This may be a no-duh observation, but some notable journalists are struggling with the distinction:
Bill O'Brien isn't Rich Rodriguez. And Penn State in 2012 isn't Michigan in 2008. Different coaches, different styles, different backgrounds, different schools, different situations, etc., right?
Bill O'Brien also is not Josh McDaniels. Nor is he Charlie Weis. They are all different people.
Well, respected national columnists nonetheless can't resist making dumb comments such as the following by ESPN's renowned Rick Reilly on Twitter:
"Penn State makes classic mistake everybody makes: Believing Belichick assistants can coach like Belichick."
Um, so, no one should hire anyone who has worked for Bill Belichick?
How absurd is that?
Weis and McDaniels got fired a few years after getting big-time head coaching jobs, so all Belichick assistants can't be, or won't be, good head coaches? Whatever.
Then there's Drew Sharp at the Detroit Free Press, a longtime prominent columnist whose Jan. 8 column said the following:
"O'Brien will fail. This is Rich Rodriguez Redux. Former Penn State players won't rally around him. They're angered they weren't consulted regarding the search. They'll privately undermine him, personally taking glee in the competitive struggles brought forth from the institutional divisiveness. And only when a once-proud football tradition gets shredded into tatters and O'Brien gets booted out the door, they'll move to make sure O'Brien's successor is someone who "understands" what Penn State football is about. ... O'Brien faces a tremendous challenge, but he's doomed to fail because he won't get a fair shake from those who selfishly think the Penn State program belongs primarily to them."
(full Sharp column here: http://www.freep.com/article/20120108/COL08/201080585/Drew-Sharp-Penn-State-s-hiring-of-Bill-O-Brien-is-Rich-Rodriguez-Redux?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CSports%7Cs)
Sharp's interpretation of what happened at Michigan with Rodriguez - three seasons of "institutional divisiveness ... proud football tradition shredded into tatters" - does not mean it will happen that way at Penn State with O'Brien. Despite the initial supremely dumb and divisive comments by PSU football alums, LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short, who have since backpedaled.
Why will it be different? Because it is different - the two coaches are different, and the two situations are different.
This doesn't mean O'Brien will succeed in Happy Valley, and it doesn't mean comparisons can't be useful and foreshadowing. They're just not remotely as useful in this situation as Reilly and Sharp are making them out to be.
Reilly and Sharp are longtime national columnists, so they have sources and/or colleagues in every city on every beat. Did they speak with any sources about O'Brien, or about the undercurrents at Penn State?
It's doubtful, because they would have said so, or implied it, if they had. And neither Reilly nor Sharp indicated as such. (While Reilly's tweet was a first-impression remark and not a deeply thought commentary, there are no excuses - he's accountable for his tweets.)
What Reilly and Sharp did is take the easy, lazy way out when making an extremely negative comment on a major national sports story. With this story being about Penn State, negative commentary seems to be the only way the hurricane blows these days.
Sharp is based in Michigan, so as soon as Arrington and Short lashed out at the O'Brien hiring, the Rodriguez analogy fell in his lap, and he ran with it. All other factors were dismissed as insignificant, factors such as:
- Michigan hired Rodriguez from outside the Michigan "family" for no apparent reason, creating a lasting internal backlash
- Rodriguez did not embrace Michigan's football alums and traditions to diminish that backlash
- Rodriguez violated NCAA rules at Michigan, with five major violations
- Rodriguez lost a lot of games - an overall 15-22 record, a wretched 6-18 in Big Ten play, at the NCAA's all-time winningest school
- Rodriguez's teams played embarrassingly awful defense almost all of the time
- Rodriguez had no excuses - there was no scandal or NCAA sanctions inherited
No wonder he got fired!
Sharp contends that while Arrington and Short may have publicly backtracked from their inflammatory comments, behind the scenes they and others will be conspiring against O'Brien. Because that's what happened to Rodriguez at Michigan.
Has Sharp spoken with sources at PSU who have said they think such a thing will happen? Again, he gave no such indication.
(Here is the link to the letter of support for O'Brien from the PSU Football Letterman's Club: http://www.gopsusports.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/010712aaa.html)
So, he's basing his entire premise about O'Brien's fate on what happened to Rodriguez, simply because both were "outsiders" at tradition-rich schools.
If O'Brien is as terrible as Rodriguez was, then behind the scenes, in front of the scenes and screaming from the top of Mount Nittany, everyone will want him fired in three years just as Rodriguez was. It won't just be a conspiratorial faction of JoePa and Tom Bradley loyal football alums.
And if O'Brien is as successful as Bob Stoops has been - Stoops was an outsider to tradition-drenched Oklahoma when he was hired there in 1999 and, like O'Brien, Stoops had no head coaching experience - it won't matter if O'Brien does alienate PSU football alums. An average of 10-11 wins a year and BCS bowl bids will offset any such unrest. Run a clean program, graduate players and win games, and they'll be nothing LaVar Arrington or anyone else can say or do to stop it. Of course, if O'Brien does that, even the most irritated football alums will embrace him.
What is the situation O'Brien inherits? Meaningful dissension in the ranks at PSU right now, and major scandal. When 46 years of stability implodes, discord comes next:
- There was significant support for Bradley to be the next head coach - of course there was.
- There is real anger over how Joe Paterno was treated by the Board of Trustees - of course there is.
- And there is general anxiety and depression about the Sandusky scandal. Of course.
This is a key difference between Michigan's hiring of Rodriguez and Penn State's situation. There was no scandal of any sort in Ann Arbor and no reason to look outside the Michigan "family" - yet they did anyway, and brought in the sketchy Rodriguez to boot. Most Penn Staters think PSU either had to hire from outside due to the Sandusky scandal, or understand why it did. Also, while it's way early to make any concrete evaluations of O'Brien, it's clear already he is not Rich Rodriguez, that he is a more complete coach (if lacking head coach experience) with a better grasp of the full picture.
The Sandusky scandal will take years to fade, but it will fade, though it won't disappear. It will always linger. It is what it is. It is the X-Factor in all of this. There is nothing to compare it to, no similar situation anywhere in the past. The alleged victims aren't going to vanish or have their suffering cured even after the legal matters are resolved, whenever that is. So who knows how it will play out in the short and long term with regard to PSU football and O'Brien. It will be a meaningful negative factor, but how much so is uncertain.
That leaves the venom of a great many PSUers over the treatment of JoePa. However, that venom won't be blindly directed at O'Brien, but instead pointed at the Board of Trustees, which (along with deposed president Graham Spanier) was cataclysmically unprepared for this sickening scandal despite knowledge it was coming down the pike, and then fired Paterno sans investigation by telephone late at night without discussing the matter with him.
(Putting JoePa on administrative leave pending an investigation would have been the proper move at that time. He needed to step away from the program to release the overwhelming pressure of the moment and to be investigated for his role in the scandal, and the Board choked and overreacted and fired him.)
Also, O'Brien's embracing PSU football alums and PSU's tradition is relevant and does distinguish him from Rodriguez. Importantly, O'Brien retained Larry Johnson Sr. and Ron Vanderlinden on his coaching staff, the best defensive line and linebackers coaches, respectively, in America. Everyone at PSU is pleased by that.
Back to O'Brien's New England/Belichick connection. Just about the only thing O'Brien and Weis and McDaniels have in common is a few years spent working with Belichick and Tom Brady. Otherwise, they could hardly be any different. Yet Reilly lumps them together like cloned sheep.
Weis and O'Brien have broad, largely disconnected resumes that go well beyond their connection to Belichick. McDaniels was handed an NFL head coaching job by Denver at age 32. Of course he was going to struggle in some aspects of his job. How could a 32-year-old be considered the best candidate to run a billion-dollar organization in a comprehensive, hyper-competitive industry? McDaniels was doomed to fail simply because of lack of experience. The Broncos should have known better.
O'Brien, too, might fail miserably at PSU. But can you think of a coach who would have done better during his introductory weekend at Penn State than O'Brien did?
Based on that alone, he's got a chance to succeed. His persona and his background and his approach to this position make that clear.
But his circumstances are extraordinarily unique and challenging. Success will be very elusive.
If he does fail, though, it won't be because he was similar to Rich Rodriguez at Michigan, or because he coached under Bill Belichick.
It will be because in this situation, at this time, under these circumstances, he did not succeed. Most likely it will have something to do with his lack of head coaching experience - he's never hired and molded a coaching staff before, never directed an entire program, etc. - or an inability to get enough good recruits in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
Not because of Rodriguez, McDaniels or Weis.