O’Brien’s challenge at Penn State starts off the field
Former All-American Lavar Arrington says he’s so upset at his alma mater he’s putting his Butkus Award in a closet and rooting for another team.
He is but one of many former Nittany Lions who are raging that the school hired New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien as head coach. O’Brien’s sin? Having no previous ties to Penn State or longtime leader Joe Paterno.
Jerry Sandusky first caused this once-proud program to implode. He was aided by a collection of administrators who did somewhere between too little and absolutely nothing to stop him when they could.
The whole thing is a mess, a disaster, first and foremost for Sandusky’s victims. In purely football terms, it’s a problem that continues to linger.
Arrington’s anger is common. They don’t like how the hiring process played out. They don’t like that assistant coaches who did nothing wrong were marginalized. They may not even like that Paterno was taken down in the scandal in the first place.
Who’s right and who’s wrong hardly matters at this point. There’s little sense in talking to either side – Penn State had to clean house, Penn State had to remain loyal, Penn State did too little, Penn State did too much.
This is the reality – a squabbling, furious, finger pointing family. And as if the challenges O’Brien faces aren’t already enormous, well, here’s hoping peace negotiator is one of his skill sets.
“You have to have unity,” Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew said, and if there is anyone who could possibly understand this situation, it’s him.
In 2003 Baylor basketball was rocked when one player murdered another. It grew worse when then-coach Dave Bliss, in an effort to cover up NCAA-illegal payments to players, plotted to explain away why the deceased student possessed large quantities of cash by framing him as a drug dealer.
The entire ordeal was despicable and Baylor’s reputation was mud. The NCAA hammered the school for various violations, making the challenge ahead even more difficult for Drew, who arrived from Valparaiso University to start anew.
O’Brien is unlikely to have any NCAA issues. That’s about the only positive. His task is more challenging than Drew’s in that he’s replacing a beloved icon in Paterno, who maintains many loyalists. At Baylor, most everyone was glad to see Bliss go.
Still, Drew knows what it’s like trying to convince returning players to buy into a bottomed-out program while trying to attract recruits to a place besieged by bad publicity. And that’s where, he said, the unity saved him. Baylor has become a perennial top-20 team, a far stronger and more successful program today than under Bliss.
“For any team, or any school in this case, to handle adversity, it has to have unity or it’s not going to make it through,” Drew said. “I’ve always had everyone’s support at Baylor. People were on the same page.”
This will be the desperate challenge for O’Brien. This would have been a tough job in the best of times. Few coaches want to try to follow a legend such as Paterno. Trying it without his full support and minus strong ties to the program is considered career suicide.
O’Brien, a 42-year-old Bostonian, also has to overcome a cultural learning curve from the pros to the college ranks. He needs to salvage a recruiting class while still trying to win a Super Bowl in New England, thus juggling two jobs and making time precious.
There are already plenty of doubts about his potential. Bill Belichick assistants have a poor track record when they leave the panacea of Foxborough. Still, this is a guy who has put together a number of different innovative offenses (currently tight end-centric) that produce tons of points.
Yes he has Tom Brady. Do you punish him for that? Or do you deduct points because he worked under Belichick? What was he supposed to do, not try to learn from the best?
This isn’t just about coaching up the guys, though. It’s everything else O’Brien can imagine and plenty that he can’t.
The job of introducing himself to an extended family of former Penn State players, who have known only one coach for 46 years, is a massive and consuming task.
Some, such as Arrington, who merely hosts a drive-time radio show in Washington D.C., one of Penn State’s traditional recruiting grounds, don’t appear willing to give him a chance. (Ought to be great publicity there.) Then there are the fans that range from lukewarm to fully embittered.
And don’t forget all the old high school coaches that knew and trusted Paterno (and his assistants) for decades and decades that may no longer have any interest in helping the Nittany Lions. That was, and remains, one of the challenges when Indiana fired its iconic basketball coach Bob Knight back in 2000.
Sometimes it’s not the overt hostility that’s the problem. It’s the indifference. Yes, Penn State continues to offer great things to recruits – tradition, academics, lifestyle, facilities. At the elite level of college football though, so does everyone else recruiting them.
[ Related: Prominent lettermen blast PSU search process ]
Even the slightest unrest can derail the program.
“You have to have the backing from your school, from your community, from your alumni,” Drew said. “Peer pressure is a big thing with high school recruits. If they’re being told, ‘Why are you going there?’, it matters. You need them to see a packed [stadium], people positive about the program, everyone working together.
“Here’s the thing, it takes time.”
Time requires patience and there doesn’t appear to be a lot of that right now with Penn State.
Forget whether Bill O’Brien can actually coach football. That, in this case, is the easy part.
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