Sunday, January 08, 2012

An ideal job in a not-at-all-ideal situation

Bill O'Brien is the guy in the picture right above these words, which is probably useful information since you had no idea what Bill O'Brien looked like before Penn State hired him Friday. He's currently the Patriots' offensive coordinator and is all of 42, which means he wasn't even born yet when Joe Paterno became head coach and the pyramids were under construction and Columbus was sailing the ocean blue and whatnot.

He also has no connection whatsoever to Penn State or Joe Paterno and isn't Tom Bradley, which has resulted in some ... umm ... questionable reactions. Here's Lavar Arrington:
"I'm done all my PSU stuff will be down before obriens introduction! We are! No more for me!"
Here's Brandon Short:
“There is a tangible standard at Penn State that this poor (O’Brien) guy knows nothing about,” Short said in the USA Today piece. “I feel badly for him (because) he is clueless and will not have the support of the majority of the Lettermen. This is a hornet’s nest (for him).”
A bunch of other Penn State people said similar things, which (sadly) made Short correct. These are apparently the only people in the world who aren't grasping that not having a connection to Penn State is a positive right now for reasons that don't need much explanation.

I cede the floor to Bill Reiter, who wrote a pretty good piece for

Note that Arrington and those like him didn’t decide to be done with Penn State when the Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal first broke. Notice he and those like him — as detailed allegations of evil and horror spread, made possible in part because of football and Penn State — did not suddenly decide it was time to take their loyalties elsewhere.

But now — now that a longtime Paterno assistant, Penn State insider and one-time Sandusky friend gets passed over — now’s the time for moral self-righteousness, threats of separation and “change-or-I’m-going” hand wringing?


I was mentally debating the other day whether it should matter that a hypothetically great coach with Penn State connections who didn't know about the bad stuff (this hypothetical guy could be called Bom Tradley) was never gonna be a serious candidate, but I realized at some point that whether it should matter is irrelevant because it does matter. Doing things that logically make no sense is sometimes necessary in a world where perception matters a lot.

This was not a coaching hire. This was a PR hire with a secondary emphasis on being a good football coach. It's kinda hard to write about the guy in any normal coaching-hire terms when he was given the job at least partially to serve as a move-on-and-forget-about-the-stuff patsy and the program itself is a smoking, still-radioactive crater.

A lot of observant Michigan fans watched Penn State implode after the O'Brien hire and thought, "Hey, this reject-the-organ-transplant thing seems kinda familiar." Brian at MGoBlog put together a super-useful letter of advice to Penn State fans with this tidbit that pretty much tells the story:
Do not regard Bill O'Brien as a person who can succeed or fail. He is doomed. You will put him in your mouth and gnaw on him and once you swallow him and dissolve him in your stomach acids you can get on with things. Bill O'Brien is football pickled Jesus ginger. He will die for your sins … (or) someone's, anyway.

... Certain players you loved are going to firebomb the program until Football Pickled Jesus Ginger is gone and someone with a tangential relationship to Paterno is found, whereupon they will say they knew it all along. They will not acknowledge their contributions to the situation.
Insert awkward sound that accompanies loosening of necktie. Things will be uncomfortable for everybody. There's a reason nobody wanted a job that's still one of the 10-ish best in the country from a purely football-oriented standpoint.

As much as Penn State doesn't want to be Joe Paterno right now, Penn State will be Joe Paterno until enough time (and death) has intervened; I'm not sure what amount of time that will encompass, but it's substantial. Penn State will not be Bill O'Brien unless Bill O'Brien wins so much in the short-term future that he just becomes the guy who ushered Penn State out of the thing and into a New Era of Awesomeness.

The chances of that happening are somewhere close to zero. It's far more likely that he fields a few substandard teams, gets the Bill Callahan treatment from everybody and gives way to the aforementioned "tangential connection to Paterno guy" once a few powerful people on the Board of Trustees determine that X number of years is sufficient and a return to glory is in order. Fortunately for them, replacing Bill O'Brien will be far more appealing than replacing Joe Paterno amid ... umm ... you know. The radioactive thing and the dying legend and all that.

But since there does exist in the spectrum of possibilities a sliver in which O'Brien wins a lot and everybody (eventually) loves him, I will briefly consider his coaching abilities/resume/other stuff. Other stuff like this:

Russ Rose, women's volleyball coach and another member of the search committee, said he liked O'Brien's confidence during the interview.

"I liked the fact that he said, 'I'm a hell of a football coach.' I think it's important we hire a hell of a football coach," Rose said. "I took it as a real positive that he had confidence he was a good football coach."

Errr yes. So he's an egotistical offensive coordinator from the Bill Belichick tree. VICTORY IS INEVITABLE.

The thing that makes him not Charlie Weis (other than about 200 pounds) is the college experience: O'Brien has been in New England for the last five years but spent the entirety of his pre-Patriots career in college, first as a position coach at various schools and then as an O-coordinator at Georgia Tech (2001 and '02) and Duke (2005 and '06). So his college resume isn't built on telling Tom Brady to be really good. It also isn't built on a lot of dominance; it's basically filled with a bunch of fairly generic East Coast assistant jobs.

In case you were wondering, O'Brien had slightly above-average offenses at Georgia Tech but terrible ones at Duke (to be fair, it was Duke). The Patriots are the Patriots and therefore not a college program. Trying to extrapolate strategical/numerical information from that is pretty much useless. The only valuable data points are the ones on his resume that show him coaching college kids and being productive and respected enough to keep moving up to slightly better jobs.

Whether he can recruit or not doesn't really matter. Recruiting to Penn State is going to be basically impossible for the next two-plus years (although he probably elevated his next few classes from nonexistent to mediocre by retaining Larry Johnson Sr., who's been at Penn State forever and regularly lands a whole bunch of talented East Coast guys who end up either wasting their talent in Penn State's caveman-designed offense or destroying people on defense and getting picked in the first round). By the time his recruits matter, he'll have established himself as the doomed guy or the maybe-we'll-give-this-guy-a-chance guy. That won't be fair, but nobody other than O'Brien will care about the fairness of his job assessment by then.

Maybe he'll have a chance. He'll also have a bunch of moronic people treating him like crap because of who he isn't, which is lame but is apparently an inherent flaw in major programs that can't let go of the family thing. Some version of Bill O'Brien had to be hired and will probably have to be fired a few years from now so Penn State can be Penn State again and everybody can wash their hands of The Thing and pretend it's 1986 and the bad stuff never happened. They will say "We Are Penn State" without any negative connotation. Bill O'Brien will not be thanked except for the unspoken gratitude of the few sane people in Happy Valley who understand the extent of the nuclear wasteland he's walking into.

O'Brien knows and doesn't care. Maybe it's the ego. Maybe it's the recognition of what Penn State can/should be. I dunno. I also don't know whether I should feel sorry for the guy or laugh at him for taking his coaching career and basically offering it to the gods as a sacrifice in honor of Penn State. I think I'll go with the latter for now; there'll probably be time for the former a few years down the road.

Being perfect off the field and the rough equivalent of the winningest coach ever on the field is an impossible standard. It's also what Bill O'Brien will have to do to turn the uncomfortable disaster that is Penn State into Bill O'Brien's Penn State. Good luck with that.


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