Checking out the Associated Press’ story on new Penn State Coach Bill O’Brien’s highly anticipated arrival at Happy Valley, one has to wonder if this guy really knows what he’s walking into.
Anyone who thinks following Joe Paterno is comparable to winning Super Bowls doesn’t understand how little winning Super Bowls means.
Following a legend is difficult enough. Just ask Jimbo Fisher, who took over the Florida State program and followed legendary coach Bobby Bowden after the latter was gently forced to retire a couple of years ago.
Going even farther back, ask Ray Perkins, who took over the Alabama Crimson Tide following the retirement and untimely death of Paul Bryant nearly a generation ago.
Perkins bolted after only a few years. Fisher is struggling somewhat, but the pressure on both has to be measured in the hundreds of pounds per square inch.
Both of the previous examples followed coaches who had recently won national championships. Perkins had the much harder task—he followed a man revered by an entire state who, like Nittany Lions fans and alumni, won’t have the benefit of his predecessor offering quotes and quips about how well his successor is handling the pressure.
Instead, O’Brien’s every movement will be second guessed. From allowing facial hair and hats inside the building to calling timeouts; from practice regimens to playcalling. He’ll face unwithering criticism and no one will be able to get that reassuring pat on the back from JoePa, letting everyone know that it’ll be Ok.
Perkins had one advantage over both O’Brien and Fisher. He had bona fide connections with the program he was taking over. People sorta trusted him because he was one of “Bear’s Boys.” O’Brien doesn’t have any such leg-up and neither did Fisher (despite being named the “coach in waiting” by the Seminoles).
That makes the second guessing issue even more acute. When Penn State loses its first football game, the people who questioned his hiring—i.e., the football alumni—are coming out of the woodwork and openly wondering if a change should be made before the first season is even complete.
Don’t believe me? Just watch.
Happy Valley is a special place in college football. It’s as big as South Bend, as big as Tuscaloosa, as big as Austin and as big as Ann Arbor. It’s not just special because those places are used to winning. It’s special because the fans had a unique connection to their coaches and their football program. Take that environment likely and the riots that followed Paterno’s firing in November will seem like an afternoon couch burning.
O’Brien has massive shoes to fill and horrific wounds to heal. Judging by his comments and his actions to date, I’m not sure he understands that.
But he will.
Just ask Ray Perkins or Jimbo Fisher.