For at least the past decade, and some would say nearly a quarter century, one subject inevitably came up whenever a group of Penn State fans gathered: Who would eventually succeed Joe Paterno?
Over the years, all kinds of names have been tossed out, speculated on, wished for and even dismissed. The name Bill O'Brien likely never once passed through the lips of anyone having that conversation.
That's what is so stunning about the Nittany Lions hiring the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator. Not only does O'Brien have no ties to the school or Paterno, he wasn't on anybody's radar to land such a high-profile job. Even up until the news broke Thursday night that O'Brien was the choice, some Penn State fans held out hope that the reported candidates served as a mere smokescreen, and that the school had a big-name coach lined up for a surprise reveal.
Instead, fans, alumni and former players mostly felt disappointed by Friday morning. Is this the best Penn State could do, they wondered. Well, maybe it is.
Clearly, succeeding Paterno became immeasurably less attractive for on-the-rise coaches following the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. The full damage from that controversy has yet to be calculated, and the image of the program will never be the same. Recruiting instantly turned into a challenge, and the new coach's job morphed into not just winning football games but repairing the psyche and reputation of an entire institution. Legal proceedings and civil lawsuits could continue for years, and the NCAA and Big Ten have threatened to levy penalties. Any new coach would also face uncertainty about who his boss would be, as Dave Joyner is serving only as interim athletic director right now.
Few high-profile coaches would want to take all of that on. Still, it's also fair to wonder if Joyner and the Penn State search committee fully delved into all the possible candidates among the college head-coaching ranks. The Nittany Lions reportedly tried wooing Boise State's Chris Petersen to State College on numerous occasions, but Petersen had shown no desire to leave the Broncos for previous major openings and had spent virtually all of his career west of the Rockies, except for one year with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The likelihood of Penn State reeling in Petersen always seemed remote and little more than a waste of time during a nearly 60-day search process.
Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, Miami's Al Golden and Rutgers' Greg Schiano were each mentioned at various degrees of interest. But it appeared that Penn State turned most of its focus, for as yet unexplained reasons, to the NFL. Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak, a former Nittany Lion, made sense as a candidate but ultimately pulled out of the running. The search committee also reportedly targeted Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements and San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman before settling on O'Brien.
The big question here is, why did Penn State feel the need to go after mostly unknown pro assistants without head-coaching experience? For sure, some of the top coaches in the game took over big programs without previous tenure in the big chair. Bob Stoops comes immediately to mind, as do Mike Gundy and Dana Holgorsen, who each won BCS games this year. It's by no means a prerequisite for success.
But if ever a job screamed out for someone who's had experience leading a college program, it's Penn State right now. The actual X's and O's don't matter here nearly as much as unifying the Nittany Lions family. That means calming the anger of former players who felt left out of this hiring process. That means handling all the public relations aspects of the job with a pitch perfect tone. That means assuring parents of high school prospects that their sons will be safe at Penn State. That means bringing the boosters and prominent alumni who were disgusted by the Sandusky mess back into the fold.
Many first-time head coaches marvel at all of the noncoaching parts of the job they have to do when they make that transition. These particular circumstances would test even the most grizzled coaching veterans, much less someone unaccustomed to the public eye. It doesn't look like Joyner or the search committee made college head-coaching experience much of a priority, and that's a gamble.
O'Brien is walking into an unprecedented situation and a task many others shy away from. Give him credit for that. He deserves a chance to prove himself, and it will be fun to see a 21st century offense at long last come to Beaver Stadium. It's also true that his last college coaching job was as offensive coordinator at Duke, which is a long way away from the pressures of Penn State.
No one could have predicted that Joe Paterno's succession plan would have gone this way. Then again, very few things have gone according to plan at Penn State the past few months. That's why a relative unknown like Bill O'Brien is the Nittany Lions new head coach.