Penn State football takes first, slow step out of swamp

Friday, January 06, 2012
Bill O'Brien, the Patriots' offensive coordinator, will become Penn State's new head football coach.

The first football coaching search at Penn State in nearly half a century seemed to last nearly half a century; but it was over in less than two miserable months.

There were times when it seemed like you'd soon hear that the Coast Guard had joined the search, or that the search would henceforth be aided by highly-trained coach-sniffing dogs. By Thursday of this week, the Penn State job was the last of 25 such positions at the major college level still not filled for 2012.

The low point in a process that had the external appearance of a full-blown bumblethon was when Tom Clements was reportedly interviewed on Skype.

Holy Skype, isn't that the way Joe Paterno managed his final recruiting visits? Was Clements, the former Steelers assistant and the quarterbacks coach of the Green Bay Packers, on the inside track to be the world's first Skype hire? Why not just turn the whole program into a video game? Don't think someone doesn't have Grand Theft Auto-State College in the works right now.

In the end, new coach Bill O'Brien got described as hard-nosed and old-school, probably because Penn State had easily taken long enough to sift through the entire soft-nosed, new-school population of these United States.

Throughout the process, Penn State proved still again that it could keep a secret, which is, with still another heapin' helpin' of down-home irony, exactly what got it into this unholy mess in the first place. Maybe dear old State was going to be conducting a coaching search this winter anyway. Maybe had he been allowed to coach in the 100 percent tradition-free Ticket City Bowl, Paterno would have called a press conference to say that after 62 years on the sideline, the last 46 as head coach, maybe someone who could still stand erect for three hours should run the show.

Nothing so quaint happened, not remotely.

All of this happened instead because in about 72 hours, former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky was to be arraigned on the lurid charges that he sexually abused 10 young boys over the past 15 years, and because every Penn State employee who ever got so much as a whiff of it abandoned those kids just as demonstrably as if they had left each of them on the shoulder of I-80 in a Centre County blizzard.
So maybe that's the reason the coaching search took so long, no?

Your typical college coaching search doesn't start with the question, "Who among the nation's great football minds and motivators of young college men would best be qualified to get plopped down into the middle of an open-ended child rape scandal?"

Your typical college coaching interview doesn't start with the question, "Hey coach, if one of your grad assistants came to you with a story about a former assistant improperly touching a child in the shower of the football building, what would you do? We'll need a full explanation."

No, this was an extra sensitive, ultra-pressurized process that needed to transcend every pedestrian football question, such as salvaging a recruiting class, for example.

If Penn State thinks that's its primary concern for the moment, it still doesn't get it. State needs a transformational figure, a statesman to lead it out of Sandusky Swamp toward its own new testament. That's why, by my interpretation, it wanted Mike Munchak more than anyone.

The head coach of the Tennessee Titans is a former Nittany Lion All-American, with all the fresh psychological wounds and chronic heartache so many alumni are experiencing as Penn State struggles for its equilibrium. It was someone with that kind of stake in this, Penn State searchers felt, preferably someone whose Penn State experience predated any allegations, who would have been best equipped and thus best motivated.

Depending on how injurious to the school's bloodied reputation the Sandusky trial becomes, depending on what further abominations are brought forth in criminal and civil trials that stretch to the horizon, and depending to a lesser extent on the academic, interpersonal, and on-field performance of the Lions of O'Brien, Penn State might decide that its new coach looks better as a seat holder for someone who can start over still again if the nightmare ever ends.

For the moment, though, it looks as though Penn State has itself a good, relatively young football coach, something it hasn't been able to say in a very long time. The last irony is that in the years just before he built Penn State into a leading athletic and academic brand, Paterno turned down a fortune from the New England Patriots to see the process through. In Penn State's darkest hour, the fact that a highly valued coach with the New England Patriots would leave a top NFL brand to coach where Joe coached might now, nearly 40 years later, be the signal that all is not lost.

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