Senior College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
In most cases, you never want to be the man to follow "The Man", but Bill O'Brien has grabbed the mantle and hit the ground running as he attempts to bring the Penn State football program back from the abyss, and restore the once-proud tradition established by his predecessor, Joe Paterno.
This is not meant to re-hash what is arguably the worst scandal to ever rock the sports world, or to shed further light on the legendary coach's perceived role in the subsequent cover-up, but more about the people left to pick up the pieces and start anew.
Like plenty of other football coaches, O'Brien idolized Paterno. He is however, not a Penn Stater. He is not a member of major college football's fraternity of coaching re-treads. And he isn't a guy that comes with a proven track record of winning, at least not as a head coach.
He is however, a top-notch offensive mind with the desire and work ethic to make a bad situation better. He is a master motivator, making those in his charge feel as if they can conquer the world, albeit with humility and by simply doing things the "right way". He doesn't pat himself on the back, but rather gives credit, when it's due, to those around him. So far, he has said all the right things. Now it's time to show both his supporters and skeptics that his team is going to produce on the field of play.
At his introductory news conference earlier this year, O'Brien stated his intentions to do whatever it takes to return the football team, and the university as a whole, back to its rightful place among the nation's elite.
"As the head football coach of this special football program, it is my responsibility to ensure that this football program represents the highest level of character, respect and integrity in everything we do," O'Brien stated. "That includes my coaching staff, our players, everyone involved in the football program. We will take very seriously our duty to interact in an exemplary fashion with our great alumni, our students, our faculty, our fans, our media and members of the community. There is so much pride in Penn State, and we will never, ever take that for granted."
Whether you were in favor of Paterno's removal or not, there is no discounting his more than 60 years of service to the university, the community, and the young men who looked to him for guidance. Paterno's death, just a few weeks after his hiring, only strengthened O'Brien's conviction as he looks to the challenges that lie ahead.
"The Penn State Football program is one of college football's iconic programs because it was led by an icon in the coaching profession in Joe Paterno," the new coach said. "There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach. To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honor. Our families, our football program, our university and all of college football have suffered a great loss, and we will be eternally grateful for Coach Paterno's immeasurable contributions."
With respect to the team PSU will field this season, with the notable exception of Paterno's absence, things won't appear much different. The players will still be clad in some of the drabbest, yet iconic uniforms of any team in the country; there will be in excess of 100,000 rabid Nittany Lion backers present at each and every home game; and despite a glaring lack of identifiable star power, O'Brien's troops will fight tooth and nail to secure as many victories as possible.
A non-conference slate that includes bouts with Ohio University, Virginia, Navy and Temple should allow the Lions to build up a head of steam before kicking off Big Ten Conference play at Illinois on the last Saturday in September. Visits to Iowa, Purdue and Nebraska won't be easy, but arguably the two toughest games, versus Ohio State and Wisconsin, both take place at Beaver Stadium, so you never know.
As if breaking in a new coaching regime doesn't make the process of recruiting difficult enough, overcoming the obstacles of public perception and convincing prospective student-athletes that Penn State is as desirable a place to both play and learn as has always been the case, seems almost insurmountable.
Despite those challenges, O'Brien and his staff have worked diligently to replenish a cupboard that at the moment appears pretty thin in terms of big- time playmakers. Still, the 2013 class is already shaping up to be a source of real pride for Penn State as six four-star recruits have already committed, and the class could be headed for top-10 status nationally.
It's going to take some time for O'Brien to put his own stamp on a program that has been one of the most successful in the country over the last half century. A program steeped in tradition, with a rabid fan base that abhors change almost as much as it does losing.
With the coaching upheaval, there isn't much the Happy Valley faithful can do about the first part. But rest assured, O'Brien knows that if his team struggles to find its groove, he isn't going to get the benefit of the doubt for very long.