Penn State Football: Viewing Bill O’Brien Through Rose and Cael-Colored Glasses
LANCASTER – Russ Rose is a cigar aficionado, elder pennstatesman, wry homespun philosopher and czar of all things women’s collegiate volleyball.
At 59 years of age and after 34 years of coaching at Penn State, with four national titles, he’s seen it all. Twice.
For those reasons and more, in late 2011 Rose was a member of the six-person search committee that recommended hiring Bill O’Brien to replace Joe Paterno. The longest-tenured head coach at Penn State, Rose was impressed initially by what O’Brien the coaching candidate would bring to the playing field.
“What I liked most about Bill in that process is that he said, ‘I’m a helluva football coach. I’m a coach,’ ” Rose recalled here on Thursday, at the fifth of 12 stops of Penn State’s two-weeklong coaches caravan.
And that’s what O’Brien was hired to be. But things quickly changed – and have stayed that way.
These days, what Rose also likes about O’Brien is what he brings off the field as well – as exhibited along the banquet circuit, which this past week included Reading, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Lancaster and Camp Hill. It includes an Ivy Leaguer’s skillset of diplomatic yet honest talk, endless and polite banter, suit and (usually) tie, and pep talks to alumni and supporters of all ages.
“How he’s handled it has been incredible, but that’s not what we were really assessing at the early stages,” Rose said. “We needed somebody to coach. A big part of it at that time was being capable of filling the position, which had been filled in a great way by Joe.”
That was then, before sanctions and Freeh and Paterno’s death and enough ugly stuff to fill a Stephen King novel, three episodes of “Boardwalk Empire” and a King Lear reboot. Still, the search committee was not naïve – or clairvoyant.
“We knew that part of the equation (in making the hire) was going to be the situations that were forthcoming,” Rose said. “The question I asked all the candidates was, ‘There’s more to being the football coach here. You have to get your arms around 600,000 alumni who love Penn State and who feel that everyone out there is selling their alma mater in the other direction.’ ”
Enter O’Brien, on Jan. 6, 2012. Penn State bought itself a football coach for $2.3 million a year. But the Brown grad threw in being The Great Conciliator for free.
The non-football part of it wasn’t a job that O’Brien had experience in or asked for. It’s there now, though. As basketball coach and OB friend Pat Chambers noted on the caravan trail this week, it’s now a big part of O’Brien’s job description. Call it “other scandal-related duties, as defined.”
“I don’t know if Bill completely wants it,” said Chambers, a high-energy brick-building kindred spirit of O’Brien’s. “He’s a humble guy behind closed doors. He’s done a great job and I think he’s up to the task to be that leader, that ambassador we need for the next five, 10 years.”
At his four previous college jobs and one NFL stop, O’Brien never faced much media exposure (unless you count those 739,000-plus people who have seen the Brady-O’Brien spat on YouTube). Now, it’s a mixed bag. O’Brien jokes that he could walk along the streets of Philadelphia this week without being recognized. But at each stop of the caravan, fans and alumni often preface their questions with a 30-second protracted “thank you” for helping to restore Penn State’s name nationally.
ROSE AND SANDERSON
Joining O’Brien at stops in Lancaster and Harrisburg were both Rose, who is the winningest coach (1,096 victories) in women’s volleyball history and the owner of those four NCAA titles (2007-2010), and Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, the winningest wrestler in NCAA history. Between them, Sanderson and Rose have 11 NCAA championships. And an Olympic medal. And 1,355 victories. And too many Big Ten titles to count.
For his part, O’Brien has won all of eight games as a college head coach. But the 43-year-old has won over millions of Penn State haters since last August. As he pointed out somewhat defiantly on Thursday, “there is no lack of interest in Penn State. Somebody said when the sanctions came out that Penn State football would become irrelevant. And that's obviously not true.”
That’s why, in an homage of sorts, the 33-year-old Sanderson was wearing an “O’Brien’s Lions” gray T-shirt on Wednesday and a blue version on Thursday. Quite a tribute, considering he guided the Nittany Lions to three straight NCAA championships. And that he won four of his own as an Iowa State University of Science and Technology undergrad, compiling a 159-0 lifetime record worthy of mention by Ripley’s and on a Bazooka Joe gum-wrapper.
Sanderson, like Rose, may be an icon of an entire sport, but after 16 months O’Brien is an icon of the entire Pennsylvania State University – which is admittedly hungry for a positive face, even if it happens to have a receding hairline.
“Coach O’Brien has taken that lead and that’s something that falls on his lap,” Sanderson said. “He’s done a tremendous job with that. He’s a guy who when he speaks, people listen.”
The resultant ovations he is receiving on the road in Caravan Redux are attributable in part to person, to position and to circumstance. The lines are blurred and the circles are concentric. O’Brien, now and forever, is an important part of the patchwork quilt that is now Penn State. Maybe Chris Petersen or Mike Munchak could have sewn things up just as well. We’ll never know. At this point, no one wants to.
“People have liked Penn State football for a long time,” said Rose, who came to Penn State in 1979. “Either you’re a fan or you’re not. This is the new leader of Penn State – if you care about Penn State football, this is the guy in charge. You can point out all the things he isn’t or you can embrace the things he is.”
ALL FOR ONE(TEAM)
For his part, O’Brien has embraced his fellow head coaches, in word and deed. He was a regular at Nittany Lion basketball games and wrestling matches last winter, and on his schedule Friday is taking son Michael to the men’s lacrosse team’s CAA title game being played just across the street from his office.
“I think he’s done a great done a great job in that area,” Rose said. “We’ve previously had coaches meetings and football might not have attended. But now, all the coaches are at all the meetings. The basketball coaches are there, too. It’s been good.”
Chambers, who has had O’Brien give his team pep talks, also feels the love: “He’s opened doors for us. I bring my basketball team over there (to Lasch Building), we watch film over there. We’re in the indoor facility. We’re in the weight room. I don’t think all that has been done before.”
From one coach to another, Sanderson understands that all the caravans and press conferences are not what OB signed up for. (The math: Two pressers a day, for each of the six days of the traveling road show, 20 questions at each for a not-so-grand total of almost 500 overall.) Coaching is the only occupation both O’Brien and Sanderson have ever known. They love the strategy, the teaching, the competition, the kids. This other stuff – well, Sanderson just shakes his head.
“They sell 100,000 tickets, we sell 6,000…at six bucks each,” Sanderson said, laughing at the comparison.
“Coach O’Brien loves football,” he said later. “He wants to coach football, but he has to spend a lot of his time on other things unfortunately. Coaching’s only a small part of his job right now.”
Sanderson paused, realizing what he said. He gave a little smile and then a faux plea, knowing that O’Brien might put him in a headlock over his word choice.
“It’s not small. Don’t tell him I said that.”