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Penn State picks Bill O’Brien to bear the post-Paterno burden

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Penn State has completed its month-long cycle through uninspiring NFL assistants, and has finally landed on one willing to bite: New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien has reportedly agreed to terms and will be introduced as Joe Paterno's successor on Saturday, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. He will be the Nittany Lions' first new head coach since Paterno was promoted in 1966, three years before O'Brien was born. No coach at any school in the intervening 46 years has accepted a more daunting task.

O'Brien's name first surfaced last weekend, when multiple reports (one of them filed by Mortensen) named him as the emerging frontrunner in Happy Valley. Those reports were swiftly refuted by both Penn State and O'Brien's agent, who said his client's first priority was on NFL gigs coming open this week with the end of the regular season. But O'Brien reportedly met with PSU officials for a follow-up interview Thursday, and now appears to be on his way.

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If you know O'Brien at all, it's probably from his oft-replayed sideline row with Tom Brady earlier this year. Like everyone who's come through New England in the last decade, though, O'Brien's NFL resumé has more than a few gems: He was an offensive assistant on the dominant 2007 team that started 18-0 before dropping the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, and has spent the last three years as Brady's quarterbacks coach. This year, his first as offensive coordinator, the Pats are second in the league in total offense, third in scoring and own home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. It's uncertain whether he'll remain with New England in their pursuit of a Super Bowl (O'Brien doesn't have a championship ring) or go to work immediately to shore up an already tenuous recruiting class before national signing day on Feb. 8.

His college resumé isn't quite as gleaming. O'Brien started out in 1993 at his alma mater, Brown — also Paterno's alma mater, coincidentally — before spending a relatively undistinguished decade in the ACC at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. At Georgia Tech, he can claim a hand in developing quarterbacks Gary Godsey and Joe Hamilton, an unlikely runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1999; then again, in two years (2005-06) as offensive coordinator at Duke, the Blue Devils won a single game. He has never been a head coach on any level.

But there is no combination of accolades or resumé lines that can quite prepare O'Brien or anyone else for the uniqueness and enormity of the circumstances awaiting at Penn State. Paterno's career ended in November with Division I records for wins (409) and bowl games (37), as well as 29 consensus All-Americans, 22 top-10 finishes, five undefeated seasons, three Big Ten championships and two national championships in nearly five decades on the job. His final game was a come-from-behind, 10-7 win over Illinois that pushed him past the late Eddie Robinson for career victories by a head coach. For many years, he was considered an icon of his profession, the embodiment of building an elite program while maintaining an emphasis on education, community and fidelity to NCAA rules.

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All of which has been permanently tainted by a scandal that laid waste to four decades of goodwill in a matter of days last November, when reports emerged that Paterno and other Penn State officials failed to respond with enough urgency to allegations of sex crimes by his longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, in Penn State facilities. In less than a week, fallout from the charges against Sandusky had claimed the jobs of Paterno, university president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley and rocked the university to its core.

Fifty-seven days later, O'Brien takes on the mission not only of replacing a long-tenured legend, but revamping a program that was built, maintained and branded in Paterno's image. In a profession besieged by seasonal flux every winter, Paterno assembled easily the most stable coaching staff in the country: Seven of Paterno's 10 assistants have been at Penn State for at least 15 years, and none have been there for fewer than eight years. Three of the elder statesmen have previous head coaching experience of their own. Defensive coordinator/interim head coach Tom Bradley has spent his entire adult life working for Paterno, after playing for him in the late '70s. All will be on their way out soon in a thorough house-cleaning, along with any trace of the Paterno legacy that can possibly be expunged.

Under any circumstances, replacing a legend is a near-impossible task. Under the circumstances at Penn State, the most stable, insular college program in the country, the reassembly of an entirely new image from the ground up is unprecedented. The Penn State brand is going to be irreparably tarnished for years to come, and the records on the field are almost certainly going to reflect it. Top recruits don't want anything to do with it. Top coaches don't want anything to do with it. Top donors don't want anything to do with it. There's at least some chance — as there always is with a new leader attempting to revamp "the culture" at a place that can't remember any other way — that some significant portion of a huge, loyal fan base won't want anything to do with it if the record turns south. The near-universal consensus is that O'Brien is here to clean up the mess, weather the storm and make the program into something a more coveted, long-term coach might be willing to take on again in four or five years.

It's a long way from that point right now, as the meandering search for Paterno's successor has made abundantly clear. If O'Brien gets it there, he will have served the university well. If he does enough to settle in as the long-term coach himself, he may be a miracle worker.

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

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