Sunday, October 21, 2012

Penn State replaced the best coach ever with the best coach now

For decades, Penn State football fans knew their coach was the best in the business and much more than a coach. As much as things have changed at PSU, that one thing has stayed the same.

Following Penn State's obliteration of Iowa on Saturday, the accolades have been flowing over PSU coach Bill O'Brien.

The pundits in the sports media specialize in such overreactive smoke blowing. They simply can't help themselves.

New coach wins a few games, and he's hailed as the next Bear Bryant. Suddenly, new coach is cutting edge. Lauded as an innovator. The wave of the future!

This instance, however, is a little different in one way: O'Brien actually deserves the plaudits.

Keep 'em coming - O'Brien is earning it. And, it won't faze him.

So let the praise rain. And, reign.

O'Brien is proving to be the best coach possible. So good that excessive adulation and sudden expectations won't throw him off track one iota. There is no aspect of the job - among the most unique and challenging jobs anyone ever has undertaken - that he hasn't slam-dunked.

For 46 years, Joe Paterno set the standard on and off the field - bogus Freeh Report be damned.

Now, O'Brien is doing the same. In nine-plus months, he has demonstrated the total package of leadership and coaching ability.

He also is embarrassing those who lampooned his hiring. Remember that? There were many, including some prominent national voices such as Rick Reilly and Drew Sharp, who belittled the hiring. One publication rated O'Brien last among new coaches hired.

The last thing the national media, which has scorned Penn State and all things Penn State related, wanted to do was have to pay attention to PSU football again anytime soon. O'Brien is forcing them to.

There's nothing mystical or supernatural or lucky going on with the Lions, winners of five straight and receiving votes in the AP Poll despite inappropriate NCAA sanctions that induced several key players to transfer in August, right before the season.

O'Brien is just a darn good coach - really good - with some committed, focused, talented players. 

Most thought the job would be too big for O'Brien, or almost any coach. Instead, O'Brien's talent and skills have been bigger than everything that comes along with coaching PSU in the surreal, post-Sandusky era. He lends a maturity and perspective to everything he does.

O'Brien's only off-moment in nine-plus months on the job? The first five seconds or so. It's almost as if he wanted to scare us a little bit.

Introduced on Jan. 7, with the world watching, O'Brien walked to the lectern and, for a few moments, seemed a little overwhelmed.

Psych. Then he seized command, in every way, and hasn't let go.

Penn State - the school and the football program - has been stabilized and uplifted by his amazing job performance. And it goes way beyond the five straight wins.

Here's what this blog said about O'Brien, then a relatively unknown offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, after that opening press conference:

"O'Brien has an extraordinary task before him. It's a for-great-leaders-only task. It's that daunting.

Can he succeed? The answer is ... who knows. But he sure exemplified the part today.

He commanded the moment. He owned the room. He covered the bases. He made no meaningful mistakes. He was very good, almost excellent. He seemed to get Penn State football."

One of O'Brien's questionable early moves was hiring defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who most college football observers would say has had a mediocre coaching career. Yet, like seemingly everything connected to O'Brien, it is working out fabulously so far.

Roof's defense has gotten better every week. And he has looked like a common sense genius by keeping his three linebackers on the field every play, no matter the down/distance, disregarding conventional nickel and dime packages, because those LBs are his best players, and because transfers left his secondary barren.

After he was named head coach, O'Brien, somewhat controversially, stayed with the New England Patriots for a few weeks, through their Super Bowl loss and through Signing Day. He arrived in State College in early February. For a few weeks, he was an absentee head coach.

On Feb. 19, this blog posted again about O'Brien, after his first two weeks in town:

"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.

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.

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. ...

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

Spring practice seemed to go well, and, incredibly, not a single player left the program for the first several months after O'Brien took over.

This was the post-spring practice blog post about O'Brien:

"O'Brien? He's proving every day to be as good a coach as possible for this most extraordinary coaching transition. He is so consumed with completely solidifying all aspects of the program that he has no inclination to linger in Sanduskyland. And he's simply too smart and focused to let the media coerce him there, except for brief acknowledgments."

In June the Sandusky trial came and went, with Sandusky predictably found guilty on dozens of sickening counts.

After eight-plus months of Sandusky horror, things were looking up for PSU football and O'Brien.

Then came the devastating July double whammy: The fraudulent Freeh Report and its blind acceptance by the Board of Trustees, and the pernicious NCAA sanctions.

The PSU community was left in fractured despair regarding Paterno's statue and legacy. And players started leaving the team right before fall practice due to the suddenly rescinded recruiting and transferring restrictions.

Three standout Lions departed, lured by shameless suitors such as USC coach Lane Kiffin: K/P Anthony Fera, No. 1 WR Justin Brown and superstar RB Silas Redd. Several others transferred, too.

This little earthquake happened right before the season. A playbook built around Redd and Brown had to be overhauled. Backups needed to be upgraded to starters, pronto. The kicking and punting became wasteland.

Think about how someone like Bret Bielema would have whined about this. Or Kiffin. What did O'Brien do? He simply hunkered down, adjusted, and kept doing his thing. He didn't flinch. He didn't even act like he knew there might be a reason to flinch. (Though he did get ticked at coaches who didn't contact him first to let him know they would be recruiting PSU players.)

O'Brien showed true resolve.

Nevertheless, PSU dropped its first two games in heartbreaking fashion. First, Ohio played flawlessly and the emotionally overburdened Lions caved in the second half of the opener, losing 23-14 with the ESPN-orchestrated media circus there to monitor PSU's first game without Paterno as head coach since 1965, and first without him on the sideline since 1949.

The next week, PSU beat Virginia in every way except on the scoreboard, 17-16.

Two games into his head coaching career - remember, O'Brien never had been a head coach, this was all new to him - the perception of the team's status could hardly have been lower. PSU was 0-2, and, according to conventional wisdom, was sinking into extended, Sandusky and sanction-induced oblivion.

National pundits, respected and prominent ones such as Lee Corso, declared Penn State a three-win team. If the Lions were fortunate, they said, PSU could go 3-9. To outsiders, the situation looked so bleak, O'Brien might as well have been mired in the BP oil spill. 

Against all of that, O'Brien has guided PSU on a 5-game win streak, with win No. 5 being a 38-14 beatdown of Iowa in Iowa City, the likes of which many Hawkeyes fans have never seen.

PSU held a nearly 300-yard edge in offense (504-209), a nearly 200-yard edge rushing (215-20), and if not for a goal-line fumble, the Lions would have led 45-0 before Iowa scored.

Afterward, O'Brien was pleased but humble. Perfect.

Unlike many college coaches, O'Brien doesn't act like he reinvented the wheel, or like there's a media conspiracy against his program, or engage in numbing and nonstop coachspeak, or act like he's superior to everyone else in the room, or traffic in gimmicks and schtick, or goad for attention for anything except the team. 

If you follow college football, you can instantly think of a prominent coach who fits each of those unfortunate traits.

You might retort that O'Brien's 4th down bravado is a little gimmicky-schticky, right? No, it's actually smart. For years, football statistical analysts have maintained coaches should go for it on 4th down much more often. That, as much as shortcomings in the kicking and punting game, is why PSU goes for it on 4th down more than three times a game on average.

What about the "NASCAR" offense? Isn't that gimmicky-schticky? No, it's a proven formula, and more common sense genius. Make the defense play before it's ready, before it has had the time to get the proper personnel on the field and get in proper formation, and you are more likely to succeed.  You dictate to them. It has been highly successful at Oregon and with the Patriots for several years.

O'Brien's not beholden to the way things have always been done in football, and at PSU. He's respectful of the past and Paterno, and he's keenly aware of everything Sandusky means for the school and the program. He handles non-football matters deftly and earnestly, while continuously pursuing the best way to do things for his team and the program.

No one's perfect, and O'Brien is no exception. There have been, and will be, bumps along the road. Oh, and those NCAA sanctions are real and debilitating. O'Brien won't be holding an NCAA Championship trophy aloft for several years.

This is offseason, another Big Ten school with a massive football tradition hired a new head coach. Urban Meyer and Ohio State come to State College this weekend. The Buckeyes are undefeated and ranked in the Top 10.

You know Meyer - he's the guy who swiped all those elite PSU football commitments after the Sandusky scandal broke.

Meyer's hiring was considered an awesome move by the Buckeyes, and he has not disappointed them. Though the big question with Meyer is if he can hold up physically and mentally over the long haul after his meltdown at Florida.

O'Brien? He's aced the short term. All of those fools who shortsightedly mocked his hiring now are learning what PSU fans have known for months. 

You can Billieve in O'Brien.

1 comment: