CNHI News Service
— The drama surrounding Penn State University's football program added a revealing chapter last week. Bill O’Brien - who stepped in to coach during a difficult, if not impossible, time in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal - traded his Nittany Lions attire for that of the Houston Texans.
O'Brien has spent his time in purgatory, so a jump to the National Football League makes sense, at least professionally.
What makes his departure even more interesting was revealed in an interview he gave in early December - a month before the move was announced - with sports columnist David Jones of The Patriot News, a newspaper in central Pennsylvania.
O’Brien discussed the difficulties of winning in the world of big-time college football, let alone under NCAA-imposed sanctions that have included scholarship reductions and a ban on post-season play.
Living in the shadow of late coach Joe Paterno - even though his reputation was soiled by the Sandusky scandal - became too much. Penn State went 7-5 last season, and O’Brien’s overall record stood at 15-9. That would have been good enough for two bowl appearances if not for the post-season ban.
“I’m trying to field the most competitive football team I can with near death-penalty (expletive) sanctions,” O'Brien told Jones in a phone call. “Every time I say something like that and somebody prints it, it’s skewed as an excuse. And I’m not an excuse maker. I’m trying to do the best I can for the kids in that program. That’s all I care about is the kids in that program - as long as I’m the head football coach here.”
Then O’Brien hinted that his tenure at Penn State might be ending.
Coaches, especially those in high-powered programs, have two jobs: Produce teams that win, and woo influential alums and friends of the university.
For O’Brien the job included presiding over an emotional break between his predecessor, a football icon, and those who worshiped his achievements. It’s a scene that's almost always marked by regret, disappointment and bitterness. Pity those who follow The Man.
I recall when Ray Perkins left the New York Giants in 1983 to return to Alabama to take over for Paul W. Bryant, who passed away shortly after announcing his retirement. Many in the state were still grieving when Perkins began making a few seemingly minor changes.
First, Perkins moved the coaching tower from which Bryant observed practice to a remote spot. The fans recoiled. The reaction was the same when Perkins made a slight modification in the players’ football gear.
The changes were too early and insensitive for the public, especially one that was still mourning. Perkins lost key fan support.
The situation was similar, although the circumstances far different, after Coach Bob Knight’s forced exit from Indiana. To this day, Knight’s following remains fervent in the Hoosier State. Coaches that bring home major championships become part of a state’s history and reputation, rightly or wrongly. Indiana has never recovered from that divisive parting – a wound that refuses to heal.
That’s part of what made O’Brien’s challenge so big. Despite Paterno's flaws and mistakes, he was larger than life. He meant so much to a university and state, it was unreasonable to think that fans could transition quickly to a new regime. Old allegiances die hard.
O’Brien has shown once again that a coach never wants to be the one who follows The Coach.
“You can print this,” he told Jones. “You can print that I don’t really give a (expletive) what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno - everything in my power. So I (couldn't) really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.
“For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.”
O’Brien, by any fair measurement, was successful at Penn State. What he didn’t consider was that by following Paterno, some simply wouldn’t judge him fairly.
Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.