While talking to reporters on a conference call about a Sports Illustrated story that claims changes in Penn State's medical staff have resulted in worse care for athletes, O'Brien's voice was raised for most of his answers. He sounded angry. Perplexed. Emotional. Defensive. Frustrated. He got so angry at one point he asked the Penn State spokesman how many questions were left. He was told six remained. He snapped back that no, there would be just three more (though he ended up sticking around for some extras, even though he had his son's little league game to get to).
The call went on for almost 22 minutes. Ben Jones at StateCollege.com posted the audio clip of the conference call, so listen for yourself:
O'Brien stepped into perhaps the most difficult situation for a coach in recent college football history. Maybe ever. Penn State football not only had the crushing (and arguably unfair) NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it placed itself in a position to be open to more scrutiny than most programs, especially after promising full transparency. And he was replacing a legend in Joe Paterno.
You have to wonder, as O'Brien has to answer questions about a controversy no other coach in America has dealt with this offseason, if the situation is even more difficult than he figured.
The story itself is complicated. SI wrote that longtime director of athletic medicine at Penn State and orthopedic surgeon/head physician for the football team Wayne Sebastianelli was relieved of his duties and insinuates that new athletic director David Joyner's contentious relationship with Sebastianelli played a role. SI says there will be less on-site coverage for players. Penn State claimed that its physician coverage is of the highest quality and comparable to other schools, and it sent out a list comparing it to the physician coverage of many other programs. The Nittany Lions say there is a primary care physician at every practice. An orthopedic physician will be at practice at least once a week and all games, and is available on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday if needed. O'Brien told ESPN he made a recommendation concerning the medical staff to move in a different direction, but said on the conference call that he doesn't hire or fire doctors. Him making a recommendation about any part of a program he just inherited is certainly not uncommon in college football.
O'Brien stated with great emotion that it would be "preposterous" to think that Penn State doesn't want the best health care for its players, especially with its massive reduction in scholarship players. And that makes a lot of sense. He sounded like a man who couldn't believe he had to make that point.
The SI story details everything. We'll leave it up to you to decide if you think Penn State's football medical staff is adequate. The more interesting angle going forward might be O'Brien.
David Jones of the Patriot-News wrote an interesting piece saying the medical issue is just a piece of a larger political battle between the old Paterno loyalists and another faction that wants to move on from that era. Jones writes Penn State is still "engulfed" in that battle. That's easy to believe.
And on the call with reporters, it was easy to sense O'Brien's frustration. Penn State alumni trustee Anthony Lubrano was quoted by the Patriot-News saying he is concerned the Nittany Lions are "becoming more like the NFL" in their medical model and perhaps rushing players back on the field. O'Brien came from the NFL's New England Patriots. When asked about that comment, O'Brien said it wasn't true and couldn't believe that someone would say that without any knowledge of the subject.
The SI story said "many members of the Penn State community are troubled" by the medical staff changes. O'Brien was asked a few times about the sense that he and the program were being undermined, and he dismissed all of those questions by wondering why anyone would want to undermine his program. Then he was asked about unity among the Penn State community.
"I’m not the unity coach," O'Brien said, still with the emotions rising in his voice. "I’m not the coach of unity. I’m the football coach."
O'Brien is dealing with a lot. He has an athletic director in Joyner who was on Penn State's board of trustees and had no college administrative experience, who was – fairly or not – just ripped by a national magazine. O'Brien is coming off a surprisingly successful 8-4 season, and did a marvelous job considering the sanctions, but here he was defending his program over a controversy that has to do with the medical staff, that at least one reputable reporter said is just a "symptom" of the larger fight going on at Penn State.
O'Brien said he made a suggestion about a change in direction on his program's medical personnel, and months later after it erupted into a national story based on unhappiness by some in the Penn State community, leaving him to answer questions about his program being undermined and how he can unify everyone. That's not a common chain of events in college football.
After last year, when NFL teams asked his agent if he was available, O'Brien let them know he wasn't. He told the Patriot-News, "I'm not gonna cut and run after one year, that's for sure."
Maybe he won't cut and run after two years either, or after four, or 10, or 20. He seems to have a real ownership of the Penn State program, and wants to be the guy to get it get through a truly difficult era. He knew what he was getting into, and you can't go into that situation without expecting a lot of difficulties. Maybe fighting the various battles will cause him to become even more determined to see Penn State football through to better days.
But as long as he's doing an impressive job at Penn State, NFL teams are going to keep wondering if he is interested in making that leap. Perhaps they wonder if he'll grow weary of being at a program that will continue to be examined very closely after the Sandusky scandal and continue to be in the shadow of Paterno.
After hearing O'Brien fight back at this latest controversy for about 22 emotionally fueled minutes, it's not an unfair question.
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