NEW ORLEANS – Maybe Penn State got it right.
Let's start with that charitable assumption because we really don't know. We don't know whether the reported hiring of New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as the man to succeed the winningest coach in college football history will fly or fail.
And we won't know for a couple of years at least. The sports noise stream is full of premature proclamations gone wrong; I was sure Gene Chizik would bomb at Auburn and Frank Haith would bomb at Missouri, for example. How do those “bad hires” look now?
So the prudent thing to do is to let O'Brien prove or disprove his worthiness for the job. But Penn State has given us a staggering amount of reasons to doubt it up to this point.
What the university has done well in the tawdry two months since the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke couldn't fill an eye-dropper. What it has done poorly about the situation would overflow an Olympic-sized pool.
The countenancing of Sandusky's presence on campus for years after concerns were raised about his behavior with young boys. The failure to report his alleged perverse activities to police. Former president Graham Spanier's spectacularly offensive first statement after the attorney general's charges were made public. Joe Paterno's failure to grasp the magnitude of the situation. Every P.R. misstep during the process of firing Paterno – including the decision to announce that firing after 10 p.m. as opposed to the following morning, when students would be far less likely to riot. The tortured search for his successor, by a search committee that had a paucity of football knowledge.
It has been a debacle of the highest order – and the football part is the least of it. The last time a university so seriously damaged its own image, students were killed on the Kent State campus in 1970. While that might sound dramatic, think about it. As the legal process likely plays out in heartbreaking, horrendous and costly fashion, Penn State will be associated with the name “Sandusky” for years to come.
Roll every terrible headline together and you understand how a football program that placed itself above all others in terms of image and results has plummeted to a point where it took two months to hire a coach – and a no-name coach at that. Penn State is the last school to hire a new guy after being among the first to fire its former guy.
Certainly, a slow search does not by itself guarantee failure. Kentucky once took longer than two months amid a scandal to hire a basketball coach named Rick Pitino, after multiple other candidates turned the school down.
But everyone knew Pitino was a great choice. Nobody feels any such certainty about O'Brien.
When I was in State College in early November, some fans still held out hope Urban Meyer could be persuaded to take the Penn State job. If not him, some other big-name guy would come. That seems remarkably delusional if you consider the painful path this search took down the hierarchy of hires.
Instead of Meyer, the school reportedly is hiring a career assistant with an undistinguished collegiate record off a staff that has produced notable head-coaching failures (Charlie Weis at Notre Dame, Romeo Crennel at Cleveland, Josh McDaniels at Denver). If recruits are galvanized by this hire, it would be a surprise.
And O'Brien won't even be able to devote his full energies toward wooing those recruits until New England's postseason is over. That figures to be awhile. Weis tried the same thing at Notre Dame, and his first class there was forgettable.
Several football insiders insist Penn State could have hired a proven college coach. For reasons which have not been publicly articulated, the search instead veered toward largely anonymous NFL assistants. Word from some is that “Monday Night Football” analyst Ron Jaworski is a friend of one of the search committee members and became involved in the search, helping steer it that way.
But even before that alleged involvement, sources said the Penn State search committee was adrift. There never was much faith that acting athletics director and search leader Dave Joyner was going to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
Of course, Joyner's committee was tasked with a terribly difficult job. It was clear that the university decided to hire someone without ties to the Paterno regime, after decades of near-certainty that his successor would be a former assistant. It had to hire someone lacking in residue, be it in rules compliance or other off-field issues – and in today's college football, that limits the pool. It had to reconcile a 100,000-plus-seat stadium that speaks volumes for the fan loyalty with the memories of student riots, which spoke volumes for the failure to comprehend the severity of the Sandusky situation.
Striking the right balance, with all those parameters in place, was going to be nearly impossible.
The fans will not be dazzled by the Bill O'Brien hire, but it seems to be a realistic reflection of where a once-proud program now stands. Penn State has hurt itself so badly that continuing on its traditional path, unabated, is impossible. The disconnect between Happy Valley and the rest of the world remains pronounced.
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