- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Less than a year and a half ago, if you were putting together a Mount Rushmore of modern Big Ten coaches, Joe Paterno and Jim Tressel would have had strong cases for inclusion.
Fans at Penn State and Ohio State didn't just wonder about who would eventually replace their iconic coaches. They wondered who could handle following a legend.
Circumstances, of course, intervened. Tressel was forced to resign at Ohio State, while Paterno was unceremoniously fired, both leaving their posts under varying degrees of disgrace. Suddenly, it's not about how their successors escape enormous shadows; it's about how they remake and rebuild their programs in a better image.
It's why new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien can say "I'm not even thinking about succeeding anybody" and not be laughed out of State College. He's got too much work to do.
Urban Meyer was never going to be easily eclipsed, not after having won two national titles at Florida, including one BCS title-game victory over Tressel. But he inherited a team very much used to the buttoned-down Tressel style, and things didn't change too much last year under interim coach and former Tressel assistant Luke Fickell.
But Meyer wasted no time in letting players know that things were going to change once he was hired last November.
"I think he put his stamp on the program the day he walked in," senior running back Zach Boren said. "He set an attitude from the beginning. Right when he came in, we knew he meant business."
The Buckeyes might have been loaded with four- and five-star recruits, but Meyer told them they weren't good enough. He had the clout to do so. And he minced no words when speaking publicly about his players, calling some "nonfunctional" or not up to Ohio State standards. Precious few were spared.
"He holds you very accountable," senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "If he doesn't like something, he's going to tell you. For some guys, it works. For others, it doesn't. But everything is very crystal clear. He eliminates any gray area."
"In the past, it was just a known thing, that you were supposed to act a certain way and do this and do that," Boren said. "Coach Meyer is much more blunt about it. He's very vocal."
Say this about Meyer's methods: They appear to have worked. The players enthusiastically went through new strength coach Mickey Marotti's grueling offseason workouts. There is nothing but excitement for Meyer's hurry-up, spread offense, a sight that would have confounded Tressel or Woody Hayes.
The transition to Meyer is not all that abrupt. He's an Ohioan born and bred, a former Earle Bruce assistant just as Tressel had been.
O'Brien had no such ties to Penn State. He's never even been a head coach, though his time as New England Patriots offensive coordinator carries some cachet. He's not the guy any Nittany Lions fan would have predicted as their first new head coach in 47 years.
Yet, in some odd ways the public dismantling of Paterno's reputation has removed some pressure for O'Brien. That's not to say he has it easy; dealing with the crippling NCAA sanctions and the enduring legacy of the scandal might make his job harder than that of any other coach at a major program.
But O'Brien won't constantly be compared to Paterno nor feel forced to do everything the way his predecessor did. When Penn State announced this summer that it would add player names to the back of its iconically understated uniforms, it created a stir, but not the earthquake it might have if all things JoePa-related were still held in reverence.
"I'm very respectful of the traditions here," O'Brien said. "Very respectful. But it's a new era of Penn State football in many ways."
O'Brien has referenced that "new era" often since taking over the job. A more intense offseason conditioning regimen and a far more modern offensive scheme are the immediate signs of change in State College. But the culture will not flip upside down overnight.
When asked whether Penn State had now taken on O'Brien's personality, redshirt freshman defensive end Deion Barnes answered, "Somewhat. He's got to take it day by day."
Yet Barnes and other players can't help but love the steadfast way O'Brien has handled the extremely difficult circumstances he inherited. He has confronted the situation honestly and directly and has not wilted under the pressure. Whatever Penn State does on the field this year may not impress people as much as how O'Brien has handled himself off the field.
"I would run through a burning house to save that dude," senior linebacker Michael Mauti told OnwardState.com earlier this month.
For better or worse, Penn State is likely to be remade in O'Brien's image. He has an eight-year contract, and it makes little sense to fire him if the Nittany Lions don't win big, given the heavy restrictions under which they'll operate. O'Brien has promised other, subtle changes to the team's traditions, which could include having the head coach exit first off the blue buses that bring the team to Beaver Stadium.
"I might be driving the bus," O'Brien joked.
O'Brien and Meyer are now steering two of the Big Ten's most prominent programs. The odd circumstances that put them behind the wheel mean they won't be run over by the legends who got there first.