The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


January 3, 2014

Follow the bouncing (foot)ball | O'Brien's departure is nature of the sport

JOHNSTOWN — Penn State’s football team might not have been eligible to play in a bowl game after the Nittany Lions’ recently completed season, but fans still got a taste of what big-time college football is all about this week.

For some, there isn’t enough sweetness in the Sugar Bowl to lessen the sour aftertaste that will be left following the departure of coach Bill O’Brien.

O’Brien was scheduled to be introduced as the new head coach of the National Football League’s Houston Texans less than two years after he made a similar appearance in Happy Valley.

That, unfortunately, seems to be the way the world of big-time college athletics works these days. Never mind the fact that O’Brien still had 31⁄2 years left on his contract at Penn State – which was amended after his first season to give him a bump in salary in an attempt to ward off NFL suitors – or that he will be leaving behind some of the same players whom he urged to remain loyal to the program in the wake of crippling sanctions imposed by the sport’s governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

This is new territory for Penn State and its fans. For 45 years, the Nittany Lions didn’t need to worry about looking for a new head coach. Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines from 1966 to 2011, building Penn State into a national powerhouse and his legacy into legend. But the revelation that one of his trusted former assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky, had been abusing children at on-campus facilities for years changed everything. The fallout, as well as accusations that Paterno had known about Sandusky’s actions, cost Paterno his job and his reputation.

We all know how it went from there. Sandusky was convicted and imprisoned. Paterno died not long after being relieved of his duties. And Penn State was accused of putting the success and reputation of the football program ahead of the safety of the children that Sandusky abused. That led to far-reaching sanctions against the Nittany Lions that included a loss of scholarships, a ban on bowl games and huge fines. Other administrators, including former President Graham Spanier, still face charges regarding the alleged cover-up.

O’Brien stepped into a unique and very difficult situation and made the best of it. He quickly won over the players and convinced an overwhelming majority to stay despite the fact that they could have transferred without penalty. He won over fans and recruits, and won more games than he lost, going 15-9 in two seasons.

But, according to an article by The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News’ David Jones, O’Brien tired of dealing with the “Paterno people” who wrung their hands over whether or not the new coach was running the program in a way that honored the old one.

That’s one reason that O’Brien’s decision to leave shouldn’t be surprising.

Another is that O’Brien came from the NFL and it was no secret that he dreamed of returning to the game’s highest level. But the biggest reason no one should be shocked by his decision is because this is the way the sport works these days.

There may never be another Paterno, a coach who dedicated his life to coaching at one university, and there almost certainly won’t be another at Penn State. There is too much pressure, too many demands and too much money involved in the job these days. Football coaches are the highest paid employees at most schools and generally face more scrutiny than any others. They rarely are afforded loyalty points if they aren’t winning games and generally don’t return any in a business that often comes down to prestige as well as dollars and cents.

Should we respect O’Brien for allegedly telling recruits as recently as last week that he was staying at Penn State? No. Should we be surprised? Absolutely not.

College football has become a cutthroat business. And we, the football-watching public, have made it that way by putting more emphasis on what happens on the gridiron than what happens in the classroom.


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