Well, it looks like Penn State finally has their man. Of course, by “their man” I mean “someone who was willing to take the position.” Bill O’Brien won’t inspire wonder in the hearts of Penn State fans or recruits though his resume is certainly one to respect as a head coaching candidate.
He has served in a host of assistant roles in college at programs like Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, which will be helpful if he hopes to reach outside of Pennsylvania to recruit the fertile southeast. Despite the history of Belichick assistants flaming out as head coaches (see Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini, etc.) it is certainly not a poor background to have. If nothing else, the heavy-handed dictatorial approach that Belichick assistants tend to have would serve him well in a place that needs a head coach with firm control over every aspect of the program after decades of moral decay and stagnation. At the end of the day however, we have no idea what kind of a head coach Bill O’Brien will be, and to me that will be far less important than what kind of university Penn State decides to be.
It is no secret that O’Brien was at best Penn State’s fourth or fifth choice, and that’s just among candidates they bothered to ask. The Penn State brand will be damaged for decades, but I for one do not believe that the football program will be harmed irreparably. The team itself is not among the elite of the Big Ten, but with one more win they would have still made it to the Big Ten championship game. With Ohio State ineligible and Wisconsin breaking in a new quarterback (with a new offensive coordinator), the Nittany Lions could very well find themselves playing for the conference title at year’s end. Penn State still owns the state of Pennsylvania for recruiting, which isn’t quite as fertile as Ohio or Virginia but has plenty of talent to keep a program like PSU afloat.
But none of this will matter if the university fails to take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) during Jerry Sandusky’s decade of terrorizing young boys under the facilitation and tacit acceptance of Penn State University officials. They must go beyond giving an apologetic press conference and implement sweeping reforms to ensure it never happens again. Too often universities simply jettison the most guilty parties and wash their hands of the situation, failing to make the necessary institutional adjustments needed to prevent such malfeasance from happening in the future (looking at you, Ohio State). It is a move of damage control that points the finger at the man who is no longer in the room, expecting that getting rid of the most sick will get rid of the disease. There is a reason why Sandusky was able to begin his behavior in the first place. Penn State was running a system of cronyism that saw one of its few voices of accountability and discipline in Dr. Vicky Trioponey ostracized and ultimately pushed out of her position as the university’s standards and conduct officer for expecting players to face the same penalties as other students. All the while, the cult of football was followed at the expense of unbiased oversight.
Bill O’Brien may simply wind up a caretaker for a program that has been through a great deal off the field while remaining competitive on it. He may stay for a few years and be fired for a more accomplished coach as many suspect. If the university goes that route it may be yet another sign of what is most highly valued in Happy Valley- wins. That would be unfortunate for a school that has built its football reputation on building men of character on and off the field. Perhaps it would be better for university officials to think of what they need to do to become men of character. Even if they were not responsible directly or indirectly for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, they would be wise to remember that it is their responsibility to ensure that it cannot happen again. This will demonstrate to fans, boosters, and recruits that the university is committed to creating a safe, scholarly environment and has an administration committed to more than the bottom line. Doing so will take time, energy, and the loss of some egos, but should pay off in wins and donatios down the road. That may require breaking up the boys club in State College and allowing some outside parties to hold all parties more accountable. If the alternative is providing a window- any window- for another Sandusky to do his work on university property and with university resources, it is well worth the cost.