Sportsmen of the year: O'Brien and Penn State seniors

Bill O'Brien
Bill O'Brien (GENE J. PUSKAR / AP)
Posted: December 17, 2012

No one, they told him, is going to try to put a happy face on this.

Understood, he said.

Because, they told him, no one knows exactly what to expect.

Right, he said.

And you'll be working without a safety net, they told him.

Got it, he said.

And there will be some who will root for you to fail, they told him.

Fine, he said.

Well, OK, then, so go out there and sic 'em!

And he did.

Bill O'Brien sicced 'em.

He waded smack into the middle of that mess, and oh what a mess it was, and he brought a soothing calm, mixed in with that Irish passion, and, inch by inch began to pull Penn State out of the bog of despair.

They dealt him a stacked deck, the merciless and smug and vindictive and petty executioners of the NCAA did, with their stripping of scholarships and their $60 million fine and their bowl ban, and they dared him to salvage anything of significant value.

But he did.

And they won. Eight times in all, they won. And they won more than just numbers in a book.

And here in the part of the calendar when it is customary to anoint assorted sportsmen and sportswomen of the year, I submit herewith a nomination of the rookie coach of Happy Valley.

But wait. An amendment. He didn't do this all by himself, not by a long shot, as he himself is quick to acknowledge. So then, roses to the seniors, those gloriously defiant and unceasingly valorous rebels with a cause, bound to each other by a common cause, shining examples of standing tall, standing together.

They are the ones who stayed. They are the ones who did not bolt when the gates were opened, they were the ones who found themselves thrust into something larger than themselves, and oh it was wildly exhilarating.

So then, there is no lack of worthy candidates for athlete of the year. Perhaps you fancy the Human Rocket, Usain Bolt. Or, "Fore! Rory McIlroy. Or, Serena Williams, with two majors and an Olympic gold. Or LeBron James, who is Sports Illustrated's choice.

So why not a man who had never been a head coach before and a Band of Brothers who were all-in? Why not them? Why not those shunned like lepers and then rising above?

There is, you know, no manual for what they did. They were sacrificial innocents. They had no ties with the past injustices but they were punished anyway, punished for the failures of the guilty. And yet they were told that they were fortunate, that they were spared the death penalty, but then when they read the fine print it looked suspiciously as if they had been sentenced to a fate worse than death.

So they used that for motivation. And their coach told them to use that to start a new legacy. They had a golden opportunity here. New beginnings are not things casually tossed about.

So back there in August, when the poachers had left, taking the last few defectors, what were you expecting? Would they be lucky to win two games? Three? How about 6-6, which would, in a delicious bit of irony, make them bowl-worthy? A winning record would surely be out of reach . . . wouldn't it?

Well, they did have some proven talent returning, and their defense looked to be carnivorous. Maybe they could sneak up on a few.

But there was no way around it, they needed a quarterback.

Enter Matt McGloin. He was a sponge. He soaked it up almost as fast as O'Brien could ladle it out, and remember that O'Brien had earned his bones in partnership with somebody named Tom Brady.

(Remember that marvelous Monday Night Football sideline close-up of the two of them in each other's grille, snarlin' and spittin'? That was Happy Valley's introduction to Bill O'Brien.)

The McGloin-O'Brien partnership produced numbers never before seen at a program whose base play for years had been tailback off-tackle.

The defense would turn out to be pretty much as advertised, anchored by Michael Mauti, one more in a long and esteemed line of Penn State linebackers.

Mauti was Butch Cassidy and Michael Zordich the Sundance Kid. (Some years back I did a book with young Michael's mother and I can testify to the impassioned bloodlines of that family. Fourth and short? Get yourself a Zordich.)

The first month of the first season of Life Without Joe was a horror for Sam Ficken, Penn State's placekicker.

He suffered through an unsightly barrage of hooks and wide rights, missing four of five in one hideous stretch, and the harder he tried the worse he did, until you found yourself squirming in agony and sympathy, rooting for him. But he persevered and the others circled around him, protectively, and by season's end Ficken had made 11 in a row, and in the process we were reminded of this:

They say sports builds character. It doesn't. It reveals character.

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