By Ernie Palladino
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If any Penn State boosters were upset when Bill O’Brien took the Houston Texans’ job, they shouldn’t be. The feeling this week should be one of thankfulness, for his two-season tenure at Beaver Stadium gave the Nittany Lions’ program something it hasn’t had for a long time.
It gave it normal.
O’Brien, Bill Belichick’s former offensive assistant, went into the heart of Pennsylvania with his playbook and scrub brush and washed off enough of Jerry Sandusky’s stain that Penn State’s alumni and fans can look into the future with some hope of normalcy.
Actually, he did a bit of the impossible, and we’re not talking about the 15-9 record he accomplished with the scraps who didn’t defect once the NCAA sanctions came down. His straight-arrow program and careful lobbying offered enough evidence going forward for college football’s always rigid, hidebound governing body to actually give back five of the scholarships it docked them for next season, and return them to a full complement of rides (25 initial, 85 total) by 2016-17 school year.
While it’s true that the administration’s actions in cleaning up the program had as much to do with the scholarship restoration as O’Brien’s diplomacy, it simply could not have happened if O’Brien hadn’t conducted himself the way he did. It was he who openly frowned upon Penn State alumni and boosters lodging individual lawsuits against the NCAA punishments.
More important to the long-term outlook, O’Brien turned Penn State into just another college football program. It will still have its challenges. It will undoubtedly and necessarily remain entwined in the mendacity and hypocrisy which envelopes big-time college sports. But at least now, coaches, not a king, will run Penn State football.
O’Brien was never going to stay at Beaver Stadium for 46 years like his predecessor, Joe Paterno. He wasn’t hired for that purpose. Though he became the face of Nittany Lions football for his two seasons there, he held no sway over university policy as Paterno did. Even if he had stayed at Penn State, he was more likely to have bought a yacht than library. He influenced no decisions outside the football program.
On top of everything, he dealt with the Paterno faithful who took every opportunity to criticize him and his program. But he didn’t bend. In fact, he stuck out his chin defiantly at them.
“You can print that I don’t really give a (hoot) what ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program,” O’Brien told David Jones of The Patriot-News. “I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno, everything in my power. So I could really care less 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.”
Like anyplace dirtied as deeply from scandal, it will take more time for Penn State to fully recover. O’Brien will not be there to see it happen. He’ll be in Houston, back in the NFL, where he always envisioned he’d be, anyway. But he did his job in his short stay at University Park. Others will see to that.
The administration will hire someone else, and then they will either fire him or he will leave on his own accord. And they will hire someone else and he, too, will leave or be fired. Some might stay longer than others, like at any other university.
O’Brien’s departure for the Texans marked the end of the beginning; the first step toward Penn State football becoming a normal, everyday program.
He didn’t do it for long, but O’Brien did his job. He led a program run by coaches and overseen by university administration. Not by a king.
It’s what Penn State needed.
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