Rudel: O’Brien’s ride hits bump at end of road

Many in the coaching world have lived by the theory that, “You don’t want to be the guy that follows the legend. You want to follow the guy who follows the legend.”

Bill O’Brien would probably second that.

Though he enjoyed a successful, albeit short, two-year tenure that produced a 15-9 record, and more importantly kept the Penn State football together amid severe NCAA sanctions, there’s no doubt O’Brien experienced frustration in following Joe Paterno.

It would have been hard enough to follow Paterno in good times, but it was much more difficult considering Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees – which meant in the eyes of the most diehard and vocal Penn State fans that every board member should have promptly been burned at the stake.

O’Brien received considerable support from many factions – the current team, the PSU Lettermen’s club, the fan base and the media – but between the dissension on the board, administrative instability, the Paterno family lawsuit vs. the NCAA (that O’Brien said “doesn’t help us”) and those who did not support the new program because of the way the university treated Paterno, the Nittany Nation lacks middle ground.

O’Brien felt that, and though he said all the right things publicly during his stay, he cracked a month before he left in an interview with Dave Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot News/PennLive.

Jones was seeking reasons for Ron Vanderlinden’s dismissal. It was couched as a resignation, but it was generally known Vandy was pushed, and Jones suggested that it wouldn’t go over well with those standing guard for the Paterno regime.

O’Brien then interrupted what was an off-the-record conversation and specified, “You can print this: “You can print that I don’t really give a [bleep] what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.

“For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.”

O’Brien, driving at the time, added, “That’s why, in probably about a month, they’re gonna be [expletive] looking for a new coach.”

On the other hand, even though he told Jones in the same interview, “I’m not leaving,” he clearly was thinking about it.

Some of O’Brien’s harsh words are instructive, and his sentiment should raise awareness on how difficult the climate was in his mind. At the same time, maybe he underestimated the challenge of the daunting succession.

He has a temper, and he didn’t temper it, and he probably regrets his last blast since he was on his way out.

It raises the question on the right way to leave.

Because of recruiting, there’s never really an ideal time. But staying just two years into the first contract, that already had been amended to the coach’s benefit, was a rug-pull, though the NCAA dynamic made it more understandable.

Since most suspected O’Brien would leave sooner than later for the NFL — whether that meant after two years, three years or beyond – the longer he stayed, the more his word to recruits could be challenged.

Unlike some fans, the players didn’t seem overly betrayed. Most built a good relationship with him and wished him well, though the majority of tweets seemed to come from upperclassmen.

So what’s worse: Selling commitment to recruits or going the last 10 years while making almost no home visits?

Many of us, myself included, strongly admired Paterno, but he made mistakes, too.

It was surprising that O’Brien dismissed Vanderlinden and Charlie Fisher, then left himself a month later. That seems questionable and even unfair. But was it worse than what we were subjected to on offense for too many years?

Unfortunately, part of the reality of college sports is the business it has become. Penn State’s $40 game-day parking costs more than a game ticket to many other schools. Baylor’s Art Briles just signed a 10-year contract with Baylor but supposedly will talk to Texas this weekend.

Most coaching staffs are frequently tweaked for a myriad of reasons we don’t know about or just because there isn’t total harmony. Or the head man wanted somebody else.

We’re just not used to it.

It doesn’t make it right, and no one said everything O’Brien did was the perfect call. His two-year body of work – harder earned than any of his peers across the country – was not without some late bumps in the road.

But if Penn State wanted a smooth transition that wouldn’t include outside infusion of perspective, new ideas and staff changes, it missed its chance 10 years ago when its leadership was unwilling, incapable or both of passing the torch internally.

Or is that Bill O’Brien’s fault, too?

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or You can follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.