As I've written here before, I am a Penn State fan and have been for more than 30 years. Joe Paterno is the only head coach of my lifetime. All Penn State fans knew that there would one day be a coaching change, but no one expected it to go anything like this.
The question that I and so many fans had was "who will be the lucky successor to JoePa?" Clearly this was not how things went down. I don't have any inside knowledge of the situation, but it doesn't take special connections to tell that the school had trouble finding top candidates. Bill O'Brien? At Penn State?
I'm one of those football geeks who actually pays attention to assistant coaches in pro and college football. I had known of O'Brien for years. Seeing his name floated out didn't bother me. O'Brien is a coach's coach. He isn't a slick recruiter. He isn't someone with a bag of offensive tricks. I'm sure plenty of fans are very down on his hiring. To the casual fan, O'Brien didn't exist until his recent sideline blow-up with Tom Brady.
I always preach to people that the key with coaching searches isn't to hire the big name, but rather to hire the right guy. O'Brien just might be the right guy for Penn State. Let's be honest here. The wolves are coming. After the scandal that rocked Happy Valley a few months back, everyone is looking to get their pound of flesh. The NCAA at first wasn't going to get involved, but after enough public scrutiny, they changed their tune. The Big Ten will get involved if/when it is needed. Every politician in the world will use Penn State as a target when it suits their needs.
All of this could mean a loss of scholarships. Recruiting will certainly be affected. We've already seen some prospects heading elsewhere. If there is a bowl ban, that could negatively affect the team. I've got my fingers crossed that there is enough talent in place that the team can be solid in 2012, but that's purely a hope right now. Things could get ugly in the next couple of years.
If that happens, O'Brien might just be the guy you want in charge. He coached at Duke for several years. He didn't learn much about winning while there, but O'Brien knows what it is like to coach with one hand tied behind your back. At Duke, the academic restrictions put the football program at a serious disadvantage. Also, until the last couple of years, the alumni put their money into the basketball team. The facilities at Duke were a major joke.
O'Brien did the best he could while at Duke. He had minimal talent and that showed in the results. The struggles he endured could end up being great preparation for the next few years in Happy Valley. O'Brien will have plenty of NFL type talent to work with so the results won't be anything like what they were at Duke.
Stick with the Duke theme for a second. Mike Krzyzewski coached at Army in the late 1970s. His record wasn't impressive, but he built up systems, strategies, methods, and things of that nature. The problem wasn't Krzyzewski, but rather the talent. He went to Duke in 1980 and the team was up and down early on. Once he got big time talent, the program took off and Krzyzewski became a Hall of Fame coach. His time at Army helped shape his coaching style and also taught him how to overcome problems that talent alone couldn't solve. O'Brien learned a lot in his time at Duke that could be helpful if Penn State does hit some serious bumps in the road.
Luckily O'Brien has also been part of some very good football programs. He was at Georgia Tech from 1995-2002. While there, he was part of a great coaching staff. George O'Leary was the head man. Assistants on the staff were Ralph Friedgen, Randy Edsall, Doug Marrone, and Ted Roof. All of them were or are head coaches. That says a lot about O'Leary's ability to hire the right people and to develop them. I loved those Georgia Tech teams. That was back when Florida State was a major powerhouse and had a defense full of elite players. FSU had a super stingy defense, but Tech would drive them crazy. In the 1999 regular season, no team scored more than 23 points on FSU, except Tech who put up 35. In 2000, Miami scored 27, but no one else got higher than 14, except Tech who scored 21.
The offense was built around quarterback Joe Hamilton. He finished second for the Heisman in 1999, if that gives you any indication of how good he and the offense were. Hamilton was short at 5-10, but was an above average passer and very good runner. The Tech offense featured a mixture of the option, creative plays, and downfield passing. That is one of my favorite offenses of all time. It was versatile, dynamic, and fun to watch.
O'Brien was the running backs coach when Hamilton was there. Then Friedgen left for Maryland and O'Brien became the offensive coordinator. He had some success, but wasn't nearly as good as Friedgen. O'Brien left Tech to go to Maryland and work for Friedgen in 2003-2004. O'Brien then got offered the offensive coordinator spot at Duke and took that to work with old friend Ted Roof. His time at Duke only lasted two years before Bill Belichick offered him a spot on the Patriots. O'Brien has done a variety of things in New England, but was always on the offensive side of the ball. He's worked with Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and a lot of talented skill players. The offense has thrived with him as a member of the staff. O'Brien clearly isn't the primary reason for that success, but he's part of it. Remember that the Patriots weren't a great offense until the 2007 season. They used to win with defense and timely offense. Now it is the opposite.
When you think about it, there's a lot to like about O'Brien. He's coached stars and mediocre guys. He's been on dominant teams. He's been on awful teams. He knows what it takes to make it to the Super Bowl or just the Peach Bowl. He also knows what it is like to play out the string on a bad season. O'Brien learned from O'Leary, Friedgen, and Belichick. Those are three tough coaches, but also winners.
The first big challenge for O'Brien was putting together a good staff. I was very happy to see him retain Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden. Those were the top positional coaches under Paterno and you weren't going to find better guys than them anywhere else. They can act as a bridge from the old regime to the new one. Roof will come up to Happy Valley to run the defense. He's still a solid coach. He helped Auburn to a national title in 2010 (while getting a bit of help from Cam Newton). Roof is an aggressive coach and will blitz. Expect more of an attacking defense than what Tom Bradley ran.
O'Brien hired some quality assistants on offense, but he's the key guy there. Penn State's last truly good quarterback was...Kerry Collins? There have been plenty of guys who had some success (Wally Richardson, Mike McQueary, Rashard Casey). Michael Robinson had a great showing in 2005, but was a running back/quarterback hybrid. He's now a starting fullback for the Niners. The program must develop quarterbacks if it wants to compete for national titles down the road. I think there have been talented guys, but the development just hasn't been there. O'Brien can sell current players and recruits on the fact he's worked with Brady. Guys are more likely to buy into what a coach is selling if they know the coach has had some success. "Do this, it's what Tom Brady does" has a lot more resonance than if you change that to tell a young guy it's what Zach Mills did.
I'm curious and excited to see what O'Brien can do with the offense. There have been some good pieces in place for years, but the results have been less than impressive. As long as O'Brien doesn't go full on with the spread offense, I'll be a happy camper. I do hope he keeps the fullbacks involved. That is one aspect of the Penn State offense that I've loved since I started watching. If he can actually develop a quarterback and consistent passing attack, that will be a huge help to keeping up the winning tradition.
I know a lot of former players are irate than an outsider was brought in. They wanted Tom Bradley to keep the job or for some former PSU guy to be brought back to Happy Valley. Bradley deserved the job, but was guilty by association. He played for and coaches with Jerry Sandusky and that made him too toxic to keep the job. I'm sorry to see Bradley go. He's a good guy that got caught in the middle of a nightmare. This is what they mean when they say bad things happen to good people. I'm sure PSU reached out to some former players, but frankly I'm not sure those guys wanted any part of the situation. Those guys would have been associated with Sandusky, but have been gone long enough that it would have made things okay in the mind of the general public.
The other dynamic at play here is an old coaching maxim - never be the man to follow "the man". Who was the successor to Vince Lombardi? Bear Bryant? Guys who have to follow legends deal not only with the problems of the current team/season, but also the shadow of their predecessor. Frank Solich took over Nebraska when Tom Osborne retired. Solich played for the national title in 2001, but lost. The next year Nebraska went 7-7 and that sent everyone scrambling. In 2003 the team improved to 9-3 and won the Alamo Bowl, but that wasn't good enough and he was fired. Nebraska has had two coaches since then and neither was as good as Solich. The problem is that Solich was measured against a legend.
O'Brien was willing to take on the challenge of Penn State and the challenge of Joe Paterno. O'Brien isn't the kind of person to back down from a challenge. When he joined the Tech staff, O'Leary had a way of bullying coaches. Some young guys couldn't handle this. O'Brien stood up to him without blinking. He had no fear in holding his ground when it was something he believed in. That's the kind of person and kind of mentality that PSU needs right now.
We all wanted a big name like Chris Petersen or Pat Fitzgerald. Or a former Nittany Lion like Al Golden. Instead, we got Bill O'Brien. I have no idea how he will do, but the more I think about the hire, the more I like it. He wasn't the big name, but in a few years I hope we're able to look back and see that he was the right guy for the job.