James Franklin Shows He Isn't Messing Around with Mike Yurcich Hire

By Nick Polak on January 13, 2021 at 8:41 am
Nov 7, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin looks on prior to the game against the Maryland Terrapins at Beaver Stadium.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
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The entire Penn State community, and college football world for that matter, was caught completely off-guard when Penn State announced that it was parting ways with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, and bringing in Mike Yurcich to replace him. It wasn't that the hire of Yurcich himself was surprising. After all, he played his college ball at California University of Pennsylvania, spent the better part of a decade coaching in the state, and was a candidate for the job a year ago. Rather, it was the complete lack of any substantive rumor that the Lions were looking to move on from Ciarrocca after just one pandemic-affected season. It's very rare that a high-profile college football program is able to make a change at coordinator without any indication that such a move is coming.

Even more surprising was the fact that it was James Franklin making the move. During his time in Happy Valley, Franklin has shown himself to be a coach that greatly values relationships, and has experienced very few quick coaching turnovers as a result. David Corley, who was hired to coach the running backs then was shifted to receivers after the Ja'Juan Seider hire, and Gerad Parker, who took the offensive coordinator job at West Virginia, are the only two hires he's made to move on after just one season. Parker only moved on so quickly because of the opportunity presented at West Virginia, not due to any issues in Happy Valley.

Regardless of your feelings about that loyalty, it's one of his defining characteristics. So to be greeted by the news that Ciarrocca is headed out of town after just nine games was shocking, to say the least. Ciarrocca's performance certainly deserved some analysis after the offense severely underachieved in 2020, but considering his track record of success at multiple stops after he gets a chance to really install his system, conventional wisdom suggested that his job was safe. Instead, we saw Franklin give him the quick hook and go get the newly-available Yurcich.

Now, it is possible that this move is really just a result of all of the stars aligning. There have been whispers that Yurcich was the top choice a year ago before he decided to join Tom Herman at Texas. So maybe his sudden availability as a result of Herman's dismissal was simply too good for Franklin to pass up after settling for Ciarrocca, who if those rumors are to be believed was clearly not the top choice. Perhaps this move is nothing more than an extension on last offseason's search.

But for a guy who is all about relationships, you know this wasn't an easy move to make. Ciarrocca left a head coach in PJ Fleck that he had worked with since 2013 at Western Michigan to join Franklin's staff. Now, barely over a year later, he's a free agent in the coaching world. Barring any behind-the-scenes disagreements or information that I am personally not privy to, you would be a fool to think that putting him in this situation didn't weigh heavily on Franklin's decision here. Which makes the decision itself all the more notable.

College football is a sport of imbalance. Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State are sitting at the table holding pocket pairs, the Penn States and Georgias and Notre Dames and Floridas are holding high cards, and the rest of the country is the short stack with two-seven off-suit. Without a bit of luck and a bit of magic, the pocket pairs are tough to beat. But by making this change, Franklin is betting that Yurcich will improve his hand enough to make it to the final table.

Matt broke down what Yurcich brings to the table as a play-caller, and what we can hope to see from his unit next season, but nothing is assured. Perhaps this is a gamble that will flame out and Penn State will continue to be stuck in the realm of "Good, but not good enough". Despite that risk, it's a gamble that was worth taking because Franklin knows what the potential payout can look like. He knew it when he gave the "good to great to elite" speech what seems like a lifetime ago, and he knows it today. Breaking into that top group and becoming a true College Football Playoff contender is the golden ticket for any program and by extension, its coach.

Penn State remains a great team, regardless of the 0-5 start this season. There is too much talent in the program to not be successful, and it's only getting better. Franklin went out and made this move because he knew it was the best way to stack his deck and help push his team forward, with the unfortunate downside of being forced to move on from a coordinator after one disappointing, but flawed season. And while the human side of this is a bummer and we hope Ciarrocca is able to find his new home quickly enough, it's hard to not be excited by the prospect of Franklin showing that he's truly going for it and no longer settling for anything less than what he believes is the best.

Whether Yurcich ends up being the best coordinator in school history or falling flat is irrelevant. In a sports world where playing it safe and keeping the status quo is os often par for the course, Franklin is making his move and going for it all. And that alone is exciting.

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