- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2012


As word leaked that Bill O’Brien would be the next head football coach at Penn State, some prominent alumni illustrated the same narrow-minded, shortsighted thinking that contributed to the mess at their alma mater.

Apparently, critics such as former all-America linebackers LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short believed that the only acceptable coaching candidates either played or coached at Penn State in the past. Outsiders need not apply.

Arrington, who backed interim coach Tom Bradley for the job, told Rivals.com that he was “done with Penn State. If they’re done with us, I’m done with them. … If they get rid of Tom Bradley, that means they in essence have accepted the fact that we are all guilty. You might as well call it the same thing.”

Short went even further, expressing sympathy for O’Brien. “He has not been made aware of the implications of him being in this position,” Short told ESPN.com. “I don’t envy him at all. He doesn’t have support of the vast majority of former Penn State players and the vast majority of the student body and faculty won’t support him. I feel sorry for him.”

I feel sorry for Short and others who share those views, which very well might include proponents of inbreeding.

Fortunately, the adults stepped forward Saturday as O’Brien, the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator, was introduced.

Unlike the news conference two months ago, when Joe Paterno was relieved of his duties, there were no outbursts. There was no heckling. There were no confrontational queries. Just an interim school president and an acting athletic director carrying out their charge to guide the school through the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

No, it wasn’t absolutely necessary to hire a coach with zero ties to Penn State. Yes, perhaps it’s unfair if Bradley was considered damaged goods because he’s a longtime Paterno assistant. And maybe more former players should’ve been consulted during the coaching search.

But I can’t blame president Rodney Erickson and athletic director Dave Joyner for making a clean break from the past and bringing in new blood. They would’ve been incredibly myopic if they excluded candidates with no association to Penn State, as if the “culture” in Happy Valley was so sacrosanct that only previous initiates can understand it, appreciate it, and cultivate it.

And forget the nonsensical notions that Penn State should’ve landed a bigger name than the obscure NFL assistant whose claim to fame is a sideline shouting match with Tom Brady. Frankly, the Penn State job wasn’t a dream situation for anyone except maybe Bradley and other current assistants.

How does O’Brien’s new position stink? Let me count the ways.

One, he’s replacing a legend, never an enviable task. Ron Zook still has scars from following Steve Spurrier at Florida.

Two, O’Brien is like a foreigner entering a closed society. Rich Rodriguez learned the hard way that some guys are “Michigan men” and he’s not.

Three, the president and athletic director can be replaced by permanent hires at any point. Those are the two most important positions to a coach’s future, and O’Brien has no idea of who will fill them.

And finally, the biggest red light of all, there’s the ongoing Sandusky case. The fallout is still to be determined (including the effect on recruiting), but it’s probably imposing enough to dissuade established coaching candidates with other options.

Instead of asking why Penn State didn’t hire a bigger name, you might ask why in the world did O’Brien take the job?

“I believe in myself,” he said at the news conference. “I believe in Penn State. I believe in the academic diversity of Penn State. I obviously believe in the football traditions here and the past football successes. What is not to sell about Penn State?”

He can sell it, but recruits and their parents have to buy it. At least he can promote the fact that he wasn’t around during the scandal. That’s one of his strong suits, even though critics such as Short believe it should’ve made him a throwaway.

O’Brien is unlikely to replicate Paterno’s success, and Penn State is unlikely to regain its form as a perennial power. Too much has changed, in Happy Valley and college football, in general. But O’Brien doesn’t deserve criticism as he comes through the door. He tried to extinguish some with a preemptive letter to the Nittany Lion family, particularly former players.

“We are here now with you,” he read. “You should be proud of Penn State’s numerous accomplishments. You should be proud of Penn State’s football program. You should love this school. You are why we want to be here. We want you to know that you will always be welcome and a part of our program because we are Penn State.”

Sounds like a Penn State man to me.

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