The tricky part when comparing two college football coaching jobs is to avoid familiar pairings. The objective is to truly evaluate jobs that belong on the same tier.
For example, Ohio State and Michigan are reflexively grouped because of their storied rivalry, on-field history and, among other things, great coaches such as Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. But when it comes to coaching jobs in 2021, there’s no comparison. Ohio State is in a different class. This doesn’t mean Michigan is a bad job. Michigan is, in fact, a very good job. But a full breakdown of those two positions is a waste.
A much more interesting job comparison is Michigan vs. Penn State. Both jobs carry high expectations to challenge for Big Ten championships and compete nationally. Both have strong resources, recruiting reach and history of success. Both jobs also present some obstacles, especially in trying to keep pace with and ultimately catch Ohio State in the East Division.
Much like the previous coaching job breakdowns, I will assess Michigan and Penn State in four major categories: history (both recent and long-term), resources and administrative support, recruiting location and access to talent and expectations and climate around the program. In addition to my own research, I surveyed coaches and other sources familiar with each program to gain a better understanding from the inside.
Is #GoBlue or #WeAre the better coaching job? Let’s find out.
Past 10 years: Penn State 84-41; Michigan 80-42
The gap between the teams isn’t as wide as I expected. Michigan hasn’t captured even a share of the Big Ten title since 2004, and has yet to appear in the league championship game, which launched in 2011. The Wolverines have dropped eight straight games to Ohio State, five of the past six by 11 points or more. Penn State, meanwhile, owns two wins against the Buckeyes during the past decade, as well as two one-point losses in 2017 and 2018. Michigan’s decade hasn’t been as bad as it seems, as the Wolverines own four seasons of 10 or more wins and three more of eight or more wins. But Michigan hasn’t won enough big games or met expectations, especially given the hype around head coach Jim Harbaugh’s arrival.
“Not being able to beat Ohio State, it knocks them a point down because they’ve got that stigma right now,” a former Michigan assistant said. “If you keep getting embarrassed by your rival, it’s hard to garner that positivity.”
Penn State’s decade began with the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno and unprecedented NCAA sanctions placed on the program. When Penn State received sanctions in July 2012, many predicted the program wouldn’t recover until 2020 or later. Instead, the Nittany Lions won a Big Ten title in 2016 and went 42-11 with three AP top-10 finishes and four AP top-20 finishes between 2016 and 2019. Last season marked PSU’s only losing record (4-5) during the decade, but the Nittany Lions averaged only 7.6 wins from 2011 to 2015.
Michigan and Penn State have split eight meetings over the past decade.
Past 50 years: Penn State 450-169-2; Michigan 447-162-8
Penn State has more national titles (2) than Michigan (1), and holds a 14-10 edge in games against the Wolverines over the span. The Nittany Lions were an FBS independent until 1993, when they joined the Big Ten. They went undefeated in 1994 with a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl victory, but finished second in the final polls behind Nebraska. But Penn State has won only three more league championships since 1994, a lower number than many predicted when the school entered the league. Since 1971, Penn State has logged 22 seasons of 10 or more wins, posted a 25-16 record in bowl games and boasts 29 consensus All-Americans and its lone Heisman Trophy winner with John Cappelletti in 1973.
The 50-year period covers most of Schembechler’s tenure at Michigan, and includes 20 Big Ten championships, although none since 2004, marking Michigan’s longest streak between league titles. Michigan won a national title in 1997 and produced 39 consensus All-Americans and two Heisman Trophy winners in the 1990s (Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson). The real issue for Michigan, amplified in the past decade but present throughout the past half-century, is not winning enough big games. In addition to the recent Ohio State struggles, Michigan is 17-26 in bowl games since 1971 with four consecutive losses. Michigan last made the Rose Bowl in the 2006 season and is 3-11 in Rose Bowls during the past 50 seasons.
Edge: Penn State
Both the Michigan and Penn State programs receive strong support from athletic departments that consistently rank in the top 10 nationally in revenue. They play in America’s two largest stadiums — Michigan Stadium holds 107,601, while Beaver Stadium holds 106,572. Penn State and Michigan boast two of the nation’s largest alumni networks, and have solid booster bases with several big donors.
“The financial part is very similar because of the size of the stadiums,” said a coach familiar with both programs. “Obviously, when you have large stadiums, you can create that revenue. They’ve made commitments and investments.”
Both schools have veteran athletic directors in Penn State’s Sandy Barbour and Michigan’s Warde Manuel, a former Wolverines defensive lineman under Schembechler. Both have been able to pay market value for their head coaches and top assistants. Both also have demonstrated patience, most recently last fall at Michigan, which went 2-4 in Harbaugh’s sixth season.
“They’re not as cutthroat as they are in the SEC,” a Big Ten staff member said. “Penn State’s administration is the same way.”
Michigan in 2009 opened the Al Glick Field House, a gleaming indoor practice facility, and has made two upgrades to Schembechler Hall in the past decade. The school completed a $226 million renovation of Michigan Stadium in 2010. While Michigan’s money never seems to be in short supply, a former assistant thinks the school must continue to push for facilities improvements.
“Michigan’s building feels a little bit old,” he said. “It doesn’t pop. It’s not like the SEC schools. Michigan should probably have better stuff than what they have, being the program that they have.”
In February, Penn State’s board of trustees approved a $48.3 million renovation and expansion of the Lasch Football Building. A total project of $69 million includes upgrades to Holuba Hall, Penn State’s indoor practice facility, and the outdoor practice fields. Penn State also is exploring potential renovations for Beaver Stadium as part of its master facilities plan, although nothing is set at this time.
Both schools adhere to a broad-based philosophy in athletics, as Penn State sponsors 31 varsity teams, two more than Michigan. While the approach impacts financial decisions and overall support, football budgets aren’t lacking at either spot.
“No one has more resources than Michigan,” a former Wolverines assistant said.
Recruiting/access to talent
Penn State and Michigan both are capable of accessing top talent pools and putting together strong recruiting classes. They just usually take their own paths.
Three of Harbaugh’s first four complete recruiting classes at Michigan (2016, 2017, 2019) ranked among ESPN’s top eight nationally. Even his less-decorated classes, such as the past two, have finished in ESPN’s top 15.
Penn State signed ESPN’s No. 4 class in 2018 and top-15 classes in 2019 and 2020. While the 2021 class ranked uncharacteristically low (No. 24), the Nittany Lions are off to a strong start in 2022, currently boasting the nation’s No. 3 class behind Ohio State and Notre Dame. PSU’s recruiting rebound underscores what the program can do within its own state (commitments from Nicholas Singleton, Mehki Flowers and others) as well as in neighboring states such as Ohio and Maryland. Penn State’s 2018 class also was heavy on in-state prospects (Micah Parsons among them), as well those from Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia.
Coaches say Penn State can be a true regional recruiting power with the potential to draw from other areas, such as Florida. Although State College is remote and only accessible by direct flights from a few cities, prospects can easily drive there from populated areas such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore/Washington D.C. and New York. Penn State is the flagship school in a solid talent-producing state, and the closest blue-blood type program to Maryland and New Jersey.
“Penn State’s got a better recruiting base because there’s more players per capita on the East Coast than the Midwest,” a former PSU assistant said. “Penn State can go to [New] Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, they can still do a little bit in Ohio. It’s a long way from Michigan to Virginia.”
Michigan’s recruiting base is more national in scope, which can serve the program well with the right coach and recruiting operation in place. There are fewer elite prospects in the Midwest, and given the competition from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State and even Michigan State, Michigan’s ability to pluck prospects from states such as California is essential.
“Michigan is higher-regarded academically,” an industry source said. “The Jordan Brand, if I’m a kid, the Jordan Brand means something. And the Maize and Blue and those uniforms, the Big House, it makes a difference.”
A former Penn State assistant added of Michigan: “They attract a more national recruit [than Penn State].”
The challenge for Michigan is competing within its own footprint. Michigan has added some key recruits from Illinois, such as 2021 quarterback J.J. McCarthy (he finished his high school career at IMG Academy in Florida), 2020 wide receiver A.J. Henning and 2022 wide receiver commit Tyler Morris. But Illinois typically doesn’t produce a large amount of high-level prospects.
A veteran Big Ten assistant, who has worked at Michigan, questioned whether the program truly has a sweet spot in recruiting.
“Ohio State and Notre Dame get all the good kids in Ohio, and Michigan gets whatever is left over,” the coach said. “Penn State can go on the East Coast and get almost whoever they want. Where is Michigan’s base? They just don’t have a nucleus or base where they dominate.”
Despite some regional challenges, Michigan has shown it can succeed by recruiting different areas. For example, the past two coaching staffs have accessed New Jersey for elite recruits such as Jabrill Peppers (2014 signee) and Rashan Gary (2016 signee). California has long been a state for Michigan to focus its efforts, and the program has made some inroads in both Florida and Georgia.
“At Michigan, you’ve still got to work your ass off, but at the end of the day, you could probably beat Penn State if you’re doing it the right way,” said a former Big Ten assistant.
The facts and feedback on the first three categories shows how close this job comparison is right now. But coaches and others note key differences in expectations/climate around each program, magnified by Michigan’s struggles against Ohio State and other notable opponents.
“Right or wrong, the expectations are for Michigan to be on the same level as Ohio State, regardless of what history says,” a Big Ten coordinator said. “History says there hasn’t been a Big Ten championship since 2004, but the expectation is, it better come tomorrow. Penn State wants those things, but they don’t judge you on them. They’re easily happy with the 10-win season.”
Other coaches familiar with both programs made similar arguments.
“You’re probably expected to win the national championship at Michigan sooner than you are at Penn State,” one coach said. “The Penn State fans are a little more content with a good product. Michigan is a little bit more, ‘We beat Ohio State, we beat Michigan State.’ They’re a little bit more directly connected to what games you win.”
One coach said Michigan’s administration and key decision-makers seem more realistic or even resigned to the program’s place in college football’s pecking order. He noted that Michigan’s last two coaches, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, were fired after losing seasons, and that the school didn’t dismiss Harbaugh after last fall, a season impacted heavily by COVID-19 but also historically bad by Michigan’s standards.
But Michigan fans are perceived as more fickle and even entitled. They want the program to match the university’s standard. Little about Michigan football resembles “leaders and best,” as the fight song goes.
Penn State, meanwhile, is more of a “blue-collar,” regional fan base, as one person noted. They help create what coaches consider one of the nation’s best game-day atmospheres, especially during “whiteout” games. While Michigan also produces impressive crowds, Michigan Stadium generally isn’t considered as hostile for opponents as venues such as Beaver Stadium, Ohio Stadium or Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.
“You’re going to find a little bit more passionate fan base and atmosphere at a Penn State game than a Michigan game,” a Big Ten assistant said.
Edge: Penn State
A theme that has emerged in the coaching job breakdowns is that the jobs that should be better aren’t always so. Michigan seems to fit into this category. The Michigan brand remains one of the strongest and most recognizable in American sports. Money isn’t a problem in Ann Arbor, and recruiting still has the potential to be strong.
But Michigan isn’t the same program as it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the extended stretch without Big Ten championships or marquee wins (against Ohio State and others) has damaged the job.
“Tradition-wise, Michigan should be a top-10 type job,” a Big Ten assistant said. “It’s Michigan. Nobody’s won more games than them. They’ve got 40 something Big Ten championships. But you’re very distant from your rival. Your immediate competition is competing at an extremely high level.”
Penn State also has lost some luster, at least since the 1980s, when it won two national titles and recorded five AP top-eight finishes. While Penn State recorded three AP top-eight finishes in its first four years as a Big Ten member, the school hasn’t received the boost that some envisioned. But Penn State is more relevant in the league these days, and its program appears closest to Ohio State, both on the field and in recruiting. Penn State takes advantage of its regional recruiting advantages and provides an environment where coaches know they need to win, but aren’t judged solely by their performance against a superior program.
Michigan is still more national than Penn State, which has its benefits, but even Harbaugh hasn’t consistently capitalized on the advantage. You wonder if anyone can.
Better job: Penn State