Bill O’Brien took over as football coach at Penn State University, facing challenges to restore trust among the school’s donors, alumni and student athletes amid the child sex-abuse scandal that led to the firing of his predecessor, Joe Paterno, after 46 years.
O’Brien, the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, was introduced yesterday by the State College, Pennsylvania-based university almost two months after Paterno was fired for his inaction following the disclosure of the alleged molestation of boys by Jerry Sandusky, a longtime colleague and former assistant coach.
“We respectfully request the opportunity to earn your trust through communication and feel that through our abilities, ethics, beliefs, work ethic and commitment to Penn State, in time we will find that we have more common interests and goals than not,” O’Brien said, reading from a letter he had written on behalf of the football staff.
O’Brien, 42, is following Paterno, 85, who had 409 victories, more than any other coach at college football’s highest rung. Paterno’s presence was an attraction for many high school seniors seeking admission to his football program.
O’Brien’s appointment comes less than a month before high school seniors can formally commit to colleges for next season. Three top-level recruits have rescinded their verbal commitments to attend Penn State since the scandal broke with Sandusky’s indictment by a Pennsylvania grand jury on Nov. 5.
“In order to get this football family moving in the right direction, and I’m the leader of that, and it’s my job to bring both sides together or all the different sides together, and I understand that there’s some controversy out there right now,” O’Brien said during yesterday’s news conference. “I can see it. I understand that. But it’s my job to head it in the right direction.”
Jed Hughes, vice chairman of Global Sports for executive search company Korn/Ferry International, said O’Brien, who is taking on a major college football program without any previous head coaching experience as well as one that is muddled in scandal, is going to have to be “a quick study.”
“At the end of the day it’s going to have to be about trust,” Hughes said yesterday in a telephone interview. “The piece about personal credibility and his ability to build trust will come over time. He’s going to have to be his own man.”
‘Harder to Repair’
Hughes, who placed Brady Hoke at Michigan and Mark Murphy at the Green Bay Packers, said not only is O’Brien replacing someone with the stature of Paterno, he’s also facing “horrific” circumstances that happened for the first time ever in collegiate sports.
“He must pacify and please all the constituents,” Hughes said. “He’s dealing with the heart and soul and character of the organization. It’s so much more diabolical; it’s so much harder to repair.”
Former Penn State linebacker Sean Lee said many former players wanted an assistant coach to be elevated to head coach to “help preserve the tradition built by Coach Paterno.”
At the same time, he said in an e-mail, “Alumni, current players and students need to rally around him and try to help him be as successful as possible. We need to embrace him and help him understand the Penn State way.”
O’Brien said he would remain with the Patriots through the playoffs, which begin with four games this weekend. New England had a first-round bye.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams, has agreed to re-join the Patriots as offensive assistant during the playoffs and offensive coordinator in 2012, ESPN reported, citing an unidentified person. McDaniels left the team in 2009 to take the head coaching job with the Denver Broncos.
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