by Geoff Rushton
When Bill O’Brien was hired as Joe Paterno’s successor at Penn State in January 2012, he had no place on his staff for Mike McQueary, an assistant coach he never worked with or met.
When Matt Rhule was hired as Temple’s head coach later that year, he had no place on his staff for McQueary, someone he knew dating back to their high school days in State College and playing days at Penn State, but had never worked with and knew little of professionally.
The coaches testified in prerecorded video depositions Wednesday that in both cases, choosing not to interview or hire McQueary had nothing to do with fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and everything to do with qualifications and professional networks that are vital to the coaching business.
On the final day of trial testimony in McQueary’s whistleblower and defamation lawsuit against Penn State, witnesses called by the defense focused on why McQueary wasn’t retained by O’Brien and why he hasn’t been able to secure a coaching job since he was placed on paid administrative leave by the university in November 2011.
For O’Brien, the answer was simple. Before he was hired by Penn State, he knew whom he wanted to fill his assistant coaching staff. None of the assistants from Paterno’s final staff were on that list, though he did ultimately retain defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden after his initial choices were unavailable and those two were recommended by search committee members and several players.
But for his wide receivers coach, McQueary’s former position, Stan Hixon was one of the first assistants to sign on in the days after O’Brien was hired. O’Brien knew Hixon well from their time as assistant coaches at Georgia Tech, and Hixon had developed a wide range of experience in college football and the NFL.
“You have a list of coaches you would like to inquire about when you get your head coaching job,” O’Brien said, adding that McQueary’s qualifications did not match Hixon’s.
He also said that he hired Charles London, with whom he’d worked at Duke, as running backs coach and to take over McQueary’s former recruiting coordinator duties for similar reasons.
“He and I shared the same football philosophies,” O’Brien said, though under cross-examination said he had no familiarity with McQueary’s philosophy or work ethic
McQueary was thrust into the spotlight in November 2011 when it was revealed he testified to an investigating grand jury that he had witnessed Sandusky with a boy in a locker room shower in 2001 when McQueary was a graduate assistant, and that he reported it to former Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz. The administrators were charged with perjury (since quashed) and failure to report after they testified McQueary told them nothing sexual had happened.
His lawsuit contends that Curley and Schultz misrepresented how they would handle his report; that Penn State defamed him in a statement of support for Curley and Schultz by former President Graham Spanier; and that that the cumulative effect of Penn State’s actions, including placing him on leave and not renewing his contract, was retaliatory and harmed his ability to find employment.
Part of Penn State’s defense has been that McQueary hasn’t found a coaching job because he failed to develop a professional network by spending his entire career at one school and under one head coach.
McQueary was the only assistant from Paterno’s final staff not to get an interview with O’Brien, but O’Brien said those interviews were “a courtesy,” and an imposition on his time.
“Older coaches told me flat out ‘Can you just tell me I’m fired so I can collect my severance?’” said O’Brien, who went on to become the Houston Texans’ head coach in December 2013. “I had a ton of respect for the coaches who had been there. But I wasn’t going to spend three days interviewing those guys and they knew they weren’t being retained.
“It was a waste of time.”
Pressed by McQueary attorney Elliot Strokoff about specific dates surrounding his hire, O’Brien – whose testimony was recorded last week at Houston’s NRG stadium – injected a moment of levity.
“I’m sitting here getting ready to coach a game against the Denver Broncos so excuse me if I don’t remember the exact dates.”
In lengthier testimony recorded in July, Rhule disputed McQueary’s assertion that Temple administrators prohibited him from hiring McQueary “because of the lawsuit and the situation I am in,” as McQueary has testified.
Rhule said he never considered McQueary for a position on his staff.
“He wasn’t a fit for me and I wasn’t going to hire him,” Rhule said.
Rhule recalled little of text messages and emails presented by the defense in which McQueary expressed his interest in a job as offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach or wide receivers coach.
Saying he and McQueary were not particularly close friends in their time together in high school or college, or since, Rhule said McQueary had only coached wide receivers and he already had someone in mind for that job.
Rhule initially sought to hire Nick Rolovich – then offensive coordinator at Nevada, now head coach at Hawaii – to be offensive coordinator for Temple, because of his ability to run the type of offense Rhule wanted. When Rolovich backed out, he gave the OC position to Marcus Satterfield, originally hired as wide receivers coach. He then brought in Terry Smith as receivers coach because of his success as a high school coach in Western Pennsylvania. Smith is now assistant head coach and cornerbacks coach at Penn State.
In pretrial questions, McQueary said he believed Rhule would confirm his excellent reputation as a coach and recruiter. But Rhule testified he didn’t know what McQueary’s reputation was in either area.
He later testified that he had heard from several high school coaches that players McQueary coached “didn’t always like him,” though he didn’t know if that were true or if it was a good or bad thing.
In the weeks after Rhule was hired as Temple’s head coach, text messages and emails presented by Penn State showed McQueary reaching out several times for a position on Rhule’s staff. Multiple times McQueary assured him that the Office of Attorney General would speak to Rhule and Temple administrators on his behalf to clear up any questions.
“When everything comes out they will give you a lot of credit,” McQueary wrote. “You can talk to all the authorities. They will share everything, very confidential information with you, with your administration. I want this Matt, I would be a great OC along with you and others bringing in.”
On cross-examination, Strokoff alluded to a conversation Rhule allegedly had with another former teammate in which he said he would have hired McQueary but administrators would not let him. Rhule said he didn’t remember ever having that conversation.
He said he was never told by Temple leadership he couldn’t consider or hire McQueary.
“He wasn’t in the running,” Rhule said. “I just felt like he wasn’t qualified for what I wanted to do.”
Rhule also said he was put off by what he perceived as McQueary’s assumption that because he had been an assistant at Penn State, he could ascend to an offensive coordinator position at Temple, or coach quarterbacks, which he had never done before despite playing the position in college.
Earlier in the day Penn State called Peter Roussel as an expert witness. A one-time college football assistant coach, Roussel founded coachingsearch.com, a hub for news and information on college and professional football coaching. He is now an agent with Coaches Consulting Group.
Roussel testified that, as Penn State has sought to demonstrate throughout the trial, McQueary spent his whole career at one school, which never had much turnover on its staff, and so he never developed the network of contacts that would help him advance or transition to a new job.
He pointed to O’Brien hiring Hixon, who had extensive experience and had worked with O’Brien in the past.
“It’s very much so about who you know,” Roussel said. “It’s not just you’ve got a resume, you get hired. The importance of a network is absolutely critical. Talent is critical don’t get me wrong. You might take a guy who might not be as good coach and recruiter but you’ve worked with before … and just have a great feel for who he is. That’s just common in the profession.”
He also said that with many coaches attempting to land open jobs every year, McQueary’s resume didn’t stand out, in form or content.
“Good resume, he had a good team. Nothing is like ‘Wow, you’ve got to hire Mike McQueary, he’s available,’” Roussel said.
He added the McQueary’s efforts to land a job by sending out resumes and applications weren’t what is needed in the current coaching market. Roussel said his firm develops marketing profiles for its coaching clients.
“You’ve got to get the attention of head coaches,” Roussel said. “We use graphic design show what you’ve done. The day of a black and white resume – we don’t send that out to anybody. When a job comes open there are so many coaches trying to get that job. You’ve got to somehow distinguish yourself. People don’t have time just read resumes.”
Penn State rested its defense on Wednesday afternoon. Attorneys will give closing arguments on Thursday morning.