Penn State’s New Coach: What the Backlash Says About The Program

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Stephan Savoia / AP

In this Dec. 14, 2011, file photo, New England Patriots offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien talks with quarterback Tom Brady (12) during NFL football practice in Foxborough, Mass.

In major college athletics, coaching staffs regularly get purged when a team does something relatively harmless, like finish a few games below .500. So it was only natural that a school like Penn State, plagued by one of the worst sports scandals in history – the child sex abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, and the failure of Joe Paterno, among others, to more aggressively report them – would try to break from the past. And the best way to do that would be to hire a coach with absolutely no ties to the man who headed the program for almost half a century.

So why are some former Penn State players apoplectic that the school tapped New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to coach the Nittany Lions? It’s not like they are lambasting the decision on purely football terms, which would be a valid reason to squawk: O’Brien has no head coaching experience, and the last time he held a college job, as offensive coordinator at Duke in 2005 and 2006, the Blue Devils went 1-22.

No, they are mad that O’Brien is not “one of us.” He has no ties to Penn State, nor Paterno, besides their shared alma mater, Brown University. He’s an outsider, and how can you entrust our beloved football program to a man with no Penn State blood?

(MORE: Penn State of Mind)

Former Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington, who played seven years in the NFL, wanted Penn State to hire interim coach Tom Bradley, a longtime Paterno assistant. “I will put my Butkus [Award] in storage,” Arrington told “I will put my Alamo Bowl MVP trophy in storage. Jerseys, anything Penn State, in storage. Wherever Tom Bradley goes, that’s the school I will start to put memorabilia up in my home. I’m done. I’m done with Penn State. If they’re done with us, I’m done with them.”

Where, exactly, does it state that, by hiring O’Brien, Penn State is rejecting its football alumni? If Penn State wins under O’Brien, and former players like Arrington are embraced by the new regime, Newsfeed doubts the Penn State stuff stays in storage.

Former Penn State all-American linebacker Brandon Short said that a Penn State football alumni group, the Letterman’s Club, was upset that acting athletic director David Joyner did not seek out their input. “I don’t want to be affiliated with the university if they don’t choose a Penn State guy because of our standards, our graduation, all the things that have been important,” said Short. “It’s no longer Penn State, so we might as well be in the SEC. They are intent on turning it into a booster culture … Penn State is a family and it is real and if they choose to get rid of Bradley and not hire a Penn State coach, then they’ve turned their backs on our entire family.”

Might it be possible to let O’Brien coach a day before deciding he can’t graduate his players?

The reaction of ex-Penn State players is telling. The kind of omerta practiced by sports teams breeds lasting bonds – and bubbles. Within a tight-knit culture like Penn State’s, maybe Jerry Sandusky’s alleged horrific deeds go unpunished, because the football program either wants to protect one of its own, or its beloved brand. Meanwhile, outsiders can’t believe that neither Joe Paterno, nor Mike McQueary, nor anyone else at Penn State ran to the police. Penn State students riot after Joe Paterno is fired, while we all wish they’d remember the reason for Paterno’s dismissal – he could have stopped someone charged with abuse. And here, while the outside world knew it was a safe bet that Penn State football would start fresh, “family” members are shocked, and feel betrayed, by O’Brien’s hiring. If you reject the Paterno-era, the thinking goes, you reject us.

So Bill O’Brien may have to win over some football alumni. But he shouldn’t stress too much about that. Those older guys no longer play on Saturdays. O’Brien needs to build a new Penn State culture: one that’s more aware of the dangers of bubbles.

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