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Penn State Football and Bill O’Brien: Beyond The Money and The NFL

by on December 22, 2013 10:00 PM

For the very considerable amount that he’s done for Penn State on and off the football field since starting work on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, Bill O’Brien has been paid handsomely.

During Penn State’s fiscal year 2013-2014, he’ll make a fiscal bundle – over $4.2 million.

But is that enough? And we’re not talking money.

O’Brien coaches college football for a short list of reasons: He loves the sport, the challenges, the players and the opportunity to care for his family while enjoying all of the above.

O’Brien never came to Penn State to be the university’s savior or face or spokesman. But he became all three. Even now, he’s not totally comfortable in that position, in word or deed. Even in the most out-of-the way situations, when approached for a photo, O’Brien will offer a genuine, “Are you sure?” that is often followed by an eye roll; he still can’t believe that anyone would want her (and it’s usually her) picture taken with a balding, 40-something guy in blue sweatpants and a long-sleeved grey T-shirt.

Even when he is behind the scenes, O’Brien is on the frontlines. And, very often, all alone front and center.

In any discussion of his future – in the Twittersphere or in the Brown matter of O’Brien’s own brain – you would have to think that matters. Joe Paterno may have been the happily undisputed leader of Penn State in many ways for many years, but the supporting cast rarely changed. And by supporting, I mean from the president on down.

Not so with Bill O’Brien.

LAME DUCK LIONS

O’Brien’s big boss, Rodney Erickson, announced his resignation three days after the head coach’s first day on the job. Amazingly, no successor is yet in sight. O’Brien’s immediate supervisor, athletic director Dave Joyner, is new to the college sports administration game and wore the interim tag for 14 months. Joyner is only in his job -- according to a Jan. 21, 2013 press release from Penn State -- “through the remainder of Erickson’s term of office, at which time a national search will be conducted.”

If Erickson’s any indication, these national search things take more than a little while in these parts.

So next year at this time, if O’Brien is still at Penn State (more likely than not) and the NFL is still interested (a certainty), he’ll have two new bosses with whom to deal.

That’s not all. It’s been a year since Penn State has had an on-staff, on-campus, full-time executive in charge of university public relations. And Penn State athletics has been operating since August without an associate athletic director for business relations and communications. That person oversees – most critically – the marketing of football, as well as “all revenue-generating areas, including ticket sales and strategy, fundraising, donor relations, and corporate sponsorship.”

When O’Brien says he’s not in charge of selling tickets or marketing Penn State, those two jobs are what he’s talking about.

YOU’RE BILL O’BRIEN

Let’s try this. Let’s be Bill O’B. Let’s review:

You’re handling the football side of things quite well, thank you. You get to call the plays, coach Tom Brady Jr., run the meetings, be your own GM, sell kids on you and PSU both, rebuild an aging empire, hang out in your office with your shoelaces undone, needle beat writers by name, get game-day OTJ training buffeted by lowered national expectations, surf the ‘Net for disses by opposing coaches and oddsmakers, run the ESPN telestrator while wearing a Nittany Lion tie and occasionally drive your own golf cart on campus.

You’re doing a caravan busload full of exhausting PR, for which you are paid quite handsomely. You love your players, they love you. Even though three of your assistants have departed, you’re respected and revered throughout Lasch. The NFL apparently loves you. You figure that one day you’ll be there – whether it’s as head coach of the Giants or as tight ends coach of the San Diego Chargers. You’re cool with either. Really. It’s that unique perspective thing you’ve got going.

Your family likes it here for all kinds of reasons. All of your extended family is within a day’s drive or less. It’s an 11-minute drive to the office with two DD’s on the way. You can hang at all kinds of top-notch sporting events with your son Michael and pals like Fitz, Butler and Patrick. Boston buddies love to come for your home games. Your favorite restaurants are 10 minutes in either direction. Folks pretty much respect your privacy.

You don’t have to leave. You’re 44. The NFL isn’t going anywhere – although its head coaches always are. Since 2000, according to Schefty, there have been 95 head coaching changes in The League – an average of 6.8 per year. That’s 27.2 by the time you and Hack play for the national championship in 2016. You probably don’t even want to leave right now, unless the aforementioned Giants or maybe the Jets or Redskins call. You know buyouts are red herrings, to be negotiated, paid for by a new billionaire owner or to be forgiven by Penn State for all your good works (which happened to your buddy George O’Leary when he left Georgia Tech for Notre Dame).

Nittany Lion football, into 2014 and especially beyond, is on an upswing that very few would have believed even six months ago. It sure could be neat to stick around and reap what you have so back-breakingly sown.

YOU'RE THE OLD-TIMER 

But you also have to do the math. You’ve been at Penn State for only two years and among those in the university’s top positions you will soon be The Old-timer. So while you get to decide where your future lies, you have to (once again, a year later) make that decision missing key information.

The Penn State Board of Trustees in on its third chair since you’ve been hired and for the BOT, bickering is still SOP. The No. 2 university administrator, Nick Jones, just started his job as executive vice president and provost in July. You’ve been here longer than Erickson’s key consigliere, vice president and general counsel Stephen Dunham, who succeeded Cynthia Baldwin last summer. (An interesting aside: Both Jones and Dunham came from Johns Hopkins.) Terry Pegula has stepped away from Penn State, more closely focusing on rebuilding the Sabres with the help of Joe Battista, a key friend and ally at PSU who is now gone. Trustee Ira Lubert, while a leader of the search committee that hired you, is also a good friend of Joyner’s, with myriad Penn State interests.

No man is an island, but…

You have a clear vision, now more than ever, of what Penn State Football will look like under your leadership. And it looks good.

But sometime in the next year or so Penn State will have a new president, likely a new A.D., a new associate athletic director who must market football and a new PR person faced with the challenge of his or her career.

Sometime.

Can you wait ’til they get here?

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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