O'Brien will face hardships following Paterno

Posted: January 07, 2012

Before he is introduced as Penn State's football coach, Bill O'Brien should call Rich Rodriguez to ask what it was like coaching Michigan when he wasn't a Michigan man . . . and Mike Davis, to inquire about following the deposed Bobby Knight at Indiana . . . and Rollie Massimino, to find out how it was coaching UNLV when devotees of the banished Jerry Tarkanian had sharp knives out from Day 1.

O'Brien's task? Merely what those men faced rolled into one.

The offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots may have the toughest succession job in the history of big-time college sports, made tougher by the stain now attached to the school but also a search process that all but insured that Joe Paterno's successor, if an outsider, would be greeted by scorn and outrage. These circumstances make the question of whether O'Brien can actually do the job almost irrelevant.

Don't believe me? Check out LaVar Arrington's Friday morning Twitter feed. The former Nittany Lions linebacker, who now has the loud megaphone of a Washington, D.C., radio show, tweeted sentences like: "I'm done .. all my PSU stuff will be down before obrien's introduction! We are! No more for me! . . . Until there's a new board and new leadership they can have their corrupt/disgusting school that they've created."

I talked Friday to Charlie Pittman, a former Paterno all-American and father of a Paterno starter. He was more reasoned and analytical but about as mystified.

"I really don't know much, but this just doesn't seem like the Penn State I know," said Pittman, a media company executive who lives in South Bend, Ind. "If they want to take it in a new direction, they are. Why, I don't know. I know just enough to be misinformed, but this apparently is going in a different direction, totally. I can understand a slight deviation . . ."

Pittman knows about what you knew about O'Brien - "I never heard of him" - but he said he understands why ties with Jerry Sandusky were avoided, and even why the current staff wasn't retained.

"But if you look at the Paterno way, it appears to be, people [running the search at Penn State] don't like that, and I don't get that," Pittman said. "It's like EVERYTHING he did was WRONG."

It's no secret that a good portion of Penn State alums, and football alums, still believe the school scapegoated Paterno in the Sandusky affair, and many wanted interim coach and longtime staffer Tom Bradley or a Penn State alum as successor, period. I don't share any of those views. When it came to dealing with Sandusky, Paterno, fired university president Graham Spanier, and former athletic director Tim Curley made their choices years ago, and the school is suffering for those choices today.

Men such as Pittman and former Penn State running back Mike Guman believe the school did nobody any favors by taking so long or acting as if Bradley had a chance at the job, seemingly using his loyalty before discarding it. The fact that O'Brien apparently will stay with the Patriots through the playoffs also is a real issue, Guman said.

"One bad recruiting year can turn into a disaster for a couple of years for a program," Guman said Friday. "That really concerns me."

Maybe the search committee had to wait and see if someone like Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak, a Penn Stater, would ride in to the rescue. Those still hoping for the home run see this as a single under the second baseman's glove.

"I think people would have been accepting of an outside hire if it was a WOW name," said Guman, whose son also played for Paterno. "Oh, OK, it's [Boise State coach] Chris Petersen, it's Tony Dungy. It's somebody who can walk into somebody's living room and they'd be like, 'Where do I sign?' But you got an outside hire that nobody's ever heard of."

Adding to all he is up against, O'Brien may regret the screaming match he got into with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady recently on the sidelines, which is all over YouTube and Twitter feeds.

Sure, both men attributed it to the heat of battle, fair enough. O'Brien is a fiery guy. Got it. But imagine if you're the high school quarterback recruit Penn State desperately needs. Don't you think, "If this is how he deals with Tom Brady, what's he going to be like with me?" (It would be interesting to see what Brady does in this circumstance. If Brady were to say that he loves O'Brien, and why, that could help the coach quite a bit.)

Of course, the last Patriots offensive coordinator to get a college job parlayed his work with Brady and under Bill Belichick into some quick recruiting success. (Whatever you think of Jimmy Clausen, he was a big-time QB recruit.) But even that works against O'Brien right now. All Charlie Weis ultimately proved at Notre Dame was that being Brady's offensive coordinator is an easier job than successfully running an iconic college football program.

Not all Penn State football alumni are taking photos down from the walls. Guman, who also played in the NFL, said Arrington and some others are letting their emotions get the best of them, even if most former players are thinking some of those same thoughts, he said.

"I'm not going to go to that extreme," said Guman, who lives in Allentown and is a vice president for an asset management company. "Tomorrow, the sun is going to come up, and it will the day after. I love the school and the program and want it to succeed and do well. I feel for [O'Brien] a little bit. He did nothing wrong. He got an opportunity here and he took it, and he could be a wonderful football coach, and he might do great things at Penn State. And I hope he does."

The track record just isn't good. Taking over for icons is hard enough (standard examples: Bear Bryant, John Wooden), but this is a far more toxic atmosphere the new man enters in State College.

"If you don't have the support of the alumni, and the former players - you're done, you're toast," Guman said. "He better think long and hard, if he's going to be announced tomorrow, I'd say to him: 'Choose your words very, very carefully.' First reactions are critical."


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus

 

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