Penn State Football and Bill O’Brien: May The Best Man Win
Bill O’Brien was being pressed.
But not like you would expect a coach who three days earlier had dropped the second-biggest “L” in his school's storied history.
Actually, his weekly press conference was more conferring than pressing.
Instead, even in the wake of a 49-point loss – Penn State’s second worst in 127 seasons -- O’Brien and Nittany Lion football were being pressed out of the never-ending Sandusky scandal national news cycle. Again.
Sure, yes, there was a hue and cry that the Butler Didn’t Do It in Penn State’s 63-14 loss at Ohio State on national TV. And honestly, O’Brien didn’t get it done, either.
But football took the backseat on a verb-induced Tuesday. Weblines and newscasts ran amuck about Penn State brass past and present leaving (their job), running (for Congress), paying (off alleged victims), being tried (in court) and suing (in court). So the spotlight was elsewhere.
It was with that backdrop O’Brien literally took Tuesday’s stage, on a dais before a room of five dozen or so journalists, Penn state officials, hangers-on and conference-calling reporters. He wore a newly-shaved head, a long-sleeved gray Penn State Nittany Lions T-shirt and not the scowl some would have expected after a nationally-televised shellacking. (He wasn’t cracking wise, either.)
But he was wise.
Especially wise beyond his years. Although O’Brien just turned 44 last week, count his 22 months at Penn State at the dog-year rate of 7-to-1 and that would make OB closer to 57. But he seemingly hasn't aged. Far from it. He believes. Here’s why: For most of the 29 minutes and 38 seconds of Tuesday’s press conference, O’Brien opined on focus, loyalty, humility, fair play, playing the hand you’re dealt, perspective and responsibility. Especially responsibility.
And all without uttering a single one of those Wally Cleaver Words. Like the rest of Nittany Nation, Penn State’s recent paradigm-shifting losses to Ohio State and Indiana are hard for him to digest. But, sorry, they are not eating up Bill inside.
Believe this about Bill O’Brien: His public persona is not a façade. It took awhile for some of us to get that. But in countless situations over the past two years, before thousands of people or just one or two, O’Brien has been truly and remarkably consistent, even-keeled, straightforward – win, lose or sanction. He’s real and, at times, raw. Like on Tuesday:
Perspective: “They’ve experienced the highs of the high with the Michigan four‑overtime win, and they’ve experienced the low, the low moment with getting blown out by Ohio State. So that’s kind of what life’s about. If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you in your life, I think your life will be OK.”
Focus: “The foundation of our program is to always look for the best ways to coach them, do a better job of coaching them. So, we wake up on Sunday, whether it's a win or a loss, and rely on the foundation of our program.”
Expectations: “These kids are unbelievable kids. They’re very hard on themselves, and I don’t think he should be that hard on himself. I think it’s just a matter of, ‘Let’s figure out what you're doing wrong.’ "
Fair play: “You know, I don’t cry about spilled milk. Whether I agree with it or not, it doesn’t matter. I play by the rules. We all play by the rules.”
Responsibility: “Well, it falls upon me. I call the plays. … So, I look in the mirror.”
Accountability: “… that starts with me, and the whole game starts with me as the head football coach. Nobody understands that better than me.”
Humility: “… and then coming here and having the honor of being the head football coach at Penn State.”
Loyalty: “That’s a bunch of crap that he’s taking heat.”
No if’s and but’s. Like Alice in Chains, Matt Scott's Nike ad or certain Trojan commercials, O’Brien is not big on excuses. The second-year coach has stumbled on the rare occasion and publicly bemoaned the scandaled fate of the disarrayed Penn State program he inherited. Most recently, it was after the Indiana game, a disheartening 44-24 loss. Then, he strongly hinted that the poor accounting on the field had something to do with the counting of the scholarships.
Not any more.
“I don’t want to go down that road,” he said Tuesday. “I said a couple of weeks ago I’m not talking about sanctions or scholarships anymore. I believe this is a team that practices hard and plays hard, and we're going to try to improve this week.”
True or not, he’s stopping talking about that ledger. In part, because there’s nothing he can do about it. In part, because while it may be true, it’s looks like what it is -- whining about not winning. And in part, because the future numbers have since changed.
Instead, he took the road usually less traveled in these parts. Since Jan. 6, 2012, rather than add self-immolating kindling to the NCAA fire, he’s seemingly adopted Kipling -- author of “If,” source of the succeeding italicized passages and the mantra of every fire-breathing high school coach in the country. And, more importantly, he has led his players, coaches, staff, program and thousands of fans in the same direction:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
There’s no hiding the fact that Penn State played extremely poorly against Ohio State. There were plenty of witnesses: 105,889 at The Horseshoe, 4,059,000 on TV – the most-watched college football game on television last weekend, despite all the sets that were turned off in the second half.
Yet time marches on for the Timex of all college football coaches. Sunday meetings with coaches, Monday meetings with players, Tuesdays With a morass of media types in Beaver Stadium. In a lot of ways, he’s a regular guy doing a highly irregular job – and, albeit, getting a couple mil a year for it. Four OTs or getting the Bucks beat out of you. It’s the same.
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
Over the past two years, Penn State is 5-1 after it loses. That’s testament to O’Brien’s ability to convey that focus and calm … and also favorable scheduling. Combined, Penn State’s opponents after a PSU loss in 2012-13 have been 14-12 when they met the Nittany Lions the next week. Illinois, at 3-4, makes it 17-16.
O’Brien on rare occasion acknowledges that his challenges with his son Jack help keep him on an even keel. He alluded to that again on Tuesday, when he said, “If that’s the worse thing that ever happened to you …”
That doesn’t mean O’Brien doesn’t want to win. Or that he doesn’t like to lose. He knows how to do both. Badly -- take Ohio State ... please. It doesn’t even mean he doesn’t have doubts. He does. He’s lost seven out of 19 games at Penn State by 104 combined points (counting 1- and 3-point defeats). Although he was 68-20 during an assistantship in New England that included two Super Bowl trips, college teams that have included William O’Brien of the Andover O’Briens on their coaching staffs have been just 89-82.
That’s 52% football. But what the hell. It’s only a football game, right? Especially on fourth down.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss…
So, maybe, Penn State didn’t get the winningest man for the job. Just the best.