Gene Collier: New face of Penn State does an about-face



Anyone who fully understands the interpersonal and cultural dynamics at work in the separation of Bill O’Brien from the Pennsylvania State University should automatically qualify for any several of the school’s decorous graduate programs:

Applied Behavior Analysis.

Applied Clinical Psychology.

Pathobiology.

Community Psychology and Social Change.

Yeah, maybe that last one especially.

At a public institution where the leadership still thinks transparency is for saps two years after having its painstakingly sculpted reputation shredded and burned by a child sexual abuse scandal, the reasons for this newest convulsion to the Penn State brand are voluminous and multilayered.

It’s wearying, frankly, which is why I was trying to keep the prism clear and the stage free of baggage for Grand Experiment II: Can anyone succeed at succeeding Joe Paterno?

Of this much I was sure — I liked his face, Bill O’Brien’s.

If you lined up everybody on that sprawling 40,000-face campus and asked someone to pick out the head football coach, guess who would be selected? O’Brien has a very uncomplicated face, a very football face, a very Penn State football face, perfectly unsuited to blue blazers and neckties and such.

Across two football seasons launched from the university’s darkest hours, he went 15-9 while dragging the NCAA’s cross through the streets of Unhappy Valley. He won 10 of his 16 Big Ten Conference games, exactly what the previous administration accomplished without a four-year bowl ban, the 40 missing scholarships and the conspicuous defections of key personnel.

But he lost at Indiana, which is just short of impossible. He lost at Minnesota, which is just short of just short of impossible. And he lost to Ohio at home. Not Ohio State, although he did that twice by a combined score of 98-37, Ohio, the poor little Bobcats, at home.

Worse and more ominous than any of that, he lost something he probably never had — the full support of the significant fan faction he referred to in a December conversation as “the Paterno people.”

“You can print this,” O’Brien said into his Bluetooth to David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “You can print that I don’t really give a [four-letter word] 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 [sic] about what the Paterno faction of people, 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 wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.”

They were merely talking about some unrest over the removal from O’Brien’s staff of linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, one of only two staffers remaining who had served under Paterno. But O’Brien’s typically explosive rhetoric on a marginal topic clearly unveiled a deeper resentment, and doubtless the blowback on that is already in fifth gear.

The Paterno people, in their own applied psychology, will trample their Stand Up Joe’s in the rush to point out that unlike O’Brien, Paterno declined four times to abandon his mission and vision for Penn State when the NFL beckoned, turning down the Steelers, Oakland Raiders and New England Patriots twice.

In 1973, the Patriots offered a $1.25 million package (about $6.5 million today) for five years, more than eight times his salary at the time. O’Brien won’t get anywhere near such a proportionate raise from the Houston Texans. He makes a reported $3.6 million annually.

While the impact and potentially enduring shadow of O’Brien’s Paterno People is likely a matter for post-graduate education, the role of Penn State’s administration in all of this is predictably shrouded and counterintuitive.

It’s true Penn State gave O’Brien a raise in the summer, but a larger truth is that in the process of restructuring his contract, the university slapped a big 70 PERCENT OFF! sticker on his buyout, from more than $19 million down to roughly $6.3 million.

If Old Main really wanted O’Brien fielding an NFL-style offense and slapping names on the jerseys for the long term, why was it effectively marking him down?

What Penn State needs so very badly, aside from a new president, a new athletic director and definitive legal outcomes for its three former administrators still toxic from the sordid Jerry Sandusky matter, is a coach who can endure the full scope and timeline of its healing process.

O’Brien did a tremendous job in the worst of circumstances, but his departure scrapes at Penn State’s wounds. For 46 seasons, the university had one head football coach. Very soon, probably within a week, it will have (including Tom Bradley) its fourth head football coach in 27 months.

The fallout continues.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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