FOXBOROUGH - The outcry coming from Penn State the past few months over shocking accusations and arrests, what people at the university knew, when they knew it, and what they did or didn’t do about it, has apparently been redirected, at least temporarily.
What’s giving many Nittany Lions football fans angst at the moment is the school’s decision to hire as its new coach a young, obscure Patriots assistant with no apparent ties to the school, no head coaching experience, and someone who - if he’s known at all on the national level - has a loud, expletive-laced shouting match with Tom Brady to thank for it.
Bill O’Brien might someday be remembered as the perfect replacement for legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, and might help calm the rough waters created by the child sex abuse charges leveled against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
But the school’s selection hasn’t gone over well among many Penn State fans and former players. If anything, because interim coach Tom Bradley - or anyone else within the school’s extended family - didn’t get the job, it’s caused another storm.
“I’m done. I’m done with Penn State,’’ former Nittany Lions star linebacker LaVar Arrington told BlueWhite Illustrated, a website devoted to Penn State athletics. “If they’re done with us, I’m done with them.
“I will put my Butkus [Award] in storage. I will put my Alamo Bowl MVP trophy in storage. Jerseys, anything Penn State, in storage. Wherever Tom Bradley goes, that’s the school I will start to put memorabilia up in my home.’’
According to a source with knowledge of the selection process, any coaching candidate with a connection to Paterno or Sandusky had virtually no chance at the job. That eliminated Bradley and two other Nittany Lions assistants who were considered possible candidates, including Paterno’s son, Jay.
Mike Munchak, who played at Penn State from 1978-81 and is now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans, was a leading candidate. However, he told the Tennessean newspaper last week, “I love my alma mater, but I have no interest in being the head coach at Penn State. I never want to leave Tennessee.’’
A handful of college head coaches - Chris Petersen at Boise State, Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, David Cutcliffe at Duke, Al Golden at Miami, Greg Schiano at Rutgers - also received consideration, according to the Penn State source. The school aggressively pursued Petersen, and made overtures to former NFL head coach Tony Dungy and Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, but were turned away.
That left O’Brien, a 42-year-old Dorchester native who has been a football coach for 19 seasons - 14 at the college level (Brown, where he played, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Duke), and the past five with the Patriots.
A six-person search committee, headed by acting athletics director David Joyner, was tasked with finding Paterno’s successor. The committee didn’t have much experience in big-time college athletics; one of the six members is an investment manager, another a noted expert on the Cuban government.
What’s apparent is that they were comfortable giving the job to someone not affiliated with the school. Obviously, that’s not sitting well with some who have been.
“I don’t want to be affiliated with the university if they don’t choose a Penn State guy because of our standards, our graduation, all the things that have been important . . . it’s no longer Penn State, we might as well be in the SEC,’’ said Brandon Short, a former All-America linebacker for the Nittany Lions. “There is a tangible standard at Penn State that this poor guy [O’Brien] knows nothing about. I feel badly for him, he is clueless and will not have the support of the majority of [the Letterman’s Club, a football alumni group]. This is a hornet’s nest for him.’’
But someone who plays for O’Brien now has nothing but praise.
“Coach is a very passionate guy, knows his stuff, you know he’s going to give it his all always, and I love playing for him,’’ said Julian Edelman, one of only a few Patriots who agreed to speak with the media yesterday. “He’s very charismatic, very emotional, he gets fired up when you get fired up. Billy O is just a good guy.’’
Paterno, in a statement released by his family, said, “I understand Bill O’Brien has been named head coach and I want to congratulate him on his appointment.
“I don’t know Bill, but I respect his coaching record, and I am particularly pleased we share a connection to my alma mater, Brown.’’
Meanwhile, reaction among Penn State students yesterday was mixed.
“A lot of people in my family and at Penn State aren’t going to give [O’Brien] a chance,’’ said Eric Greene, a 20-year-old sophomore. “I’m not thrilled, I’m not ecstatic about it, I don’t think he’s somebody . . . he’s definitely not another Joe Paterno. I don’t think he’s going to be here that long. I don’t think it’s a permanent thing.
“He’s an offensive coordinator. Hopefully we’ll have a more explosive offense. But also, a lot of that has to do with Brady and [coach Bill] Belichick. So I don’t take it as ‘the Patriots are good, we’re going to be good.’ ’’
Said Stephanie Baima, a 21-year-old senior and a native of Wilmington: “I think Penn State has immense family support, and people . . . turning against the program because O’Brien has no affiliation with the school is stupid. I think some people speaking against the program just because of that is really offensive. He’s coming from being the offensive coordinator for the third-best offensive team in the NFL, so that speaks well of him.’’
O’Brien will be with the Patriots until their season ends; if the results go New England’s way, he’ll be on the job through Feb. 5, the date of Super Bowl XLVI. That’s four days after National Signing Day, one of the most important dates for any college head coach, especially one taking over at a new school.
Of course, O’Brien isn’t taking over at just any new school, or for just any former coach. Paterno won 409 games in 46 seasons leading the Nittany Lions, before scandal and scorn stripped him of his duties.
Now, a Bay Stater trying to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl will soon depart, faced with arguably a much tougher task: helping a town heal by rallying around its football team and its new coach, even while his very presence is preventing some Nittany Lions fans from moving on.
“I think the fact that he wasn’t from Penn State was probably one of the larger considerations,’’ said Baima. “We’re in such a bad situation they wanted someone outside the family because of the scandal right now.’’
Added Sam DiMarzio, a 22-year-old Penn State senior: “This could be the first step in repairing the program. The majority of the people I’ve talked to thought it was the right decision. He may not be the best guy, but you’re trying to get away from the old program.’’