COLLINS: Red Land grad a victim of cutthroat business, Penn State's pursuit of elite level

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Coach James Franklin announced Kirk Ciarrocca, a 1983 Red Land High School from Lewsiberry, has joined the staff as the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Kirk Ciarrocca's time at Penn State will be remembered for its rather unsurprising beginning and its shocking, sudden end.

The end came Friday, just 20 days after the Nittany Lions played their last game of the season, a game in which they scored 56 points and topped 400 total yards for the fourth consecutive Saturday. It was pretty good. It was an offense on the upswing, loaded with young talent, with star freshmen at running back, wideout and tight end, and its best overall player, Jahan Dotson, planning to return.

Penn State fired the Red Land High School graudate anyway. Because Mike Yurcich came along.

When Penn State hired the former Oklahoma State and Texas offensive coordinator to replace Ciarrocca in a stunning switch Friday, it was difficult not to think back three years to head coach James Franklin's rant after losing to Ohio State, the one in which he pointed out that his program might be great, but certainly isn't elite.

Elite teams replace a perfectly good offensive coordinator if they have a chance to get a better one.

Here's guessing you're not going to read this anywhere else, because on paper, there's no debating Yurcich's credentials. He turned Oklahoma State's offense into a juggernaut as offensive coordinator from 2013 through 2018. They were a top-10 team when it came to putting points on the board. He helped turn Mason Rudolph and Chris Carson and James Washington and Blake Jarwin into NFL talents, and another product of his system, Chuba Hubbard is one of the top running back prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Cowboys were a machine in his years in Stillwater, and Texas stood as one of the top 10 scoring teams in the country last season.

Mike Yurcich

A risky move: But I'm picturing Franklin standing over the craps table, blowing onto the dice, trying to double down on an already solid pile of chips. And there's some risk in that, for sure.

Surprised as everyone who covered the program is by the move, I get it.

In a proverbial vacuum, there's no argument to be made that Franklin didn't upgrade the coaching staff. Ciarrocca is a very good, solid, smart offensive coordinator. Yurcich is a dynamic one.

This is the Penn State version of the New York Yankees trading David Wells, fresh off an 18-win season and a perfect game in 1998, for Roger Clemens the next spring. It's an alpha move. It's a statement: "We're going to play with the big boys right now, darn it."

But is Penn State ready for that?

Yurcich won't be at PSU for long: Look, if Yurcich plans to be around Happy Valley for five years or so, the move is brilliant. There's no debating it. But if this is a couple-year plan, the hopeful final piece of a playoff puzzle for Penn State, it brings up some serious questions.

For starters, is there another gear to Sean Clifford, the quarterback who turned the ball over at such an alarming rate through the first three games of the season that he lost his job for a few weeks one quarter into the fourth game? If Clifford is your guy, and there's no reason to believe he isn't, then he has to be able to run a completely different offense, to pick up new tricks for the second consecutive offseason, and do so more through Zoom conferences than in-person instruction potentially.

That seems a lot to ask.

Yurcich is a tremendous coordinator with a wonderful system that can take Penn State to greater heights on that side of the ball. But, really, your quarterback is your system. And while Yurcich did a fine job developing quarterbacks like Rudolph and one-time, walk-on Taylor Cornelius at Oklahoma State, he did his most-recent work tweaking the games of Justin Fields at Ohio State and Ehlinger at Texas. Frankly, those two have always been a cut above Clifford from a skill perspective.

Looking for instant results: Not sure it's so much about developing anymore, anyway. You don't make a hire like this to make the future better. You make it to improve the present.

A year ago around this time, the big story centered on a seemingly endless cavalcade of assistant coaches entering the program and exiting. Matt Limegrover wasn't brought back to guide the offensive line, and assistants Gerad Parker (wide receivers) and Sean Spencer (defensive line) left for other jobs. How does that affect the program, many wondered, James Franklin, included.

That can't be an excuse anymore. Ciarrocca is a fine offensive coordinator, a guy who had his dream job, someone you could build an offense around, a Pennsylvanian who seemed like he'd have the position as long as he was allowed to do it. Or until someone a little better came along.

Cutthroat business: When you want to be elite, you do what you have to do to get there, and coaching is a cutthroat business. Bosses are loyal to you, but not as loyal as they are to the Ws. Penn State's assistant coaching jobs aren't Joe Paterno's retirement plan for old pals anymore, and that's a good thing. But bringing in Yurcich elevates everything: potential, excitement, pressure and expectation.

While you were getting good enough production from that job last season, now you need better. It's the reality you've created by making the move, equal parts an easy and bold decision for Franklin, the kind champions laud. In the Nittany Lions' case, they now need to get there.

No excuses.