Penn State Football: O'Brien's Latest Defense Of Penn State Should Be Good Enough For Fans To Close Chapter On Legacy
"The fact that there is a bowl ban at Penn State, is ridiculous." Bill O'Brien said at the NFL coach's meetings this week nearly three months after leaving Penn State in the late hours on New Year's Eve.
A lot has changed in State College over that three month span -- largely for the better -- in a town that has become well-versed in weathering the storm.
So for many, the departure of O'Brien still brings with it a pain that is better left untouched than examined. New head coach James Franklin has created a tangible level of excitement for football fans. And in a high-speed society there is scant time for reevaluations and even less time for a simple dose of forgiveness, something that is hardly found within 140 characters, message board posts and the anonymity those things bring with them.
For O'Brien, he too has moved on. Being a new NFL head coach is hardly a position that comes with spare time let alone time to frequently reflect on previous jobs. The No.1 pick in the NFL draft is preoccupying his mind far more than most anything else in his life be it past or present.
But sitting down at the annual NFL coach's meetings and in media interviews, Penn State would yet again come to the surface and O'Brien would face the decision he made only months earlier.
"I love the kids there," O'Brien said when asked how hard it was to leave. "I really enjoyed coaching those kids. The student body was awesome. But at the end of the day, like when I sat with my wife and we weighed a lot of different factors. Number one is our family."
"One thing that I did there, was I always tried to be very honest with them. Last year, when I interviewed with a couple pro teams, I came back to Penn State and I told them, to the kids there, I said, ‘I love pro football but I really enjoy coaching you guys and I’m staying.’ So I think the kids there, they really respected our staff, our honesty and the night that I took the Houston job, I called every kid from like 11:30 at night until 4 in the morning. It was tough."
"We were very attached for the reasons (sanctions, bowl ban) — everybody stuck together, it was a tough time, we won some games. We won some games that no one could believe we won, beating someone with 40 scholarship kids. So we owe a lot to those kids. But those kids, kids are resilient and they’ve got a good coach there now, James Franklin. I think they’ll be fine.”
Those words are ones fans have heard before. O'Brien has never changed his story or his motivations, feelings or thoughts. He was and remains to be the epitome of "what you see is what you get." While O'Brien engages in his fair share of spoken gamesmanship he has almost always been a straight shooter.
In the wake of his comments, (all of which can be read here in a poorly formatted but very complete transcript) there has been a predictable amount of frustration from people who would rather some painful wounds be left alone. It's an understandable feeling given the undeniable shock that came with the departure.
Over the past few years Penn State fans have dealt with the challenges that come with sculpting a complicated legacy.
They say that the winners write the world's history although the Jerry Sandusky scandal left few feeling as though they had come out on top; let alone those who so strongly revered Joe Paterno's career. Many were left to summarize a story they felt they were still living, jolted like dishes left behind after a swift snapping of a tablecloth.
While parallels between "The scandal" and O'Brien's departure from Penn State are better left un-drawn, history yet again is asked to be written hastily and shelved away. For many the O'Brien chapters remain scribbled and confused memories better left forgotten as brighter days are seen ahead.
In the bluntest sense these kinds of issues are unimportant in the big picture of society. Heated debates over the legacies of football coaches slowly paint the outlines of a "culture problem" narrative so frequently rebelled against and perhaps more a national epidemic than a local one if it exists at all.
But as Penn State truly becomes a modern football program, that means being able to cope, with change being the only constant and turning the dial down on the dramatics. "It's just a game" rings particularly loud as reasons and motivations behind coaching changes become the star to which we set our moral compasses. To bitterly despise those who leave the program regardless of their impact on it is to stain the program's own rich history.
In many ways, O'Brien's constant self-narrative has been the closest to the truth. He came to Penn State, did the best he could, and made a hard choice that was best for him and his family. In a more direct sense, his time at Penn State is the reason why the program was stable and vibrant enough for one of the hottest names in coaching to take a chance on moving the program forward.
"I didn’t ever want to be somebody that just rode off in the middle night and never said a word," O'Brien said. "I mean, I love those kids and had a great relationship with all those guys. I don’t know if I reached every one of them but I at least left a message for all of them.”
And maybe that's the best way to write, close and shelve the Penn State chapter on Bill O'Brien.