In coaching circles, they say you never want to be the man that follows the legend. You want to be the man who follows the man who followed the legend. I guess the thought behind the saying is that following a legendary coach as its replacement is a proverbial death sentence. It is “impossible” to succeed – the previous coach being called “legendary” for a reason.
Count me amongst those who think that’s bullshit. Sorry I’m not mixing words, but the only people who say that are clearly not coaches, former players, or competitors. Anybody with a competitive bone in their body, when faced with a challenge and a naysayer, wants to shut up the other, prove their ability, and make their own legend.
Now, for a moment, let’s disregard the fact that while Joe Paterno is a coaching legend, the challenge of taking over for him at Penn State University is, now, a far different and more daunting task then it was once assumed to be prior to the sexual assault allegations being brought forth against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky this past fall. Paterno – no matter how you feel about him as a person, his culpability in a terrible situation, or whether he did or did not do a morally acceptable thing – was fired as Nittany Lion head coach over a month ago. Since that night when the Penn State student body disgraced itself in front of a national audience by rioting, it was unclear who would succeed the man considered to be one of the greatest coaches of all-time, and certainly one of the faces who would grace the college football Mount Rushmore.
Fast forward to Saturday, January 7, 2011, when Bill O’Brien will be introduced as the newest head coach at Penn State University. This is the man charged with reshaping, rebuilding, and redefining more than just a football program, but one of the nation’s top and most prolific public universities. O’Brien, who served as positional coach and offensive coordinator for a number of colleges from 1993-2006, is best known as offensive coordinator of the juggernaut that is the New England Patriots. Since news of the hire broke, there has been a wide range of reaction across the sports landscape; alumni and former Penn State players seem unhappy, fans of the Patriots seem worried about focus, some are happy for O’Brien, and other less-involved fans simply see this as a no-win situation for the 42 year old.
It is entirely necessary to analyze this move by O’Brien and Penn State, this marriage of sorts, from the view of both sides. There’s simply no “right” answer as to whether O’Brien is the correct man to take on this job. It’s clear that you absolutely can’t fault O’Brien for taking on this challenge. Yet, it’s also clear that Penn State University has no clue what it’s doing – whether O’Brien ends up being the next Paterno (on the football field, that is) or not.
Meet Bill O’Brien; long-time positional coach and coordinator who was finally named “offensive coordinator” after a year or two of having the responsibilities without the title, following the departure of Josh McDaniels from the Patriots organization. Quite frankly, that’s all you need to know about O’Brien; that he’s a long time assistant. I don’t need to tell you about his developmentally challenged child. I don’t need to tell you about his family possibly needing more income in order for medical/child care expenses. And the reason that I don’t need to tell you either of those things is because, in my opinion, it doesn’t make a difference. While I’ve never met O’Brien, what I’ve seen, read, and heard tells me that he’s a competitor, somebody with a fire who strives to be the best. So when Penn State comes to Bill O’Brien and asks him to be it’s newest head football coach, I can forgive O’Brien for not necessarily realizing the magnitude of this decision. I can’t fault him for seeing the title of “head coach” and wanting it; for seeing a salary that is probably five times what he’s making now and yearning for it; for being offered the keys to his own program, his own university, and deciding that he wants to go that route instead of continuing to take orders from Bill Belichick. This decision is a no-brainer for Bill O’Brien, because if you pass up a job like Penn State – a job that likely surpasses a number of NFL head coaching jobs (like the Jacksonville Jaguars, who O’Brien appears to have spurned in opting to return to the college game) – you may never get the opportunity again. Of course, there’s also the realistic analysis that O’Brien is doing nothing more than pulling/cashing in his chips at the table before he bottoms out. It’s no secret that O’Brien has had the greatest offensive weapon in the NFL, Tom Brady, at his disposal. Say Brady injures himself next season, backup Brian Hoyer is unable to perform, and the Patriots go 6-10 in 2012 – do general managers and school athletic directors decide that O’Brien is more system than he is substance and decide to go elsewhere at that point? It’s likely. And it’s because of these reasons that if I’m O’Brien, I can’t sign that contract quick enough. Cash in my good fortunes now, and deal with problems that arise later. Still, I’d love to know what it was like for O’Brien waking up Friday morning. When he went to bed Wednesday night, his biggest worry was keeping Tom Brady protected for the mere two seconds he needs to release a pass, or getting one of the two top and most athletic tight ends in football open across the middle of the field. Waking up Friday, O’Brien had the same things to concern himself with, but added to the list was fielding a full college coaching staff, recruiting, dealing with boosters and alumni, finding a new home for his family, the inherent pressures in a big-time college coaching position, and dealing with the doubts and complaints of media and fans nationwide.
If I was covering the press conference introducing O’Brien as head coach, I’d ask the Penn State athletic director one question: what are you doing? I simply fail to understand how this decision makes sense from the school’s point of view. Let’s first start with the fact that Penn State, like any large school with loads of tradition, needs to appease it’s alumni. Having been a Notre Dame fan all my life, I know all too well the role alumni plays in the decision-making process. Should it be so important? Of course not. Alumni realistically should have no roll whatsoever – if you love your school, support it – but this is not how things are. For the sake of the coach itself, Penn State should have felt compelled to get somebody whom Nittany Lions worldwide can get behind. Most of the time, this means somebody who is a “member of the family”. This, however, is a special circumstance, and a common argument to getting a “Penn State guy” to take the job is that, because of the tribulations and controversy surrounding the program right now, it’s best to start fresh with an “outsider”. That not only shows a great naivete on the part of the decision maker, but also a lack of trust in the football program as a whole over the last 30+ years. There’s a difference between interviewing a legitimate coaching candidate with experience at Penn State in some capacity, than interviewing Jay Paterno or Mike McQueary. It’s too much to ask a new coach like O’Brien to not only withstand negative press about his lack of experience as a leader and with big-time college football, to also add in unflattering comments from former Lions such as Lavar Arrington and Brandon Short.
Penn State’s decision is an incorrect one in more than simply an emotional, alumni-relations manner. The school erred in not evaluating the history of where O’Brien comes from in making it’s decision. In the interest of full-disclosure, I must first say that I am a New England Patriots fan, and that I know the history of the organization better than any other in the NFL. Since the Patriot “dynasty” began in 2001, the legacy of head coach Bill Belichick has grown alongside the franchise’s win total. While Belichick has continued winning through the years, those who have left Patriot headquarters in Foxboro, MA for greener pastures – monetarily speaking – have not. With the lone exception of Thomas Dimitroff, who has done a sound job in building the Atlanta Falcons organization after the fall of Michael Vick, coordinator and personnel man after the other has left and failed. Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weiss, Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini, Scott Pioli, and Al Groh have all essentially failed to find success after leaving Belichick. While a number of explanation are available to explain this phenomenon, I tend to think it means two things. First, Belichick is as much a genius as he’s made out to be. Second, the Patriots system is one that doesn’t work independently in alternative settings, or without it’s creator sitting at the main controls (Belichick). For Penn State to seemingly not take this into consideration in making such an important decision for the future of the institution as a whole is strange, and if I was an alum, it is alarming.
Of course, there’s always the chance that Penn State knows exactly what it is doing – that it has no plans on retaining O’Brien for the long-term. Perhaps the school itself subscribes to the “man after the man who succeeds the legend” school of thought, and hopes that after two or three seasons, a “big name” coach is on the market, willing to return to State College, PA after the shock and emotion from the scandal has subsided to some extent. If that happens, O’Brien will have nobody to blame but himself, but will likely be no worse for the wear. A short stint at Penn State would lead O’Brien back to the professional game as – what else – an offensive coordinator; putting him exactly where he is now, but with an extra $3-5 million in his pocket and an experience on the resume.
A marriage is never perfect, but nobody said this one had to be.