Kovacevic: Penn State needs Bill O'Brien II
Bill O'Brien wanted nothing to do with the breakfast on his plate or the conversation at hand. And just in case that needed cementing, he glanced down at his watch, looked back up at me and blurted out, “No offense, but at 9:30, when my time's up here, I go right back to preparing the New England Patriots to win this football game.”
That was Feb. 2, 2012, at one of many mandatory media sessions for Super Bowl XLVI, and this felt more mandatory than most. O'Brien had just accepted the Penn State job, but he had zero interest in any of the rah-rah speak so many at State College were craving — no, demanding — from him to begin healing the still-fresh wounds of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. O'Brien would brush off that topic, as well as anything to do with Joe Paterno. Everything was about Patriots vs. Giants.
Everything was football.
And that never changed. From O'Brien's don't-ask-me-I-wasn't-there introduction to the central Pennsylvania media to sprinting around Beaver Stadium to high-fiving some of the 107,884 fans after the four-OT triumph over Michigan to a 15-9 record over two years that few thought possible under crushing NCAA sanctions … everything was football.
So tell me why, in that context, any Penn State follower would be surprised — much less dismayed or disillusioned — when O'Brien's decision to pursue his dream of becoming an NFL head coach with the Houston Texans was about football?
If the Nittany Lions get that lucky with back-to-back hires, that's all the next guy will be about, too.
It could be Larry Johnson Sr., the veteran defensive line coach who took the job on an interim basis Wednesday. It could be another man with Penn State ties, whether Mike Munchak, Al Golden or Jim Caldwell. All are qualified, all schooled, all passionate about the university. And though I would bet against it, the new guy also could come from the outside again.
But whoever winds up taking the post, he would do well to follow the O'Brien model in keeping it all about football.
What Penn State doesn't need is a figurehead or false idol.
O'Brien got that. His players got that, too, judging by the overwhelming support they've shown him in the past 24 hours, including this from senior safety Jesse Della Valle: “Coach OB following his dreams just like I followed mine. Can't blame him for that.” Seems to me a good segment of the fan base got it, as well.
At the same time, there were still knuckleheads dubbing O'Brien “Lyin' Lion” and “BillLeave,” even after players and recruits stepped forward Wednesday to say the coach didn't blindside anyone, that he reached out to them personally before the Houston decision was announced.
One comment on The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' website: “Bill O'Brien is a lying, deceitful piece of human excrement unworthy of succeeding Joe Paterno, the greatest, most honorable coach in the history of the game. I wish nothing but the worst for this piece of vermin.”
Piece of vermin?
This has to stop. Apologies here to all the sane Penn Staters, but the cold fact is that Sandusky ensured your university's behavior will be judged more harshly than that of your peers. That's just how it is. And it's well past time, as O'Brien demonstrated, to see that a football coach should be nothing more than a football coach. If it's just a wacko minority saying such stuff, then maybe more folks should be shouting them down.
And yeah, that goes double for the Paterno wackos or whatever you want to call this small but obsessively vocal group that prioritizes Penn State's past over the present.
Did you happen to catch the viral O'Brien quotes being passed around the Internet from David Jones' Wednesday column in The Patriot-News?
Here's what Jones said O'Brien told him a month ago when informed that some Paterno loyalists were angry about the December departure of Paterno-era linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden: “You can print that I don't really give a [expletive] what the ‘Paterno people' think about what I do with this program. I've done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less what the ‘Paterno faction,' or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I'm tired of it. For any ‘Paterno person' to have any objection to what I'm doing, it makes me want to put my fist through this windshield right now.”
Bill O'Brien was tough, intemperate and intransigent. He didn't mince words. He didn't suffer fools. He didn't pay homage to cardboard cutouts. And he wanted nothing more than to win football games, which he did quite nicely.
That's what Penn State needed then and needs now.