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Penn State coach choice drawing mixed reviews

| Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012

He spent two months keeping cards close to his chest, but Penn State acting athletic director David Joyner always knew what he was looking for in the university's next head football coach.

Not the next Joe Paterno, but somebody who a member of the Penn State football family, a family to which Joyner belongs, could find a link, even an indirect one.

"Winning with integrity, focusing on education, instilling values," Joyner said on Friday. "Those are the characteristics of somebody with a Penn State heart, and that's what we've been looking for in our next coach.

"There's nothing wrong with a transplanted heart."

That heart belongs to Bill O'Brien, 42, a one-season-and-done offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, the NFL team that has employed him as an assistant since 2007 after he spent 14 seasons in the college ranks.

O'Brien, to the surprise of most Penn State alumni and the dismay of many past football lettermen, will be officially introduced as football coach today in University Park.

By Monday, he will have returned to Foxborough, Mass., where he will work with the AFC top-seeded Patriots during the playoffs.

That means Penn State might have a full-time football coach only in theory until after the Super Bowl on Feb. 5.

"I am thrilled to be the head coach of the Penn State football program," O'Brien said in a statement released by the university late yesterday. "I cannot tell you how excited I am to get started, meet the team, meet the football alumni and meet all of the people that make this university so special."

Joyner, who headed a six-person committee formed on Nov. 28, said he never expected the man who replaces Paterno to have ties to Penn State or rate as a popular choice among Paterno's loyal former players, coaches and generations of fanatic alumni.

Joyner also expected to bear the brunt of ill will.

Sharp instinct, as it turned out.

Notable Penn State lettermen such as LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short blasted Joyner's decision, and legendary figures such as previously vocal Pro and College Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris spoke volumes with their silence.

Several former players had hoped interim coach Tom Bradley would get the job, and they were upset because they believed they were purposely disconnected from the search.

Kenny Jackson, who played at Penn State in the 1980s and coached there in the '90s, said a "normal transition" from the Paterno era would never have been easy for lettermen to accept.

"And this isn't normal," he said. "A guy in (O'Brien's) situation has no understanding of Penn State.

"Very few players can go back to their school, see former coaches and have a chance to feel a part of it all. Now those guys feel left out, and it's hard for them. It's difficult to understand transition if you've never been a part of one."

Paterno congratulated O'Brien in a statement provided by his family to The Associated Press.

"I don't know Bill, but I respect his coaching record, and I am particularly pleased we share a connection to my alma mater, Brown," Paterno said. "Despite recent commentary to the contrary, Penn State football has always been about more than winning," he said, referring to a commitment to education and community service. "I am hopeful this tradition will continue."

The reaction to O'Brien among the Greater Pittsburgh Penn State Alumni Association was "split," chapter President Dan Byrd said.

"As far as Joyner, I don't think that rift with the lettermen can be fixed," Byrd said. "That call has been made. I don't think there will be any reconciliation with Joyner."

Donations to the Nittany Lion Club, which reserves season tickets for Penn State home football games, are due Feb. 1. Byrd predicts no worse than 90 percent renewal.

Trent Dilfer, a former Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the Baltimore Ravens and currently an NFL analyst for ESPN, predicts success for the Penn State-O'Brien marriage.

Dilfer called the hire "genius" and said members of the Patriots' inner circle described O'Brien as "a global thinker" and a coach skilled in player "development."

"One thing I think people are really missing on this is that every one of these (high school) kids wants to play in the NFL, and if you have that NFL pedigree as a college coach, you're going to get players," Dilfer said. "That's the biggest thing he brings to this program. He can look at mommas, daddies and kids and say, 'You are going to have a chance.'"

Dilfer lauded O'Brien's work as an offensive coach with the Patriots, especially his use of varied sets and incorporation of players with unique skills such as running back Danny Woodhead.

Still, before last weekend, Penn State fans parched for information on a secretive coaching search remained mostly in the dark.

"I heard from a lot of people, tried to take all the calls from the lettermen, considered a lot of opinions," Joyner said. "But the directive of this committee was to make the best hire for the program, and when you're making this kind of decision, it has to be an exclusive process."

So exclusive was the process that Bradley, who had served as interim head coach since Paterno's firing by the university board of trustees on Nov. 9, was on a recruiting trip through Pittsburgh's suburbs when O'Brien agreed to take the job on Thursday night after an afternoon interview.

Neither Bradley nor the assistants from Paterno's former staff had been told of O'Brien's hiring as of yesterday morning. They met with Joyner in the afternoon, their collective fate sealed.

Joyner said he was "extremely grateful to (those) coaches and the players" who became public faces and voices for the university during its time of crisis that started in early November with child sexual abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Bradley declined comment yesterday, as did other members of his staff who steered the Nittany Lions to a 1-3 record after Paterno's dismissal.

The stain of the Sandusky scandal and the alleged cover-up by university officials limited the field of candidates to succeed Paterno.

Byrd said O'Brien was "taking a chance by doing this."

"Who would ever have expected," Byrd said, "that the new head coach (would) be a guy taking a chance on Penn State?"

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