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Friday, January 6, 2012
Updated: January 8, 3:26 AM ET
O'Brien deserves chance at Penn State

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- I don't know Bill O'Brien from Bill O'Reilly. I know he yelled at Tom Brady. I know he was 1-22 as the offensive coordinator at Duke. I know he's never been a head coach.

Bill Belichick, Bill O'Brien
Bill O'Brien is fresh off his first season as Bill Belichick's offensive coordinator.

I also know I don't care about any of that. What matters is Penn State will cut the blue-and-white umbilical cord connecting the Joe Paterno era to 2012. It had to be snipped and it had to be snipped now.

The story isn't who Penn State hired, but who it didn't hire. It didn't hire a member of the Nittany Lions "family." It didn't hire someone with a branch hanging from the Paterno coaching tree. It didn't hire a guy who knows to order a grilled sticky at The Diner.

Instead, Penn State hired an outsider, which is exactly what it needs right now. The farther it can distance itself from this horrific season, from this horrific Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and from the horrific inaction of the former Penn State regime, the better.

Nothing against Tom Bradley, who did the best he could as interim coach under surreal circumstances, but Penn State had to hire someone not in the Nittany Lions' alumni directory. The PSU grease board had to be wiped clean.

O'Brien played and coached in the Ivy League, not the Big Ten. He never worshipped at the rolled-up-khaki-pants legs of the iconic Paterno. And he wasn't Penn State's first choice. Or maybe even its second, third …

And it's true: He has no head-coaching experience. Guess what? Neither did Bob Stoops when he got the Oklahoma job. Or Ralph Friedgen when he got the Maryland gig.

"I was 53 and had coached 30-something years before I became a head coach," Friedgen said Friday from his home in Georgia. "Everybody needs to start somewhere. When I was doing my interviews, I made a list of the first-time head coaches and how well they did."

I don't know O'Brien, but Friedgen does. O'Brien is the grad assistant who picked Friedgen up at the Atlanta airport when Friedgen took the Georgia Tech offensive coordinator gig. Friedgen later hired O'Brien at Maryland.

"Probably the brightest assistant coach I've ever been around," Friedgen said. "I remember asking him where he went to school, and he told me, 'Brown.' I told him he's too smart to be a football coach."

Smart and grounded. One former Georgia Tech athletic department official said of O'Brien: "If there's such a thing as a blue-collar guy from Brown, it's Bill O'Brien."

O'Brien could be committing career suicide by leaving Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots for State College. Penn State's football program needs a tourniquet. Some of its former players are in open revolt. Alums are angry at the administration's handling of the entire situation -- from scandal's start, to Paterno's firing, to O'Brien's hiring.

"I think he's going into a very difficult situation," Friedgen said in one of the great understatements in college football history.

Difficult doesn't mean impossible. Penn State is still Penn State. It has been kneecapped by scandal, but it will stand tall again. There's too much tradition, too much history and too many resources for it not to eventually recover.

Penn State Sign
The Penn State community might be reluctant to embrace O'Brien, but he's Penn State now.

Is O'Brien the answer? There's no way of knowing for sure. But you could have said the same thing had Penn State retained Bradley as coach or hired someone with Penn State DNA. This is a situation without precedent.

"Bill has been with some very good college coaches," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who left a Belichick-coached Cleveland Browns team for Michigan State in 1995. "I'm sure that he will establish the routine very quickly. I know Penn State's a great institution and they've had a lot of positive successes there. I know there's some negatives right now, but certainly not a reflection on the new staff that's going to come there."

Exactly. The new staff. New names. New backgrounds. New perspectives.

O'Brien is no dummy. He isn't going to build a firewall between the Penn State past and the future. The school colors aren't going to change. You'll still hear the roar on Saturdays.

But O'Brien's arrival marks the beginning of a new era, rather than the continuation of the old one. His hiring proves there can and will be life after Paterno and life after the Sandusky scandal.

The alums and former players worry that he won't "understand" the Penn State culture. Fair enough. But O'Brien doesn't need a Nittany Lions decoder ring to understand that Penn State needs to be made whole again.

O'Brien speaks the language of football. He'll learn to speak the language of Penn State soon enough.

"I think it's going to take a special person to do this job and I think Billy's that guy," Friedgen said.

Special. Different. Blue collar.

These are words Nittany Lions supporters ought to love to hear. Especially these days.

We Are Penn State. That's what PSU folks proudly say. Well, like it or not, O'Brien is Penn State, too. And he deserves what Paterno got when he took the job in 1966.

A fair chance.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.