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Gorman: O'Brien worth every penny for PSU

| Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, 11:24 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien (left) coaches during his first game in University Park, Pa on Saturday September 01, 2012. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

The words came with an apologetic advance, as if Larry Smith knew how awful the truth sounded before he said it.

“If they start winning next season, a lot of this is going to be forgotten and forgiven,” Smith, a crisis management specialist, said of Penn State football to Business Insider in November 2011, shortly after news broke of the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal. “That sounds awful to bring this all down to whether their football team wins or loses, but that's the recent experience of colleges that have had big scandals.”

All is not forgotten or forgiven — far from it — but you can't discount how much Bill O'Brien's ability to lead the Nittany Lions to a winning season in the face of the Sandusky scandal, NCAA sanctions and subsequent player defections meant to Penn State's image.

So why should O'Brien work at a discount?

Make no mistake, O'Brien was rewarded handsomely with a $2.3 million salary and a contract with a kicker that called for an extension through the 2020 season.

For Penn State, it was a small price to pay to the man who immediately showed leadership at a university devoid of and desperate for it.

Penn State All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jordan Hill knew the program was in good hands following its first meeting with O'Brien.

“He had a plan, and he stuck to his word,” Hill told the Tribune-Review last month. “He's a leader not only by the things he says but the things he does, just how he carries himself. After the first meeting, you're like, ‘OK, this guy's not playing around.' ”

Penn State administrators knew O'Brien wasn't playing around when, after guiding the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record last fall, he interviewed with the Cleveland Browns and listened to overtures from other NFL teams.

Penn State ponied up and sweetened his salary to $3.6 million.

If O'Brien seems to be overpaid, consider what his university spends on crisis management.

By February, Penn State had incurred $5.3 million in expenses on crisis communications and the internal probe that led to the Freeh Report. In April, the university retained two communications firms for $2.5 million for the year. Penn State spends $200,000 monthly on public relations alone.

Yet who was ranked as the biggest public relations scandal of 2012 by Business Insider?

You guessed it: Penn State.

“I've seen the numbers that they spent,” said Smith, senior consultant and former president of Louisville-based Institute for Crisis Management. “It's mind-boggling.”

Let's not forget that Penn State also placed $12 million in escrow, the first of five installments for its $60 million fine from the NCAA.

As for O'Brien's raise?

Pocket change for Penn State.

A bargain, really, when you consider the precarious position Penn State was in when it hired O'Brien last January and all he's endured:

• The death of his predecessor, Joe Paterno.

• The NCAA sanctions that included the fine, a four-year bowl ban, scholarship reductions and the allowance of players to transfer without penalty until the start of the 2013 season.

• The protests over the removal of Paterno's statue outside Beaver Stadium.

“He's certainly not the first coach under any circumstance to parlay interest from another organization to get a better deal,” Smith said. “That's the way the game is played, probably more than the public knows and cares.

“Any coach that treats players well and gets positive results from their players and staff, you've got to be thankful if you've got one that wins more than they lose. If they can do it without doing anything illegal, immoral or unethical — wow!”

Be upset with O'Brien, if you will, for cashing in on the season's goodwill and his Coach of the Year candidacy, then trumpeting that he's “not a one-and-done guy.”

But when it comes to his salary, don't call him anything other than an absolute bargain for Penn State.

“They're getting more from their investment in the coach's salary than almost anything they're spending money on,” Smith said. “It's still about winning, and he did. He brought a little respect back to the athletic program, and that's priceless.”

Especially at a university with such a price to pay.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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