Just about every sports information outlet is going with Bill O'Brien to Penn State as a done deal. Just about every analyst is surprised at the hire, and just about every Penn State [internet] fan is furious. The criticism is based on two things: 1) he has almost no name recognition, and if he has any it is from a sideline argument with Tom Brady; 2) he has almost no track record of success at the college level, and his success at the pro level is easily disregarded because Charlie Weis had the same job and failed as a college HC (or Brady/Bellichick, take your pick).
Ladies and gentlemen: this was never the post-Paterno hire that we fantasized about for decades. Succeeding an icon is only the second most difficult thing the new PSU coach has to address. For the next two or three years the Sandusky cloud will continue to hang heavy over this program, and anyone who took this job had to be willing to become associated (to a degree) with it and be willing to try and overcome it in the minds of all his stakeholders.
But maybe, maybe, immediate name recognition and the off-season buzz it brings is not the most important thing for Penn State right now. A demonstrated record of a success at the college level would makes all feel a lot better, but I'm not ready to say that just because Charlie Weis and Eric Mangini failed after leaving the Patriots that this guy will.
Did I want the new hire to have those calm- and excitement-inducing bullet points on his resume? Of course. Do I want to know something about the hire, like maybe even what he looks like/voice sounds like? Yes. But there are some job requirements particular to this hire, following Paterno and the Scandal, that just might be more important and that people are forgetting while they
reasonably respond react with immediate hysteria.
While Bill O'Brien is not a "home run" "slam dunk" hire, maybe he addresses three key criteria that are vital to the program right now: 1) distance from the Sandusky-involved past; 2) a disciplinarian who will minimize bad news going forward; and 3) results on the field (yes, this is not completely ruled out before he is announced as head coach).
Distance From The Past
Penn State was always handicapped throughout this hiring process. They could not, could not, hire any candidate that worked alongside Jerry Sandusky, which cuts out decades of potential hires.
The Sandusky trial will play out in ugly fashion during this coach's tenure. It is more likely than not that uglier details will emerge. Only by hiring someone who was in no way, shape, or form connected to the program at that time do you eliminate the chance that reporters will continue to ask Scandal-related questions at Penn State press events from here forward.
On this point, at least, the administration finally and inarguably got it right.
Control of Player Behavior
So Bill O'Brien brings a clean break from the past and gives us a blank slate. You know what you have to do with a blank slate? Keep It Clean.
Earlier in the week I heard from one of the few connections I have with people involved with the NFL is that Bill O'Brien would be well-suited for the PSU job because he was a disciplinarian. And this was meant as a positive, knowingly full well the need to appeal to recruits.
You know what Penn State doesn't need going forward? Another Royal Rumble at an apartment complex. More DUI's. Domestic violence accusations. Can any coach eliminate the ability of college kids to make mistakes on Saturday night? Of course not. But for the next two or three years personal responsibility needs to be stressed as much as any other aspect of being a player on the Penn State football team.
Any legal transgressions will be analyzed under a magnifying glass going forward. Penn State isn't the clean program where incidents are pointed out because they are examples of imperfection anymore. Now all bad things will be (unfairly) listed of examples of a negligent administration, program out of control, or whatever else the Worldwide Leader wants to spin it into. The new coach has to run a tight ship to limit this as much as possible.
Oh yeah, and let's get real: this is still a head coach at a major traditional power. You must win. The win/loss record directly impacts interest in the program both within and outside of the fanbase. And our president can talk about emphasizing the academic aspects of Penn State as much as he wants: football built this school. Football is the bell cow. Over the long term Penn State football is the biggest part of the engine that runs the Penn State University organization.
I think right now, however, you need to look at the short term. Two or three years - the time until the Scandal probably starts to subside a bit and Penn State can more or less go back to being something like what it was before. And for that reason, "Results" comes third in the criteria I list.
And in the short term, I think any candidate that is hired needs some slack. Have you seen the quarterback situation? The last recruiting class wasn't exactly lights-out, and the search committee did the new hire no favors regarding the timing of landing the current class. This team will struggle next year if you hired Tebow Himself as the head coach.
Bill O'Brien brings experience with the wildly successful Patriots offense with him, and gets to toss around names like Brady and Belichick in recruits' living rooms. You certainly have to temper this with the fact that it didn't translate to lasting success for Charlie Weis, but I don't think that it somehow condemns him as a failure before he starts.
But hysterical Penn State fans, don't you remember clamoring for improved offensive coaching for, like, over a decade??? Bill O'Brien may not be the greatest offensive coach of all time, I personally have no idea. But you know who he is not? Jay Paterno.
Don't get me wrong: there are plenty of question marks following this hire. Will O'Brien be able to recruit, or bring in others who can? Can he bring in grade A coordinators? Maybe Penn State's scandal and ongoing negativity were too much to lure a tried-and-true candidate right now. Hopefully O'Brien still addresses some of these fundamental requirements in the turbulent times to come. I don't know much about him, but I'm willing to learn, and I'm willing to consider that he just might fit what we need right now.
Oh yeah, and admittedly still troubling: I don't know how much this undercuts everything I've said, but the idea that he may continue to coach the Patriots through the playoffs and "recruit on his lunch break" a la Weis is laughable in a macabre, lose-all-hope-I-had-anyway sort of way. Sigh.