In recent months, we have had a lot to say about what went on at Penn State late last year, in the period of time in and around the dismissal of iconic head coach Joe Paterno. Time and space do not permit us from embellishing too much further on the entire situation that began to unravel once former assistant Jerry Sandusky was arrested, and eventually convicted, of child abuse and deviancy. We’ll save extended commentary on this sordid affair for another place and time.
For what it’s worth, however, we were on the record long before the Sandusky developments became public knowledge that something else had been amiss in Happy Valley for several years, with Paterno’s program acting as sort of a halfway house for troubled youths. The fact is that over the past several years, Paterno’s Nittany Lions had turned outlaw, with police blotters long enough to shame even those wild Cincinnati Bengals teams of earlier in the past decade.
We spoke at length at how the national sports media, long intent on affixing labels of its choosing, mostly ignored the many transgressions within the Penn State program. Even the media outlets that did go to lengths to uncover the shenanigans somehow allowed Paterno to escape unscathed.
Of course, all of that changed last November when the Sandusky story broke. In the aftermath, Paterno was forced out, and suddenly the national media decided to dog pile on “Shades” after choosing to look the other way when other developments invited heavy scrutiny. Only when Paterno eventually fell ill did the national media pull away from the Happy Valley icon, who passed away from the advancing cancer earlier this year. What a sad way for a life to end.
No matter, we suggest that Paterno’s shadow cast so large in the state that his quest to break the all-time winning record for coaches had more than a bit to do with the timing of the original Sandusky arrest, coming as it did during a bye week and right after “Joe Pa” had finally set the career win mark. We have some oceanfront property in Phoenix to unload to anyone who thinks that sort of timing was just a coincidence.
We could talk forever about this subject, but there is football again to be played at Beaver Stadium this fall. And for the first time since 1965, when Rip Engle still roamed the Nittany Lion sidelines, someone other than Paterno will be the head coach in Happy Valley.
Meet Bill O’Brien, most recently the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, who, if reports are to be believed, was hardly the first choice of the Penn State brass to lead the post-Paterno era. But after being turned down by countless coaches – including Virginia’s Mike London and Miami-Florida’s Al Golden, a Penn State alum, and a handful of others – the Nittany Lions landed on O’Brien, whose only link to Penn State is that he attended the same undergrad, Brown, as did Paterno.
Succeeding coaching icons is never easy, but succeeding disgraced ones is a different ballgame. For that reason alone, O’Brien’s appointment differs from many in recent memory who have followed legendary coaches. About the only parallel we can draw involves Ohio State after Woody Hayes’ ouster following the 1978 Gator Bowl, when slugging Tiger defender Charlie Baumann after the latter’s game-saving interception was simply the last straw for Buckeye administrators.
Hayes’ transgressions, of course, paled against what forced Paterno out of his job last season, but, as we said, it’s the closest example we can recall. Even then, the Buckeyes replaced Hayes with Earle Bruce, who had served on Woody’s Ohio State staffs and done a good job establishing himself as a top-flight head coach at Iowa State before getting the call from Columbus. Bruce proved a good fit, too, almost leading his first Buck team in 1979 to an undefeated season, before eventually running afoul of the jaded Buckeye boosters, who forced him out after the 1987 campaign.
No other past replacement of a legend carried anything close to the dynamics of the O’Brien-after-Paterno situation at Penn State. Bear Bryant retired from Alabama after the 1982 season, but gave his endorsement and blessing to successor Ray Perkins, one of his star Crimson Tide players in the ‘60s who had cut his teeth as head coach of the NFL New York Giants the previous four years, and had taken the G-Men to the playoffs with Scott Brunner as his QB in 1981. That alone seemed to suggest Perkins, like the Bear, could walk on water. Bryant died only a month after his retirement, and Perkins only had modest success in four seasons before leaving for a return to the NFL and the Tampa Bay Bucs.
When Darrell Royal retired at Texas, Fred Akers, a former Longhorn aide who had turned around the program at Wyoming, was a fairly well-received successor, especially since Akers’ first UT team in ‘77 finished the regular season ranked atop the polls and featured Heisman winner Earl Campbell. The same year, Frank Broyles retired at Arkansas, succeeded by Lou Holtz, who had just abandoned the New York Jets after a solid run at NC State. The Holtz hire was not as well-received initially, but Lou quieted the critics with an 11-1 mark in his first year and an Orange Bowl upset over Oklahoma.
In other words, we’re entering some new territory at Penn State with the scenario surrounding O’Brien taking over for Paterno (or, technically, former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who served as the interim coach late last season after the Paterno ouster). O’Brien inherits what might have been the worst 9-win team in the country last season, but only eight starters are returning from that side that understandably lost three of its last four, including a Ticket City Bowl beating administered by Houston. O’Brien inherits an offense that ranked in the bottom three of Big Ten stats in offense, scoring and passing efficiency.
The focus of O’Brien’s pro-style attack is likely to be TB Silas Redd, a punishing charger who slashed his way for 1241 yards rushing in 2011. Redd, though, is only one of three returning full-time starters on the strike force, which is likely to have the same problems as some of Paterno’s final teams...more specifically, finding a quarterback.
Spring work was inconclusive as none from among past starters Matt McGloin and Ron Bolden, plus Paul Jones, established himself, although O’Brien (who will call his own offensive plays) has reluctantly named McGloin as his tentative starter heading into fall. McGloin performed with a bit more consistency a year ago than Bolden after the latter completed just 39 percent of his passes with a mere two TDs last fall. Jones, ineligible the last two seasons, could be an intriguing alternative if McGloin struggles.
Five of the top six receivers from last season have departed as well; only wideout Justin Brown, who caught 35 passes a year ago, returns. Expect massive 6-foot-6, 277-lb. TE Gary Gilliam, or perhaps another jumbo-sized TE, true frosh 6-foot-7 Jesse James (we like the name already), to perhaps become integral features in the O’Brien offense.
Four new starters must also be plugged into the OL, which could impede Redd’s progress if the new-look forward wall takes time to coagulate.
Defensively, new coordinator Ted Roof (once the head coach at Duke, where he employed O’Brien as an assistant) hopes a high-risk, high-reward scheme will pay dividends after the Nittany Lions were mostly a read-and-react platoon under Tom Bradley. Penn State returns five starters to the platoon – counting LB Michael Mauti, who went down for the count in the fourth game a year ago vs. Eastern Michigan – that allowed only 16.8 ppg in 2011, good for fifth in the country.
Roof’s major concern is a rebuilt secondary that must replace all of its starters from a year ago. Former WR Curtis Drake was converted to a cornerback spot, where he likely starts on the other side from senior Stephen Morris, but not much was accomplished with the DBs in spring as minor injuries curtailed the involvement of many.
As usual, the Nittany Lions should have a robust front seven. The reappearance of Mauti, alongside returning starters Glenn Carson and Gerald Hughes, signals another solid linebacker corps (the 'Linebacker U' tag should stick for at least another year post-Paterno). An all-upperclass defensive line features DT Jordan Hill and DEs Sean Stanley and Pete Massaro, all honors candidates.
Summary: It is probably a good idea for Penn State to have cut ties with the Paterno regime as decisively as it did, and bring in an outsider as the new coach. If ever a program needed some new blood, this was it. Whether O’Brien, a creative offensive strategist but in his first head-coaching assignment, is up to the task, remains to be seen. We’ve seen a lot of decorated coordinators fail as head coaches in the past. If O’Brien can smooth the offense and upgrade the QB production, the strike force could improve, and Penn State is rarely caught short on defense.
Still, the Nittany Lions probably orbit outside of the rankings this season and settle for another minor bowl assignment, while we wait a few more years to deliver a verdict on the O’Brien hire.
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