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If Bill O’Brien is in at Penn State, a few ex-Nittany Lions are out

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Under the circumstances, there was very little chance Penn State was going to land a new head coach that knocked anyone's socks off, and — surprise — the pending announcement of New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as Joe Paterno's successor already seems to have fallen a little flat.

It's not hard to see why: O'Brien's not a household name, he's never been a head coach, he's never worked at a top-tier college program and the Nittany Lions aren't even going to have his undivided attention for at least two more weeks. NFL transplants rarely work out in college, and coaches from the Bill Belichick tree rarely work out anywhere: The Patriots are 0-for-4 in producing successful head coaches after sending assistants Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels on to their first college or pro head coaching job over the last decade.

But the most important line in O'Brien's resumé is the one that isn't there: He's not part of the tribe. He didn't play or attend Penn State, and he's never coached at Penn State. He has no apparent connections to Pennsylvania. Which makes him not just unqualified to be Penn State's head coach, according to former Nittany Lion All-American LaVar Arrington, but completely unacceptable:

Reached hours before reports surfaced that Bill O'Brien would be named the Nittany Lions' next head coach, Arrington and other prominent lettermen insisted that if Penn State departed from the football family in naming Joe Paterno's successor, some would sever ties with their alma mater.

"I will put my Butkus (Award) in storage. I will put my Alamo Bowl MVP trophy in storage," Arrington said. "Jerseys, anything Penn State, in storage. Wherever [longtime defensive coordinator/interim head coach] Tom Bradley goes, that's the school I will start to put memorabilia up in my home. I'm done. I'm done with Penn State. If they're done with us, I'm done with them."
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"By these people making the decisions the way that they are making them, basically coinciding with everything that's being written about our university, if they get rid of Tom Bradley, that means they in essence have accepted the fact that we are all guilty," Arrington said. "You might as well call it all the same thing. What we stood for and what we represented for so long, what we have been taught, what we have been trained to know and the values that I raise my own children with, you're basically telling me it's good, only as long as times are good."

That was Arrington on Thursday, just before O'Brien was confirmed as the man. Just to show he meant it, he followed up this morning with not so warm welcome to the new boss via Twitter:

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He's not going to be alone, either: Arrington's old teammate, fellow All-American Brandon Short, backed him up on Thursday, telling BWI that it was The Penn State Way or the highway. "It's no longer Penn State, so we might as well be in the SEC," said Short, who has a meeting scheduled today with acting athletic director David Joyner and has floated the idea (along with other players) of suing the university to prevent it from using their likenesses or images. "Penn State is a family and it is real and if they choose to get rid of Bradley and not hire a Penn State coach, then they've turned their backs on our entire family. … It is the view of the vast majority of the lettermen that they've been marginalized and their family is being destroyed."

Former All-American D.J. Dozier certainly falls in that number, complaining in the same article that former players hadn't been consulted during the search and sounding another note in defense of the current staff. "I would venture to say that a lot of guys thought, why not? Why wouldn't someone ask us? Aren't we a part of this university? Aren't we a part of the program? Don't we care?" Dozier told Blue-White Illustrated. "If the board or the committee believes that they need to go outside of the current staff, which, I don't see why, then go get a Penn State guy."

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On one hand, that shouldn't come as any surprise: Most major coaching changes are accompanied by a few players, alumni and boosters who resist the culture shock of a new regime, especially when the old regime has been revered as one of the standard bearers of "Doing It the Right Way" in college football for more than 40 years. (Michigan fans can relate.) On the other hand, it's dumbfounding that any sentient person following the headlines out of Penn State over the last two months could be insular enough to possibly think that Tom Bradley or any other remaining member of Joe Paterno's staff qualifies as a viable successor.

That's nothing against them personally, or even professionally: Neither Bradley nor any of the other remaining coaches have been accused or even mentioned in the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal that cost their boss his job and rocked the university. It was Paterno who failed to adequately respond to allegations against Sandusky in 2002, not them. It's easy to see where Arrington is coming from when he resents the implication that "we are all guilty." It just doesn't matter.

Politically, the fact that's inspiring such extreme loyalty in Arrington and Short is the same one that makes it impossible to promote (or even keep) a member of the current staff at Penn State: Penn State football — and to some extent, the university itself — was built, maintained and branded in Paterno's image. He's so closely associated with Penn State that any stain on his reputation is a stain on Penn State and the "culture" that he both created and represented. The worst possible reaction to a blight on the institution would be to hunker down and protect that culture at all costs until the walls cave in. The only way forward is a good-faith effort to remove the blight and rebuild in an entirely new image that doesn't remind people of heinous crimes against children. Inevitably, that effort must include Paterno's disciples on the coaching staff, whether they like or deserve it or not.

In this case, "disciples" is not an exaggeration: Seven of Paterno's 10 assistants have been at Penn State at least 15 years, and none have been there fewer than eight years. The man Arrington and Short endorsed, Tom Bradley, has spent his entire adult life working for Paterno — and for most of it, working for Jerry Sandusky, who Bradley replaced as defensive coordinator in 1999. If the "family" theme was strong within the program, the persistence of guilt by association is just as strong on the outside. It may not be his fault, but promoting Bradley would have amounted to a tacit endorsement of the insular, "family" culture most of America regards as responsible for sheltering a potential predator for more than a decade. When a coach can no longer go into a recruit's home or stand in front of a roomful of alumni and effectively sell the values Arrington and Short have vowed to protect, "deserve" has nothing to do with it.

Obviously, Penn State has no choice but to clean house. Whether they chose the right man to start over with is up for debate. But if the problem with O'Brien is that he's not Nittany Lion-born or Joe Paterno-bred, then that's a problem he will never be able to overcome.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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