James Franklin said Saturday night that internal evaluations of coaches and players would begin this week and run through the bowl game.
He didn’t waste any time.
The Penn State coach announced early Sunday afternoon that he had fired John Donovan, his offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, after two inconsistent seasons where the Nittany Lions struggled to score as they rebuild from NCAA sanctions.
Donovan was the only offensive coordinator Franklin had ever had in his five seasons as a head coach — three at Vanderbilt and two at Penn State.
“I have tremendous respect for John and the work he has put in over the last five years,” Franklin said in a statement. “I wish him and his family nothing but the best in the future.”
The school announced that a “national search” will begin immediately for Donovan’s replacement. An interim coordinator was not named, though Franklin himself was an offensive coordinator at Maryland and Kansas State earlier in his career. Offensive line coach Herb Hand also helped run a highly successful offense at Tulsa in the past.
Ironically, Penn State was coming off one of its better statistical performances of the season on Saturday against No. 5 Michigan State in which the Lions were on pace for over 500 yards at halftime and finished with 418 in a balanced effort.
But the Lions scored just 16 points with turnovers and red zone issues continuing to plague the team.
Penn State finished the regular season at 108th nationally in total offense at an average of 344.3 yards per game and 101st in scoring offense at 23.7 points per game. It also didn’t help Donovan’s case that his specific position group, the tight ends, badly underperformed in the regular season as both blockers and receivers.
Though the Lions look to have some future NFL players at the skill positions — namely QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Saquon Barkley and WR Chris Godwin — the offense often struggled to produce behind an overmatched offensive line.
Despite the uneven results, there was a line of thinking that Franklin might give Donovan a shot in 2016 running the style of offense that they prefer with a more mobile Trace McSorley likely taking over for Hackenberg should he declare for the NFL draft.
But there were plenty of signs all year that Franklin was not happy with the progress of his offense. When questioned throughout the fall about his staff and Donovan’s performance in particular, Franklin declined to offer public support for him.
When the Lions opened the year with a miserable performance in a loss to Temple, Franklin said he would become more involved in overseeing the offense though he said he had not been calling any specific plays during the season.
“Do I think there have been some challenges more so on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive side of the ball since we arrived? Yeah,” Franklin said at the time. “But we also have to be creative to overcome some of those things, and everybody is being evaluated.”
Not exactly the fiery endorsement that Franklin’s predecessor, Bill O’Brien, gave when his defensive coordinator, John Butler, came under fire in 2013.
Nearly three months later, in the days leading up to Saturday’s 55-16 thumping in East Lansing, Franklin was again asked about whether he felt he had the right staff in place.
“Let me say this: I am just aware of our challenges, and more so than anybody else that’s looking at it,” Franklin responded. “I know on offense we have some challenges that we need to get cleaned up. I know on defense we’ve got some challenges we need to get cleaned up. I know on special teams we’ve got some challenges we need to get cleaned up. I know there’s academic work that we need to improve on that you guys aren’t aware of. There’s a lot of areas, and there is nobody that’s taking a harder, more detailed look than me.
“But besides that, right now, our focus is on doing everything we possibly can to prepare for Michigan State. Any other discussions, any other conversations, I don’t see how they help us get ready to beat Michigan State. But I want to make sure that you and your fans and everybody are aware, I can identify and I can see the problems and the challenges that we have just like everybody else can, and we’re addressing them every single day. We’re addressing them every single day.”
Donovan was made available once for interviews during the season — the same as fellow coordinators Bob Shoop and Charles Huff — and when asked about his unit’s issues he pointed to the Lions’ winning streak after rebounding from the Temple loss.
“We’ve produced enough to win five games in a row,” Donovan said. “That’s what we’re focused on each and every week, to do what we’ve got to do to win each game. So if we can do that again this weekend, we’re happy.”
Penn State lost the last three games of the regular season. Safe to say Franklin wasn’t happy.