James Franklin had previously called Ricky Rahne “a unicorn” — an offensive coordinator who didn’t have designs on leaving to be a head coach.
But even in college football, unicorns don’t exist.
Rahne is leaving Penn State to become the new head coach at Old Dominion, which announced the hire on Monday evening.
Now the Nittany Lions are in the market for their fourth offensive coordinator in seven seasons under Franklin.
As recently as this summer, Rahne said he had little to no desire to be a head coach.
In multiple interviews, Rahne said he had seen firsthand all of the work that goes into running a program, and he was grateful just to focus on the football aspect. Heck, it was one of the reasons Franklin chose him to take over the job in December 2017 when predecessor Joe Moorhead left for Mississippi State.
Just a few months later, the situation changed entirely. And Rahne, 39, will take over a fledgling program that restarted football in 2009 and made the jump to the FBS ranks in 2014.
Based in Norfolk, Va., the Monarchs just lost the only coach to lead the new incarnation of the team when Bobby Wilder stepped down.
Rahne had been on Franklin’s staff for all nine of his seasons as head coach between Vanderbilt and Penn State, coaching tight ends and quarterbacks at different points before getting the promotion to coordinator. Franklin now has just three assistant coaches remaining from his original staff from 2014, all on defense — Brent Pry, Sean Spencer and Terry Smith.
“First, I love Ricky and his family. This is a bittersweet moment for our program,” Franklin said in a statement. “I am so incredibly proud of Ricky and I am super excited for him, his family and Old Dominion. “I am forever indebted to Ricky for his loyalty and drive in helping us succeed at Vanderbilt and Penn State.
“Ricky is a rising star in the industry and is built for this opportunity. He is a smart, open-minded and talented coach. His humble leadership style will resonate well with Old Dominion’s leadership and players. I look forward to following his program at Old Dominion.”
His departure puts Penn State at an interesting crossroads, as the Lions look to have a deep roster returning for 2020, and the scheme that Moorhead initially installed has served the program well.
So will Franklin undergo another comprehensive search, as he did after firing his first coordinator, John Donovan, in November 2015? And if so, is he looking to make major or minor changes to the system?
Penn State actually has two former offensive coordinators still on staff. But while offensive line coach Matt Limegrover did it on the Big Ten stage at Minnesota, tight ends coach Tyler Bowen did it with this same offense, serving as Fordham’s coordinator in 2016 after Franklin hired Moorhead.
At the least, Bowen would make sense as the interim play-caller for the Cotton Bowl against Memphis. After Donovan’s firing, Rahne served in that role for the bowl game. Franklin spent a few weeks interviewing outside candidates and hired Moorhead in December.
Moorhead’s scheme dramatically improved the Lions, who went 22-5 with a Big Ten title during his two seasons with the team. Franklin chose Rahne to replace him in part to keep that continuity going.
Rahne received high marks from his players, as he shifted to coach tight ends when Moorhead took over the quarterbacks. Mike Gesicki in particular saw his career take off in two seasons with Rahne, breaking Penn State records and landing with the Miami Dolphins as a second-round draft pick.
“Old Dominion just got the smartest, most determined, cool, calm and collective coach in the entire country,” Gesicki wrote on Twitter. “So happy for him, wouldn’t be where I am today without (Rahne). And now I am officially a Monarch fan. Get ready to WIN NOW!”
And, despite frequent criticism from fans, Penn State’s offense rated highly this season by most metrics.
That includes ESPN’s SP+, “a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency,” which ranks the Lions’ offense 17th in the country in 2019.
Rahne also opened his tenure by breaking the Penn State record for total yardage in a bowl game with an impressive win over Washington in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl.
He followed that up by leading the country’s highest-scoring offense in September 2018. But all most people remember about that month is how it ended — a handoff on fourth-and-5 at the end of the Ohio State game that Buckeyes star Chase Young blew up to close out a Penn State collapse.
The offense stumbled in the second half of 2018 as the receivers played with little confidence and the team’s top two quarterbacks were dealing with significant injuries.
One notable area of progress in 2019 was the unit’s ability to close out games, most notably one-score wins over top-20 Iowa and Michigan squads. In both cases, the Lions were able to run out the clock with a narrow lead, something they had frequently failed to do in recent years.
New starting quarterback Sean Clifford was also more productive than expected before he too was slowed and ultimately sidelined by an injury. Still, the sophomore topped 2,500 yards with 22 touchdowns despite missing the final five-plus quarters of the season.
“I want to thank (Rahne) for everything he has done for me these past few years,” Clifford wrote on Twitter. “Not only is he a great coach, but has been a great mentor to myself and my teammates. I will miss ya coach! (Old Dominion) is getting a great one!”
Lions land top tight end: Rumors of Rahne’s departure didn’t prevent Penn State from landing its highest-rated offensive recruit of the 2020 cycle on Monday.
Earlier in the afternoon, Penn State landed a verbal commitment from Canadian tight end Theo Johnson, a four-star recruit who checks in as the No. 83 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite rankings and the No. 3 tight end in the class.
Johnson is the Lions’ second top-100 prospect in the class, behind only Maryland linebacker Curtis Jacobs (No. 45).
At 6-foot-6, 242 pounds with impressive mobility, Johnson had offers from dozens of major programs despite playing across the border at Holy Names High School in Windsor, Ontario. He is the No. 1 ranked player in Canada for 2020.
Johnson chose the Lions over finalists Michigan, Georgia and Iowa, which just had two tight ends drafted in the first round in April. His other scholarship offers also included Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Florida State and Miami.
His addition was significant enough to push Penn State up three spots to No. 12 in the Composite’s national team rankings and second in the Big Ten, jumping Michigan.
At 28 commitments, Penn State is set to ink one of the largest classes in the country when the early signing period begins on Dec. 18.