Tuesday Morning Throwback Report
August 21st, 2012 By Patrick Green
Hot Seat: Typically, the biggest question surrounding coaches heading into the college football season involves their job security. Every game, from the outset, becomes either a lit match or a drop of water over the lined bomb that rests underneath the proverbial hot seat. Not everyone, though, has a warm cushion on which to squat.
Those coaches are usually not seated at all, as they continuously are either jumping in jubilation or running through a string of high fives. Their jobs are more than secure, and in fact, they feel so little worry about their positions that their press conferences are more game show than courtroom.
To find these coaches, one has only to scroll down the preseason AP poll released last week. Lane Kiffin, for instance, is the chief member of this board. With his USC team presented as the sole threat to the SEC’s grip on the national title, he’s nothing but smiles these days. Bringing in Silas Redd only intensified Kiffin’s comfort level.
But the coach who is in the most favorable position going into the 2012-2013 season isn’t Kiffin, Nick Saban, or even Les Miles. That distinction, remarkably enough, belongs to Redd’s former coach, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien. Yes, O’Brien has the most to gain this upcoming season and in the foreseeable future.
No, O’Brien won’t lead his Nittany Lions to the national title or even the Big Ten title, to say the least. The NCAA’s sanctions that were handed down to the school and that are well documented and continue to be debated immensely prohibit such success. And in part, this is one of the reasons O’Brien is in such a great place.
Most people don’t know where to begin to feel pity for the first year coach’s situation. It could have something to do with being banned from postseason bowl competition for four years, or being stripped of 40 scholarships over the same time period. And equally damaging and more visibly imminent was the allowance of current players to transfer without the penalty of having to sit out a year. Redd was the most prominent of the few that decided to walk.
But these are not reasons to feel sorry for Bill O’Brien.
Gone is the immediate pressure on O’Brien to reclaim Penn State’s place at the title contenders table. Had the sanctions not been given, the comparisons between former coach Joe Paterno and the current regime would be daily water cooler talk. And unless O’Brien went undefeated and was carried off the field on the shoulders of his offensive lineman, he was going to lose in that discussion at nearly every turn.
Now, well now, O’Brien isn’t expected to win. Some analysts have gone as far to say that it will take a decade to get the program back to any sense of relevance. Really, does O’Brien even have to stand at the podium at the beginning of the week and explain why his team couldn’t hold off Ohio University, should Penn State lose? This is not to say that the former New England Patriots assistant wasn’t ready or accepting of the challenge of following a legend. By all accounts, O’Brien was more than game for that role.
“Coach Belichick said, ‘Billy’s the guy to lead us’,” New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said in an interview with ESPN about O’Brien. “… He’s a tremendous leader. “
Bill Belichick, the Patriots head coach, added by saying, “He’s really tough. He’s a strong guy, very loyal. He’s got a great presence. He thinks quickly on his feet. He’s just done a great job of making good decisions, draft decisions, on the field. He’s personable and has a great competitive side to him.”
As competitive as he might be, whether or not he welcomes a built-in excuse, there it sits.
And so, it appears that this will be a win-win for O’Brien. He won’t be expected to win and won’t be vilified if he doesn’t. Surely, the sanctions have been written and discussed enough for even a non-football person to have committed them to memory. The blame for losses will reside there, as opposed to second half adjustments or poor play calling.
Should O’Brien guide his squad to a respectable record, with a resounding victory over Ohio State in the process, the first year head coach will be hailed a hero. An 8-4 record won’t be read as a failure. The line will probably lean more toward, “Even with all the blocks stacked against him, O’Brien found a way to win.” Go 10-2 and O’Brien will become a modern day savior, with all the monopoly property he could handle. Stumble to a 2-10 mark, well, “O’Brien got the most out of what he had,” is the truth that would ring throughout Pennsylvania and the nation in general.
The tremors would be felt a thousand miles away from California if USC sinks to 8-4, and the fault line would widen just enough for Kiffin’s home to fall in if the Trojans showcase a 2-10 record.
But that’s not the script for Bill O’Brien.
“At the end of the day, it’s not us against the world,” he said at his team’s media day.
O’Brien is right. As the chief signal caller for a program that’s endured so much turmoil and that has so many eyes on it now, he has to be. He better be. A lot has changed around Happy Valley: new coaches, names on the back of the jerseys, no postseason possibilities. A lot will change in how people view success this season as well. Literally, O’Brien can win without winning.
That’s one change, though, that we shouldn’t expect to get used to.
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