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Getting to know Al Golden from a reporter who’s known him best

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While Penn State’s coaching search is far from over, Miami’s Al Golden has perhaps emerged as the favorite.

 

Golden’s eight-year head-coaching resume includes impressive turnarounds — for vastly different reasons — at both Temple and Miami. A PSU alum, Golden wears a shirt and tie on the sidelines. He married a Central PA girl. In short, he “looks” the part of Penn State’s next coach.

 

But how well do we really know him? In setting out to learn more, I turned to John Di Carlo. Di Carlo has spent more time covering Golden as a head coach than anyone, and no reporter during his head coaching tenure has been closer to Golden, his staff and how he runs a program than him.

 

Di Carlo has been covering sports in the Philadelphia area for 16 years, and for the past eight years he has been the editor at OwlScoop.com, a Rivals.com site that, bar none, provides the most exhaustive and inside coverage of Temple University athletics. During Golden’s five seasons at Temple, OwlScoop.com was (and remains) the most comprehensive source for Owls news.

 

In short, there’s probably no reporter on the planet who knows Golden better. Di Carlo was kind enough to take some time to answer questions about Golden. He was our sounding board for “Everything a Penn State Fan Would Like to Know About Al Golden But Didn’t Know Who To Ask,” and he has some interesting insights.

 

 

 

Trib Total Media: When Al Golden left the school for Miami, Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw called his job “one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Division I history.” Can you give us an indication of where the Owls were as a program when he arrived compared to where he took them?

 

John Di Carlo: Al took over what was arguably the worst FBS program in America when he arrived at Temple. The Owls went 19-71 under Bobby Wallace from 1998 to 2005, including 0-11 in Wallace’s final season, the program was asked to leave the Big East following the 2004 season and got trounced as an independent in 2005.

 

Then you have the fact that former Temple President David Adamany admitted that he considered dropping the football program together when things got bad in 2003 and 2004 and the team went a combined 3-21. With uncertainty surrounding the program, Wallace was faced with the task of trying to recruit to a program that may or may not exist by the time these prospective players were finished with their careers, so he took to recruiting junior college players, several of which were not physically ready for D-I football or academically ready for Temple. That was a big contributing factor to the program losing nine scholarships in 2006 due to a substandard APR score, so Al inherited that bouquet of roses, along with a roster littered with some players who couldn’t play dead in a cowboy western movie.

 

But Al knew what he was getting into. He always knows what he’s getting into, in fact. He’s very strategic, analyzes the living hell out of a situation before he gets himself into it, and he loves a challenge, so Temple was perfect for his first head-coaching gig. He worked diligently with the university to get the program’s APR scores up and get those nine scholarships back. The program became an affiliate member of the Mid-American Conference in 2006 and a full-fledged member of the MAC in 2007 and he took things from there.

 

TTM: As a program’s leader and CEO of the organization, how would you describe Al Golden’s overall demeanor, characteristics or leadership style?

 

JD: This is where Al really excels. He embraces that CEO persona and leans on a lot of leadership theory and ideas from people like former GE CEO Jack Welch, one of his favorites. He won’t be afraid to ruffle some feathers to get something done, but again, he’ll be smooth and strategic about it. He pushes and coaches his players – and his staff – hard, he’ll take chances on a recruit he thinks was overlooked, and he’s unwavering in his principles and very good at blocking out the outside world and public perception, something he had to do a lot at Temple and most recently at Miami.

 

TTM: In your time knowing him, how much – if any – indication did Al give of the love or reverence he or his family had for Penn State? We’ve seen third-person references that this is his “dream job;” do you believe that is truly the case?

 

JD: In taking off the record to Al about Penn State, sure, I got the sense of his reverence for Penn State, but as cliché as it sounds, he was very good at focusing on the task at hand, which was Temple and everything that came with it. Before he decided it was time to go and couldn’t turn down Miami (he turned down opportunities to go after the head coaching vacancies at Minnesota and Vanderbilt, among others), he really did kind of catch the bug at Temple, much like Matt Rhule has now, and really engrained himself in the university culture, so he didn’t get too involved in talking about how great it would be to some day coach at his alma mater.

 

Do I think Penn State his dream job? Yes, I do, but I know he was also very excited about reviving what Miami once had and I know Kelly, his wife, likes the area, even though she’s a Penn State graduate and a central PA native. I was told – and perhaps it’s been reported somewhere and I missed it along the way – that Penn State offered Al the job before Bill O’Brien took it, but Al turned it down because he didn’t want to pull a Lane Kiffin.

 

If he’s offered the job again, I can’t see him turning down Penn State a second time.

 

TTM: The worst is behind Penn State, but some aspects of the NCAA sanctions remain, and the stench of the Jerry Sandusky situation might not fully leave for decades. Turning around a perennially losing program is petty by comparison… but between making Temple a winner and riding outa pretty ugly scandal at Miami, Golden has earned a reputation as a stellar, steady hand guiding through reclamation projects. What is it about him, in your view, that allows that?

 

JD: Again, he’s very smart, sharp and strategic about everything – and I mean everything. What was the lesson to be learned at Penn State that Al and the Miami administration pretty much nailed to avoid further heartache down there? Self report everything. You can say that high-level administrators and trustees take care of certain things when it gets to that level, and they do, but Al has a hand in everything. He’s very charismatic, very engaging and very good at getting people to buy in when things are tough.

 

TTM: For all the wonderful qualities of Bill O’Brien, the handshaking, backslapping, schmoozing figurehead of a multimillion-dollar program was something he loathed. How’s Golden in that area?

 

JD: Al’s great in that area. And even if he’s not in the mood to do it on a certain day, you’d never know it because he’s good at pushing through everything he needs to do to embrace that CEO persona. Heck, he even had a lot of input and oversight with the team’s media guide every year and used to suggest attendance and marketing ideas when he was at Temple. Again, the guy leaves no stone unturned.

 

Even when it comes to dealing with boosters and fans who have a million questions about why he didn’t get a certain recruit or run a certain play, nine times out of 10, he’ll sit there and answer the questions. Each year, Temple runs an event for fans and alumni at the New Jersey shore, and it wasn’t uncommon for Al to linger around and have a beer with fans in Sea Isle City or Avalon during the only real vacation time he had in July before preseason camp instead of just ducking away to Stone Harbor, where he and Kelly typically vacationed.

 

TTM: He played tight end at Penn State but his background in coaching is on defense. How hands-on is Golden in the game planning and scheme? Is he a delegator or are his fingerprints all over the X’s and O’s?

 

JD: Unless things have changed, Al’s pretty hands-on with game planning. And from what I’ve been told, it was not uncommon for him to get on the headset when Temple had a chance to really open some things up on offense and really blow things out and say something to the effect of, ‘Let’s just run the ball, stay healthy and get the hell out of here.’ That’s not to say he can’t delegate, and he’s not all that different than some other guys around the country, but his fingerprints are typically all over about 99.9 percent of what goes on with the program.

 

TTM: A lot has been made of his close friendship with Mark D’Onofrio, his former Nittany Lions teammate who is his defensive coordinator. Miami’s defense had a bad season, and there are calls in Coral Gables that a change needs to be made. Is hiring Golden, in your mind, a “package deal” with D’Onofrio?

 

JD: This is where I think things could get interesting. I’m not saying it will be a sticking point that would ultimately kill a deal, because I think Al’s way too smart to let something like that hinder things, but I do think Al feels a bit conflicted about this and ultimately wants to see Mark land on his feet. I’d be shocked if Al didn’t have something to do with Mark getting a couple of interviews for the head coaching job at Temple last December before Matt Rhule ultimately got the job, and I think it’s fair to assume that Al wanted to see Mark either A. get his name out there for some positive ‘Hey, Mark D’Onofrio got a head coaching job interview’ press or B. get the job so he could avoid having to make a tough decision about his future down the line at Miami.

 

All of that, I think, is interesting considering former Temple AD Bill Bradshaw offered Mark the chance to be Al’s successor mere hours after Al announced he was leaving for Miami, but Al wholeheartedly convinced Mark to not take the job and follow him down to Miami.

 

But the numbers don’t lie, and Mark’s defenses have come under some deserved scrutiny at Miami. After being ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense in 2011 (at 20.1 points per game), the Hurricanes got worse. They were 83rd nationally in 2012 (30.5 ppg.) and 66th in the nation this past season (26.8 ppg.), and there was an ugly, three-game stretch this season when Miami, at a time when it really had a chance to prove itself, gave up 131 points and 1,609 yards on third down in losses to Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke, and the Canes gave up an average of nearly 44 points a game in that three-game losing streak.

 

TTM: Along those lines, with Larry Johnson (as well as Ron Vanderlinden) very popular among the Penn State community – and a likely need for a bright and innovative offensive coordinator and strong quarterbacks coach presence to appease Christian Hackenberg and continue the offense’s progression in the O’Brien mold exists (conventional wisdom says, anyway). Do you believe Golden is the type who is open to bringing in those outside his inner circle onto his staff?

 

JD: I do, and I think he’s going to have to come to the realization (if he hasn’t already) that Mark can’t be his defensive coordinator at Penn State. Mark’s bend-but-don’t break style hasn’t worked at Miami, and it used to leave fans scratching their heads at Temple when Mark would have a double-digit sack rush end like Adrian Robinson drop into coverage instead.

 

Al hasn’t been opposed to surrounding himself with older and more experienced people in the past. When he got to Temple, he hired George DeLeone as his offensive coordinator and tapped into what George did during his days in coaching guys like Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison at Syracuse. Even though things didn’t work out recently for George at UConn, he had a good run during his Syracuse days and he was a good hire at the time for Al at Temple.

 

TTM: Perhaps the biggest criticism of Al Golden is a simple one: He hasn’t won enough. Some are speculating he is a bad in-game coach. Did you see any evidence of that? Is there any indication, in your opinion, that maybe there’s reason to believe he can’t win consistently?

 

JD: In some ways, I think that’s fair criticism. Al had the self-imposed bowl bans in 2011 and 2012 that kept Miami out of the postseason while he was building his program down there. But I think – and I’m sure ardent Miami fans do as well – it was fair to expect results in his third season this past fall, and the Canes finished 2-4 after starting off 7-0 and gaining that national top-10 ranking.

 

And even though I’m in full agreement with Bradshaw that Al pulled off one of the most remarkable college football turnarounds at Temple and should be commended for it, there were big-game slip-ups with the Owls as well. In 2009, with a spot in the MAC title game on the line, Temple lost to Ohio, 35-17, and that loss ended a nine-game winning streak. In 2010, again with a shot at a MAC title-game appearance at stake, Temple lost its last two games – 31-23 to Ohio at home in monsoon conditions and 23-3 at Miami of Ohio. Now, Bernard Pierce pulled up lame with a hamstring injury in that Ohio game, and I’ll say that I think Bernard has learned how to be a lot more mentally tough since moving along to the NFL, so that was a big offensive void for Temple. But, nonetheless, the Owls couldn’t lock down a spot in the MAC title game in those two seasons when they could have and should have, nor did Al’s teams ever beat a MAC team with a winning record during his time on North Broad Street.

 

But I also think Al could learn from sub-par finishes down the stretch at Temple and Miami and make his next job his best job. If he winds up at Penn State, he’ll be working with the best quarterback he’s ever had.

 

TTM: Golden has reputation as a strong recruiter, particularly since arriving at Miami. Now, understanding that the national Rivals rankings while you were covering him averaged in the 80’s… for Temple and for the MAC level, was he recruiting well relative to his competition? If so, why do you think he can recruit so well?

 

JD: Absolutely. In fact, Temple’s two highest-ranked recruits (Daryl Robinson and Eric Reynolds) were ultimately dismissed from the program and never worked out. Al’s greatest strength – and that of his staff – was trusting the film and landing guys that were not that highly recruited. Bernard Pierce’s other offer was from James Madison. Muhammad Wilkerson’s other offers were from Western Kentucky and Marshall. Same stories for guys like Tahir Whitehead, Derek Dennis, Steve Maneri and Jaiquawn Jarrett, and all of those guys eventually ended up in the NFL.

 

The same qualities that make Al a good program manager are those that make him a good recruiter. He’s engaging, charismatic and relentless.

 

TTM: Finally, it’s clichéd and idealistic, but Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said that the search committee values qualities of “integrity” and “academics” as much as on-field winning. With everything that’s happened at the school over the past 26 months, that might be more than mere lip service. Does Al Golden have any skeletons in the closet? Any indication how he fares in the areas of integrity and academics?

 

JD: No skeletons that I know of. Again, he was a big part of getting Temple’s APR score up and getting the nine lost scholarships back, and he’s not above working with faculty and administration to make sure guys are going to classes. Will he take a chance or two on a high school talent with a somewhat-checkered past? Sure, but most guys out there will as well. But the one common thing here, once again, is that Al is involved with anything and everything regarding the program and takes it all quite seriously. Not much gets past him, and he won’t be afraid to kick a talented kid out of his program if he’s not buying in on and off the field.

 

 

A Big thanks for the insight to John, who covered Al Golden’s five seasons at Temple. Follow him on Twitter at @jdicarlo or @OwlScoop_com.

 

 

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Author: Chris Adamski

Chris Adamski has been tirelessly working in Pittsburgh sports media for more than 12 years. He has extensively covered the Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Duquesne and the WPIAL and been a fixture at the biggest events in town over that time -- two Stanley Cup Finals, two AFC Championship games, the 2006 MLB All-Star Game and the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, just to name a few. Chris has been the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Penn State football beat writer since the start of the 2013 season. His primary offseason responsibility is assisting in the Trib's Penguins hockey coverage.

 
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