Sunday, February 19, 2012

The first 6 weeks of Bill O'Brien at Penn State: Almost Perfect

Bill O'Brien is hitting all the right notes as he leaves the Patriots behind and his tenure at Penn State shifts into full-steam-ahead mode

Look! There's Bill O'Brien at PSU men's and women's basketball games!

And there he is establishing a 5:30am football team winter workout with the media invited! (Yes, 5:30am! Yes, media!)

Now he's talking to a core group of THON representatives! Now he's addressing the entire audience at THON! Keep moving - now he's speaking to the crowd at the PSU-Pitt wrestling match, with another standing ovation!

Another day in Happy Valley, another slew of activities chronicled for the most ubiquitous man on campus.

O'Brien, strangely, mostly wasn't around for his first month as Penn State head coach, as he remained New England's offensive coordinator through the NFL playoffs. It was what it was - bad for PSU football for the short term, probably irrelevant for the long term.

In the two weeks since settling into University Park full-time, O'Brien seems to be everywhere - with the media in tow, monitoring it all.

And making an impressive impression at every stop.

The transparency is not only refreshing, but critical.

O'Brien is unknown compared with Joe Paterno (heck, he's unknown compared to Jay Paterno). Everyone knew everything about JoePa, so the relatively closed PSU football empire could be that way in part because after 40-something years, Paterno wasn't harming the program by keeping things under wraps. Even as the rest of the world evolved into one big cheesy reality TV episode.

But no one knows O'Brien, relatively speaking. So he has become the embodiment of the cultural change at PSU. He needs everyone - i.e. recruits, Penn State football supporters, recruits, media opinion leaders and recruits - to know what he and his program are all about, as soon as possible. And to embrace and publicize it.

So it is that we have full media access (25 reporters!) at 5:30am outdoor strength and conditioning drills, which can be found later that morning on YouTube. The sun rising through the trees and the smoky haze, behind the gathered squad of players as their intense, see-your-breath workout at the hands of new (and iron-lunged) strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald concludes ... it was an iconic scene.

And it was captured for anyone to see. A free ad for the New Era of PSU football. The subtext: The one horrible remnant of the Old Era - the Sandusky scandal - is in the past.

The current players have bought in to O'Brien immediately: Not one player has transferred. Remarkable.

This weekend, Penn State hosted several dozen elite high school junior football prospects for "Junior Day." Afterward, recruit-after-recruit told the media how impressed they were with O'Brien and staff.

Of course the true measure of success will be when top-flight recruits actually commit to PSU, sign and play for the Lions. But O'Brien, et al, have to start somewhere. They offered several scholarships and likely will offer a few more soon.


Visible. Credible. Impressive. Likeable. Authentic. O'Brien is leaving positive marks all over campus.

He seems presidential and accessible at the same time.

The good vibes started at the first press conference, and they haven't stopped.

Ever since O'Brien's Jan. 7 introduction to Nittany Nation - spot-on superb under the most extraordinary of circumstances - he has left positive impressions in his wake, and a firmer foundation at his feet.

Fueling O'Brien's successful-thus-far transition to being The Man Who Replaced Joe Paterno (and The Man Who Inherited PSU Football During The Sandusky Scandal) is his utilization of the new university credo of openness.

Engaging. Dynamic. Straightforward. Transparent. Intelligent. Whether by design or serendipity, O'Brien's persona has come shining through.

We're trying not to get carried away. Yes, eventually, O'Brien will have to get around to, you know, actually coaching.

And if self-promotion were the key to college football coaching success, Lane Kiffin would be Nick Saban instead of Lane Kiffin.

But what O'Brien has done in a short period of time is remarkable. He has taken virtually no missteps: He kept exactly the right two assistant coaches from the previous regime (Larry Johnson Sr. and Ron Vanderlinden, arguably the best position coaches in America), he stuck to his commitment to New England even though it probably harmed his first recruiting class a little bit (which was simply mind-boggling to recruitniks and was mildly criticized in this space, but could benefit PSU long-term by boosting O'Brien's credibility), and he has infused the program with energy - real energy, not Ron Zook-phony energy.

(There has been a little dustup created by the scraggly look of some PSU players, which of course would not be an issue were it not for O'Brien's allowing the media to cover 5:30am workouts and the like. We'll see if O'Brien cracks down on facial hair, etc., once spring ball begins in a month.)

All that, and the promise of an uptempo offense? Nittany Lions fans have reason for optimism.

Visibility, credibility, likeablity. ...

This is all irrelevant if O'Brien and his staff can't bring in excellent recruiting classes; if he can't call a good game, coach-up the quarterbacks and manage a team on game day; if new defensive coordinator Ted Roof can't successfully merge with Johnson and Vanderlinden; if O'Brien can't sing the right tune to the influential boosters and football alums; if he can't lead a coaching staff (remember, he's never been a head coach before); etc.

Then there's Sandusky, and the related turbulence at the school. How long, and how much, might it muck things up for PSU football? Who knows. But O'Brien has handled the subject with aplomb so far. He somehow seems able to acknowledge and mitigate Sandusky at the same time.

O'Brien is proving he might have been the best choice for the job. While no one could be JoePa 2.0, he is demonstrating that O'Brien 1.0 has a chance to be something special.

Ask yourself this: Do you know of a coach who would have done things better so far, been more impressive so far, than O'Brien?

Maybe a big-time, big-name coach might have done more with the 2012 recruiting class, at least in the eyes of the recruiting websites (actual evaluations can't be made for at least 2-3 years). Or might have lured arguably better, or more prominent, assistant coaches.

But looking long-term, has O'Brien done anything that might indicate he isn't up to the task? That he wasn't a great selection?

Would Bob Stoops, or Chris Petersen, or Mark Richt, have been more impressive thus far?

It is way early in the O'Brien Era. Too early to make any concrete judgments. But the way early indicators look good, really good.

Bill O'Brien and Penn State looks like a marriage built to last, and destined to thrive, eventually.

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