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Patriots' O'Brien heads to Unhappy Valley

January 6, 2012

Sports editor Terry Nau examines the positives and negatives for Patriots' offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who will accept Penn State's head football coaching job this afternoon.

Bill O’Brien could be walking into a no-win situation as the next head football coach at Penn State. While the current Patriots’ offensive coordinator may seem like a solid choice on the surface, the news of his selection hit hard with Penn State alumni on Friday.
Former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington represented the thoughts of many ex-players upon hearing the news that an “outsider” would be the next head coach.
"I will put my Butkus (Award) in storage. I will put my Alamo Bowl MVP trophy in storage," Arrington told BlueWhiteIllustrated.com on Friday. "Jerseys, anything Penn State, in storage. Wherever (former interim head coach) Tom Bradley goes, that's the school I will start to put memorabilia up in my home. I'm done. I'm done with Penn State. If they're done with us, I'm done with them."
Arrington’s views are not atypical of Penn State football alumni, who felt the search committee formed to select a new head coach was anything but transparent, as promised, and more resembled the arrogant and secretive approach that got their alma mater into trouble in the first place.
O’Brien is somewhat of a surprising choice as the next Penn State football coach. After all, the current New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator has never been a head coach. Three years ago, he was a first-year assistant in charge of receivers for the Patriots.
Perhaps O’Brien’s toughest roadblock to winning acceptance with Penn State alumni is the example Charlie Weis set when he left the Patriots and failed miserably at Notre Dame. O’Brien is this year’s version of Weis to Penn State fans … or Josh McDaniels. Why is it that Bill Belichick’s top assistants never succeed on their own?
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Joe Paterno had never been a head coach until he took over as Penn State coach in 1966. The Brown University alum went on to win an all-time record 409 games before getting fired two months ago for his failure to “do more” with the pedophile scandal that rocked Penn State’s high-profile football program in early November.
A large segment of today’s society could care less whether Penn State football ever regains its prominence, so bitter are they over the damage done to children by a pedophile/former Penn State coach named Jerry Sandusky who freely roamed the campus and community in Central Pennsylvania for 20 years, right under the nose of Paterno and several law enforcement agencies.
“That program can rot in hell,” is a typical response you see on various Internet message boards from people who can never forgive Paterno and Penn State for ignoring warning signs that a pedophile circulated on the periphery of their football program.
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There is one major reason why O’Brien’s apparent hiring (he should be announced as head coach today) makes a lot of sense to people outside of Pennsylvania. The 42-year-old has worked for four seasons under the acknowledged top coach in football, Bill Belichick.
Penn State’s search committee originally went after former Indianapolis Colts’ coach Tony Dungy, who turned them down. As the search evolved, and after O’Brien applied for an interview, the search committee must have realized that his application was a chance for Penn State to associate itself with the Belichick mystique while disassociating itself from anyone connected to Paterno’s program and the pedophile scandal that will play out in the state court system for years to come.
There are certain elements of what Belichick does with his Patriots franchise that suit Penn State well.
For instance, Belichick values “team” over individual stars. Who can forget the Patriots refusing individual introductions prior to the 2001 Super Bowl, instead charging on to the field together? Paterno operated under the same team-first value system for over 40 years. This is one of the few elements of his reign that will endure.
Belichick’s players do not taunt their opponents, something we see all too often in the modern sports. They play with emotion, sure, but they respect the game. If one of them does step out of line, Belichick quickly reins the player in. Again, Paterno was the same way.
O’Brien has been associated with Belichick long enough to have absorbed many of his head coach’s beliefs relating to putting a team together, and then holding it together successfully for more than a decade. When he interviewed for the Penn State job, O’Brien must have scored very highly with the search committee. How else could a man with no head coaching experience suddenly move to the top of the list?
A cynic might answer that nobody else wanted the “toxic” Penn State job and it trickled down to O’Brien by default. There is some basis for this opinion, which brings us to another reason Bill O’Brien got the job, beyond his association with Belichick.
O’Brien suits Penn State because he has no coaching cache. He brings little ego to the job. Where Paterno had grown so successful over the years that he became more powerful than his athletic director, university president and even the Board of Trustees, O’Brien will come into his job knowing full well that he answers to the athletic director first. That will be a pleasant change for Penn State, one that has been mandated by the new university president, Rodney Erickson.
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O’Brien, whose contract with the Patriots expires at the end of this season, faces major recruiting challenges because of the ongoing pedophile scandal that will get back into the national news when Sandusky’s trial begins later this winter. The program already has lost three recruits from its 2011 recruiting class, one of them a five-star lineman from Colorado. This year’s recruiting class, and the next one, will be difficult to sell, based on events of the past few months.
Penn State football likely will fall into the middle or lower end of the Big Ten for the next five years. That won’t sit well with alumni and the big boosters who donate major money to the football program.
Like any major college football coach, O’Brien will have to prove himself worthy of a financial and emotional commitment from powerful alumni. A downward trend in this area has already begun. Beaver Stadium featured a few thousand empty seats early in the season for non-conference games.
Empty seats mean lost revenue for a football program that cleared a $20M profit last year. If attendance falls off and alumni donations diminish, Penn State could suddenly start losing money on its football program.
“Why should I spend money on Penn State games when the program is going in the toilet?” one alum asked me recently.
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O’Brien also faces the complicated task of choosing his own coaching staff. It is unlikely he will retain any of Paterno’s staff, and that will raise some hackles among Penn State alumni, too. O’Brien is an outsider heading into an isolated community that has seen its own values seriously undermined by the pedophile scandal.
Penn Staters want to go back to being Penn State, acting as though the scandal was just a temporary obstacle to their football team’s success. But the truth is, the scandal isn’t going away, not for a long, long time, and the hiring of a new coach isn’t even a band-aid on a wound that requires major surgery.
Happy Valley, as Penn State once liked to bill itself, is a very unhappy place right now.
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