Monday, January 9, 2012

Bill O'Brien Makes Good First Impression

Admittedly, I was not exactly thrilled with my alma mater for hiring Bill O'Brien and for taking so long to name a head coach. Like several vocal alumns, I thought the search committee led by interim athletic director Dave Joyner did a disservice to the members of the 2011 Penn State coaching staff by stringing them along and moving slower than molasses through the process, all but assuring those not retained will have a hard time finding jobs before the start of the 2012 season.

Also, I wasn't exactly sold on handing over the reigns of one of the most storied football programs in the nation over to a guy who had never been a head coach at any level and who had only a couple years of coordinator experience — two statistically unsuccessful years as the offensive coordinator at Duke, and one very successful year as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots this season. It also didn't help that the only thing I really knew about him was that he was the guy who screamed at Tom Brady on the sidelines like he was a child.

However, unlike guys like Lavar Arrington and Brandon Short — two players I grew up idolizing — I was and am willing to give O'Brien a chance. I don't see what good it does for anyone to renounce an institution it once loved or threaten to sue the school. That's not going to help your university move on from a horrific tragedy and scandal, so what's the point — especially when you've been such positive advocates for Penn State over the years?

Believe me, I understand the frustration and anger. To many former players and alumni, the way the board of directors and search committee went about all of this put off an air of pretending that nothing from the past 50 years was worth squat. Of course that's upsetting, and I do feel particularly bad for long-time defensive coordinator and interim head coach Tom Bradley — a man who was probably never really a serious candidate for the job and was left hung out to dry by those in charge at the university. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and times have never been more desperate for any big-time college football program and perhaps any U.S. university than they are right now at Penn State. There needed to be a new direction, and let's face it, the situation in Happy Valley didn't exactly lend itself to a big-name hire. What established coach with his choice of where to work would voluntarily walk into the shit storm at Penn State?

Thus we were left with Bill O'Brien, an up-and-comer in the NFL ranks who has an extensive background at the collegiate level. You can find his résumé all over the place, so I won't bore you with his background. What I will do is break down what I took away from O'Brien's introductory press conference on Saturday, which I watched pretty much in its entirety save for a few moments after ESPN cut away until my roommate and I flipped over to the Big Ten Network.

At first, O'Brien looked and sounded a bit nervous at the podium, understandably. It didn't help that he went into a sort of life biography, introducing his wife, son and brother and having them stand and wave. I've never really seen anything quite like that at a press conference, and it was pretty awkward to say the least. However, it helped set the narrative for O'Brien as a family man with good morals, something Penn State was known for prior to November. I can understand why both O'Brien and Penn State wanted him to begin that way, though I was more interested to hear what he had to say about the job and the program and his plan to move the team and the university forward.

Thankfully, O'Brien did not disappoint in those areas. Once the talk shifted to football and the challenges ahead, O'Brien shined. He discussed the history of Joe Paterno with admiration, but also made it clear this is a new era in Penn State history. That was wise to help appease to some extent the many people who were peeved that a man with no ties to the program whatsoever was brought in. Further, he addressed the controversy and backlash that has been out there since his hire started circulating head on, saying he understands some people are upset, but it's his job to bring the Penn State family back together and headed in the same direction. As an alumnus, I appreciated the fact that he didn't avoid the chatter and turn a deaf ear to it, and his open letter to the Penn State community was nothing short of a home run.

He also addressed the concerns many have raised about his decision to stay with the New England Patriots throughout their playoff run, no matter how long it goes, instead of jumping right in to his new position full time. He said simply that he couldn't truthfully look any players or recruits in the eye and talk about loyalty and dedication to the team if he walked out on the Patriots in the middle of the playoffs — a valid point and something that's hard to argue with, even with recruiting concerns looming.

Once he got going, O'Brien came across as an intelligent — he did go to Brown after all — genuine, passionate guy, someone who is confident but respectful of Penn State's tradition, and a man who is ready to take on the challenge laid out before him.

Then he completely won me over by stating that he had talked with Larry Johnson Sr., the longtime defensive line coach and interim co-defensive coordinator, and that LJ would be a member of his coaching staff.

Titles have not been officially announced, but I assume Johnson will be either the defensive coordinator (my hope) or remain defensive line coach, something he's done a masterful job at over the years. If anyone was going to survive from the staff, I wanted it to be Johnson for a couple of reasons. Number one, he's a fantastic coach, evident by the long list of defensive linemen he's coached and helped make All-Americans and NFL players — Jimmy Kennedy, Anthony Adams, Michael Haynes, Aaron Maybin, Jared Odrick, Devon Still, just to name a few. Second, LJ Sr. has been the best Penn State recruiter for years, which will help the university in trying to retain its current commits and also allow Johnson to continue recruiting as O'Brien finishes up with New England.

It's been reported that linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden will also remain on the Penn State coaching staff, along with strength and conditioning John Thomas. The remainder of the coaching staff has yet to be named in full, however Tennessee Titans offensive assistant Charles London has been named the new runningback coach. Clearly, O'Brien is putting an experienced, talented staff around him, just like he declared he would on Saturday, and by retaining a few of the more highly regarded coaches already at Penn State, he showed he cares and respects what the previous regime has built.

Of course, the jury is still out on O'Brien as a coach. If he steps in and wins games, recruits well and helps Penn State continue the success it's had on and off the field, he'll have no trouble winning over a befuddled and upset fan base. If he loses games and/or bolts early for another job, the reservations people have will be validated. We don't know which direction things will go, but I can tell you I came away from Saturday's press conference impressed. Bill O'Brien made a good first impression on me, and apparently did the same with his new players.

Now I can only hope he makes a good lasting impression on Penn State University because in the end, that's the only thing that really matters.

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