Bernard Fernandez: New Penn State coach makes good first impression

New football coach Bill O'Brien shakes hands with students during a Penn State men's basketball game.
New football coach Bill O'Brien shakes hands with students during a Penn State men's basketball game. (PATRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: January 09, 2012

STATE COLLEGE - What exactly makes a Penn Stater a Penn Stater, anyway?

Is it a framed diploma from the commonwealth's flagship university? A compulsion to dress in blue and white on every autumn Saturday afternoon? An unshakable belief that former coach Joe Paterno heals the sick and raises the dead in his spare time? Is it something that is obvious and visible to all, like an exposed tattoo or some other signal of membership in an exclusive club?

If being a Penn Stater is a sort of birthright, then the school's acting athletic director, Dave Joyner, surely has it. Not only did he play football for Paterno from 1969 to '71, but he was a standout wrestler who was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.

To hear Joyner tell it, Penn State has arms wide enough to embrace the occasional convert. And when the man who headed the six-member search committee charged with identifying the best fit as the Nittany Lions' new football coach peeled back a few layers of a candidate with no obvious ties to the school or Paterno, he thought he spotted something that superseded even a lack of an insider's blueblooded pedigree.

"I was looking for a Penn State heart," Joyner said, and he believes he found it beating in the chest of someone who hadn't played football for the Lions, coached under Paterno, or even set foot on this picturesque, central Pennyslvania campus until Friday night, when he was offered and accepted a job that many Penn Staters believe should have been reserved for one of their own.

Bill O'Brien, 42, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the New England Patriots, was introduced Saturday morning at the Nittany Lion Inn as the first full-time coach of a program that had been entrusted to Paterno since 1966, or 3 years before O'Brien was born. And while no one in the packed room heckled him, it is safe to say that the reception was mixed, at best.

How many media types in the audience already had editorialized that O'Brien lacked the gravitas (he has never been a head coach at any level) to take on one of America's highest-profile college coaching jobs? How many members of the Football Lettermen's Club had criticized the hiring of someone they felt couldn't possibly understand what being a Penn Stater is all about? Why couldn't Joyner and the other members of the Gang of Six just stay in-house and promote interim coach Tom Bradley, a Penn State alum with 33 years of service as one of JoePa's most loyal and trusted lieutenants?

And if all that weren't enough, O'Brien - who will pull double-duty for as long as the Patriots remain alive in the NFL playoffs - must deal with the acid rain of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal, a fast-approaching national signing day on Feb. 1, and the need to cobble together a coaching staff on the fly. We are left to wonder why O'Brien or anyone else from the outside would want to climb aboard what many perceive to be a listing ship with a semi-mutinous crew and a soiled image.

Well, apart from the money - O'Brien's 5-year contract calls for an initial base salary of $950,000, with a built-in 5 percent annual raise, another $1 million from radio and television, $350,000 from Nike and performance incentives not to exceed $200,000 a year - there is the challenge of refurbishing Penn State's reputation, and a chance to be a part of something he had long admired from afar.

"I grew up following the Penn State football program," said O'Brien, who was born and raised in suburban Boston. "I always loved to watch them play because of the helmets, the uniforms, the black cleats, no names on the backs of the jerseys - and because of coach Paterno."

Having given the obligatory kudos to JoePa, O'Brien extended an olive branch to dissident members of the Letterman's Club, reading a prepared message that assured them that, "We are here with you now . . . You should love this school. You are why we want to be here. We want you to know you will always be welcome and a part of our program because we are . . . Penn State."

Shortly after O'Brien's news conference, Letterman's Club president Tim Sweeney released a statement via the school website to congratulate and welcome the new coach.

"We want Coach O'Brien to know that he has the full support and backing of the Letterman's Club as he leads Penn State Football into the future," the statement read in part. "Our highly regarded standard of academic achievement equals that of our on-field performance, and we feel that Coach O'Brien is an excellent choice to continue this tradition that for so long has defined Penn State. Our membership looks forward to welcoming Coach O'Brien and his family in the near future."

O'Brien also announced that highly regarded and popular defensive line coach Larry Johnson would remain in Happy Valley as a member of his staff, and several players tweeted after last night's team meeting with O'Brien that linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden will as well. That also should make for a smoother transition on the field as O'Brien puts his own brand on a program that for so long had been synonymous with the deposed legend.

As first impressions go, the one made by O'Brien went about as well as he or Joyner, an orthopedic surgeon whose possibly brief tenure as acting AD will be judged almost entirely on whatever level of success is achieved by the new coach, could have hoped for. But saying the right things at a January press conference is not the same as pushing the right buttons under pressure in a Big Ten Conference game in November, and O'Brien realizes that the really hard work hasn't begun yet.

"Bill O'Brien was my first choice, and the committee's first choice," insisted Joyner, who said the position was not offered to anyone else. "It was a unanimous decision. Every time I talked to him, the more impressed I became."

In the reformed Church of Nittany Nation, that might be enough to believe everything actually will work out in the long run.


Send email to fernanb@phillynews.com

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