In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on January 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm


I’m not sure anyone really knows the answer to that question , yet.

I’m not sure that O’Brien himself really knows the answer, yet.

Folks outside the Penn State community look at the job as “toxic”… the situation as “fragile.”

And, some folks inside the university community haven’t helped dispel those images. Clearly, the Penn State search committee seemed unprepared for its task. The process took way too long to reach its conclusion, and the required secrecy triggered complaints of a “lack of transparency” and a “lack of openness” from the alumni and the football lettermen. The blogosphere and the many Penn State-related Facebook pages stand as living testament to a search and hiring process that left a sour taste in many mouths.

Truthfully, the alumni and the former football players have an inflated view of their importance in the search/hiring process. Sure, they “foot the football bill” in many ways, but they must realize, and realize quickly, that their initial emotional response to the dragged-out search and the choice of O’Brien is simply a reaction to change that had to happen. Love Joe Paterno, but the man could not coach forever (even though it felt that he might). And sooner, not later, his replacement was coming, and there was never any guarantee that the next Penn State coach would come from within the program. Even in the best of times, Tom Bradley was never promised anything about succeeding Paterno when the time came for him to step aside.

Enter Bill O’Brien. A man with no prior head coaching experience on any level. A man with no ties to Penn State and just an ironic tie to Paterno, in that they both graduated from Brown. A man with a seemingly great job as the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick. A man who was not well known beyond the Boston market until his name was first connected to the Penn State job. A man whose previous 15 minutes of fame had been a testy exchange between Patriots QB Tom Brady and himself caught live by TV cameras during the fourth quarter of an unexpectedly narrow win over the Redskins back in December.

Enter Bill O’Brien into the firestorm of an elite college football program still reeling from its association with one of the worst, if not the worst, scandal to ever hit any sport. Enter Bill O’Brien into an open revolt of half a century’s worth of Penn State football players who see themselves as becoming disenfranchised from their college team if anyone other than a true Penn Stater replaces the one thing they all have in common—Joe. Enter Bill O’Brien into the midst of a monstrously large and equally unhappy alumni group which is literally at war with the university’s Board of Trustees, the search committee, and the current (in some cases, interim) administration over virtually every aspect of the handling of the Sandusky scandal, and especially the “rush to judgment” handling of the dismissal of Paterno himself.

Enter Bill O’Brien into a locker room full of players who have to be wondering whether they still fit into the puzzle that is the immediate future of Penn State football. Enter Bill O’Brien into the heart of a muddled recruiting season—the very lifeblood of college football itself. Enter Bill O’Brien into the living rooms of potential recruits and their families who have no idea who O’Brien is or what they might be getting into if they keep their commitments to attend Penn State.

Enter Bill O’Brien into total uncertainty… into the toughest coaching change in history.

Frankly, scandal aside, simply replacing Paterno is a daunting task. Paterno left a legacy that will be hard to match even in the best of circumstances.

So, who the heck is Bill O’Brien?

I only know what I’ve read about him and what I heard from him in his introductory news conference. Belichick praised him. Tom Brady praised him. Former players, coaching colleagues, and friends use terms like “high energy,” “players’ coach,” “serious guy,” “knows his X’s and O’s,” “blue collar worker,” and “Ivy League smart” when describing O’Brien. Syracuse head coach and close friend of O’Brien’s, Doug Marrone, told the New York Times that O’Brien is the right guy for Penn State–“…there’s no challenge that he couldn’t overcome.”

What is the upside to hiring Bill O’Brien?

Well, somebody had to get the job. Why not him?

He does have some fairly decent college and NFL credentials. Brady is having a record season under O’Brien. Of course, Brady can probably make any coach look pretty darn good.

He’s worked with and learned from some very solid head coaches—most obviously Belichick.

He also brings the educational background and work experience from football programs like Duke and Georgia Tech that share Penn State’s core values.

“I believe in myself. I believe in Penn State.”

That quote is from Bill’s first assignment as Penn State’s head coach—selling himself to the everyone in the university community who had no role in his hiring. He was nervous, to be sure, but he handled himself well at his first presser, addressed the key issues, and simply seemed to say the right things at a time when every word, every phrase would be scrutinized.

It was critical for him to immediately reach out to the Penn State football lettermen, and he did. He knows that he must EARN their respect and trust, and he took the all-important first step, “You are why we want to be here.” And, some former players (Kerry Collins of the Colts and Dallas’ Sean Lee to name two) have responded favorably and called upon their fellow Penn Staters to give O’Brien a chance. The Lettermen’s Club also now says though a statement issued by the university that it is behind O’Brien.

The alumni also seemed willing to embrace O’Brien after an initial negative reaction to his hiring—assuming Facebook is a reasonable way to gauge alumni opinion these days. O’Brien successfully and wisely greased the skids a bit with his willingness to praise Joe Paterno and embrace his legacy and the program’s great history and traditions–“I look forward to meeting [Coach Paterno] and talking with him about what he’s done for Penn State.”

O’Brien also scored points for his decision to keep Larry Johnson on the staff and his willingness to, at least, consider keeping others. Of course, keeping Johnson is more an effort to hang onto as much of the current recruiting class as possible. At least, there’s one familiar face left. This also scores points with the current crop of players. Quarterback Matt McGloin has publicly supported the hiring of O’Brien which logically should benefit the likes of Matt and his back-up Rob Bolden. But we might not know until the end of spring practice how many, if any, will depart Penn State in response to the change and challenge that lies ahead.

What’s not to like about Bill O’Brien?

There is the “no head coaching experience” thing, but to quote O’Brien, “everybody has to start somewhere.”

Paterno himself was never a head coach prior to ascending to the top job with the Nittany Lions in 1966. Of course, he had come from within the program as did other recent and reasonably successful Big Ten head coaching first-timers: Lloyd Carr at Michigan, Bret Bielema at Wisconsin, and Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. Bob Stoops’ taking over at Oklahoma in 1999 might be the best, most recent example of a first-time college head coach successfully taking over a program with which he had no prior connection.

As for this business of remaining on the Patriots staff through the Super Bowl, that really is problematic. He’ll be trying to do two jobs at a time where there’s little margin for error in either—the NFL playoffs and the days leading up to National Signing Day.

There’s also the lack of a connection to high schools and coaches in the mid-Atlantic area that provide the bulk of Penn State’s recruits. And, only one holdover with knowledge of Pennsylvania, DC, Maryland, etc. is not enough to avoid some serious bumps in the recruiting road.

Add to that, coming from the NFL, O’Brien has no ready-made “college staff” that might normally follow a head coach to his new home. This will make recruiting all the more difficult, so look for this to be “lost recruiting class.” In addition to this, he must hire a complete staff, and simply keeping the all the existing assistants is not really an option. I don’t really see Tom Bradley and Jay Paterno sticking around. O’Brien needs to find his own way and those two could prove to be major distractions for a fan base that’s still not 100% sold on the new guy; especially if he gets off to a slow start in the win column.

The other thing that concerns me is that O’Brien sounded like an NFL coach and not a college coach when asked about his plans for Penn State’s offense. Multiple sets and “game-planning” offensive schemes are fine for the pros, but colleges face NCAA-mandated practice limits that make weekly adjustments almost impossible to implement. Seriously, how thick can O’Brien’s new playbook afford to be? Bill should definitely speak to Charlie Weis about his troubled transition from the Pats to Notre Dame.

Why did Bill O’Brien take the job at Penn State?

Maybe he just needed to get out of the shadow of Belichick and Brady. The Patriots assistants don’t get much publicity.

Maybe he just needed a new, big challenge. I read where he’s not afraid to take a gamble to improve his career options. He reportedly took a big pay cut to join the Patriots staff in 2007 and now he stands to earn it all back, and then some.

Maybe he just felt this was his “big break.” He missed out on his first “big break” over a decade ago when he was set to join George O’Leary as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, but problems with O’Leary’s resume’ derailed those plans.

Maybe it has to do with his family. I’ve read several accounts stating that O’Brien’s oldest son, Jack, suffers from a rare developmental disorder which requires serious ongoing medical treatment. Penn State Hershey Medical Center’s pediatric care is regarded among the best the country and certainly O’Brien’s son will benefit greatly from access to those doctors.

Will Bill O’Brien succeed at Penn State?

Hard to say. But, he won’t if everybody doesn’t give him a fighting chance here at the start.

He may not be the first choice, or even the best choice; however, he is the choice.

At the outset, Penn Staters will be pleased to know that he has no plans to change the white helmets and plain uniforms that Joe and his teams made famous. “We are a team. There will be no names on the back of the jerseys.” Bill is smart not to mess with the Penn State “brand.”

Penn Staters will also soon discover that Bill has a rhythmic name just like Joepa. When I say Bill-O… you say… Brien. The more things change….

Bottom line is that O’Brien seems to grasp his responsibility at Penn State, “Coach Paterno laid the foundation of football success and academic success, and we really just need to get going and building on that.”

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:


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