Bill Lyon: Bill O'Brien begins monumental task at Penn State

Penn State's first game under Bill O'Brien is scheduled for August 31. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Penn State's first game under Bill O'Brien is scheduled for August 31. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Posted: August 27, 2012

And so there they were, nose-to-nose, chin-to-chin, veins popping, eyes bulging, F-bombs detonating, hot at it - Tom Brady, the Wonder Boy, and . . . and . . . help me out here, who is that other guy in Brady's grille, anyway?

Bill O'Brien.

Who?

This was Dec. 11, as the New England Patriots were beating the Washington Redskins, and, much to the camera's delight there was a snarling sideline dustup between Brady and . . . and . . . Bill O'Brien - that Bill O'Brien, then the Patriots' offensive coordinator, who the next time the camera lingers on him will be as the new head football coach of Pennsylvania State University, which is kind of a big deal, seeing as how there hasn't been a new one for 46 years.

In the months since then, Brady and O'Brien have made nice - just one of those flash-fire heat-of-the-moment, over-and-done-with disagreements, they say - and the coach has busily gone about the daunting task of overseeing what Penn State hopes will be a rising from the ashes.

Folks, the man is dancing as fast as he can.

O'Brien has fought a rear-guard action trying to stem the tide of player defections. He has pressed more flesh than a campaigning politician, trying to rally what is a considerable, prideful "We Are" fan base. And he has sought to answer the question most asked of him by Nittany Nation: Who are you, anyway?

Well, off that one celebrated instance with Brady, we know that the blood runs high in this Irish lad, who will brook no nonsense, not from some diva QB, not from nobody, so let's huddle up and get to it. Smashmouth it is.

The resumé is admittedly thin. O'Brien is 42. He has 14 years of coaching, starting at Brown, where he also played, and including Duke, Maryland, and Georgia Tech, which is especially an impressive dossier if we're talking basketball. And then there are the Patriots, which is worth some serious cachet and where he did the buffing and polishing of that aerial assault Brady runs.

And there is this: He has never been a head coach.

That doesn't necessarily mean he won't be capable of handling the job. Or not. Nor will it take very long to find out. You either ride the waves and hang 10 or you splatter on the rocks. There is no in-between.

What we do know for sure is that no head coach has ever faced a situation quite like this.

There's no manual for how you parachute into a program that has just been emasculated by the NCAA, stripped of 40 scholarships, fined $60 million, banned from postseason play for four years, losing nine players allowed to transfer elswehwere, and pretty much made to parade through the town square while the children get to throw cow pies.

No matter from what angle you examine it, it looks like the man has been set up to fail. He took the job anyway. With eyes wide open.

Your first thought is: free pass.

Your second thought is: maybe not.

Slack will be cut, especially for the first season, but let us remember this is Nittany Nation, and hamstrung or not, if their team should start, say, 1 and 4, and that against the soft part of their schedule, the hills will be alive with the sound of discontent and impatience. The free pass could have a short shelf life.

And if the Lions should start, oh, say 6-2, no one will be asking who Bill O'Brien is. Well, no one that is except assorted NFL owners and GMs, who are rarely put off by the notion of carpetbagging.

The fact is, none of us - not O'Brien, not you, not me, not a battalion of bloggers, not a truckload of tweeters - has a clue of how this is going to play out. Because there has never been anything like it.

As for the man who will be the highest-profiled coach in the land this season, Bill O'Brien has done yeoman work thus far. He has led the march to lift the veil in Happy Valley. He has put the focus where it needs to be. He has said what needed saying, done what needed doing. And he has repeatedly urged everyone to keep moving forward, because when you're moving forward you're putting the tormented past behind you.

He has been fortunate, too, to have this senior class, and he acknowledges that at every turn. It is loaded with what coaches like to call character people. Their loss will have a grave impact, on the field and off. The football program may need a decade to fully recover.

Maybe more.

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