covering him. We hardly ever saw a tight end throw a chip and go out for a safe outlet pass. We never saw a tight end line up on a smaller corner in the red zone, waiting for a jump ball.
John Donovan ultimately lost his job because he couldn't adjust, turned a successful offense on its head and couldn't coach up his own position group. Not many offensive coordinators anywhere will keep their job with deficiencies such as those, and at a place like Penn State, where criticism is turned up to 11 for far less, he was never going to last.
Adam: Of course this was the right decision, for multiple reasons. Statistically, John Donovan offenses have been at best mediocre and, at worst, some of the least effective in the entire country dating back to his days at Vanderbilt. At Penn State, we ran this track for a decade when big offense was coming into vogue - our defense was routinely phenomenal, but our teams were hamstrung by an inefficient and ineffective offense. The times when Penn State teams in the late-Paterno era looked like real contenders were the rare seasons when both offense and defense were effective - 2005, 2008, and 2009. This was semi-tolerable during the waning years of the greatest college football coach to ever walk the sideline. He had earned the right to be mediocre. That right was not transferable to either Bill O'Brien or James Franklin.
Of course, there are structural reasons for a failing offense in both 2014 and 2015 that have nothing to do with John Donovan. The offensive line is woefully undermanned and in severe need of a talent infusion. That may be coming, but it's a process that takes years, not weeks. The talent that exists is terrific, but minimally experienced. The experience (what little there is) is minimally talented, at least by Big Ten East standards. Fundamentally, this is a team that had significant issues that create real problems for any offensive coordinator.
And still, all of that could be pointed to if the offense wasn't ranked in the triple digits. That's where the rubber meets the road. No one is looking for greatness, at least no one with any sense of reality. All anyone could ask for is semi-competence. That was a rarity, despite Christian Hackenberg and Chris Godwin and Saquon Barkley and DaeSean Hamilton. We saw flashes, but those flashes only reminded us of what could be. The same issues that caused Penn Staters to call for John Butler on Bill O'Brien's staff were the same issues that made Penn Staters call for John Donovan to be held to account.
Make no mistake, this was as much a public relations move as it was an accountability. There is nothing wrong with that. Penn State's offense has been broken and there are fans who were losing faith. James Franklin taking decisive action gave those people a reason to buy in again. You can't build a program without full support - unfortunately, that support was, for absurd reasons, beginning to wane. A leader stems that tide and moves forward with a plan to get the squad on the right track. Coordinators lose their jobs because head coaches need to make symbolic gestures to communicate that they understand there are issues that need to be addressed. This is a job hazard when you coach in big time power conference football, and it is not a surprise.
John Donovan will be fine. There will be a market for his skills. He was not a fit here for both performance and symbolic reasons. The only question is whether the person replacing him will be the right hire.
Bill: So by this point, you've read something like 4,000 words on why everyone except for Eli was fed up with Donovan, so I'll keep my point as brief as possible. Yes, firing him was the right move. Something just wasn't clicking with him and the position, to the point that the offensive philosophy in 2015 was based on a lot of luck and it seemed more and more like good performances by the entire offense was an unusual occurrence. That is something that needed to be remedied, and it happened. Hopefully Donovan lands on his feet somewhere else, but this was the right move for Penn State's football program.
The bigger thing here is this: Franklin is under a gigantic microscope with regards to the search to replace Donovan, as any coach would be after doing something like this, but this move takes a ton of heat off of the Nittany Lions' leader. Sure, if the hiring of a new guy doesn't work out, Franklin is going to be in big trouble, but all year long, there were fans saying they wanted to see more fire out of Penn State's head coach. He came in with a reputation for being a fiery head coach who wore his emotions on his sleeves, but he has come under fire a few times from some for seeming too passive in the face of adversity.
Those concerns, whether they were fair or not (I lean towards the latter), are now gone. When faced with the biggest decision he has needed to make since coming to Happy Valley, Franklin took it head on and wasted no time in doing what was the right move for the program. This is the sign of a head coach whose passion does not deserves to be questioned, a man who wants to win every single football game and won't let anything get in his way. Good for James Franklin, and for the love of God, please let this search end with Bob Stitt as Penn State's offensive coordinator.