Transitions are much trickier than we usually think. They're tough for any organization, and particularly established college football programs, where tradition is sacrosanct and coaches become icons. The coach who follows you is going to do things differently, like it or not, and if he succeeds, your critics will say he's better than you were, and if he falters, they will say you set him up for failure. It is truly a no-win situation -- and that's under normal circumstances.
Handling this well is not the rule, but the rare exception.
When Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez in December of 2007, it seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Plug a big-name coach into a big-name program, and what could go wrong? As it turned out, just about everything. A quickie courtship ended in a quickie divorce.
If that marriage crashed and burned in just three years, what chance do Penn State and Bill O'Brien have, on the heels of a tragedy and the passing of coaching legend Joe Paterno? I saw how strong a football family can be when I wrote Three And Out about the Michigan transition. I also saw how difficult it is for an outsider to join. When the alumni body rejects a foreign object, it can get ugly.
Despite strong alumni support for Paterno's defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, Penn State's leaders felt -- with more than a little justification -- they had to go outside the family. But in hiring O'Brien, they got someone who not only has never coached at Penn State before, but someone who has not been a head coach anywhere, at any level. That decision will be viewed either as bold or foolhardy, depending on how it turns out. But they kept iconic former players in the dark, which has led Franco Harris and others to open revolt.
It doesn’t have to be this way. On the rare occasions when a college football transition does work well, the formula is pretty consistent: the former coach supports the new guy every way he can -- including staying out of the way at important junctures -- and the new coach pays homage to his predecessor every chance he gets. And, of course, the team has to win games.
Back in 1969, Michigan's Bump Elliott and Bo Schembechler handled it almost perfectly, with Elliott coaching Schembechler on Michigan lore, and Schembechler in turn giving Elliott the game ball after the Wolverines' historic upset over Ohio State. At Texas, Darrell Royal and Mack Brown have forged a similarly strong union between legend and newcomer. (Texas hired three coaches between the two, but Royal remains the icon in Austin.)
With these examples in mind, here's what Penn State should do now.
The Penn State leaders have already screwed up some big decisions -- utterly bungling the Sandusky saga, failing to keep the alums in the loop, and hiring a coach with no head coaching experience who will not even start until after national signing day -- but they can redeem themselves.
First, with the upcoming court cases, follow former Michigan athletic director Don Canham's sterling advice: Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story. Of course, this is going to be a long story no matter what you do, but don't make it worse by denying, stonewalling or dissembling. Tell the truth every time, apologize sincerely, and make amends as best you can. Any cover-ups will create a far bigger scandal -- one that would eclipse whatever progress O'Brien might achieve.
Next, get O'Brien plenty of help. One of Rodriguez's biggest miscalculations, when he got to Michigan, was thinking that all he had to do now that he'd made it to the big-time was coach football. The reality is the exact opposite. Nowhere else do coaches have more power, and more responsibility, than in a big-time college football program. O'Brien needs to sign every autograph, pose for every photo and kiss every baby -- because like it or not, at a place like Penn State, the head coach becomes the spiritual leader for the entire school. Don’t try to fight that.
O'Brien did a great job at his first press conference, paying his respects to Paterno, while staying humble about his role. As one Penn State insider told me, "That was the first 'A' we got in public relations all year."
The town hall meetings the school hosted in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York helped, too, but they need to go another step: Get O’Brien in front of every alumni club in the state. Let the faithful meet him, and form their own impressions, before the media does it for them.
Next: Get your best Nittany Lion historian to tutor O'Brien early and often. Values and traditions are not trivial pursuits to the people who were raised in the church of Penn State football. If they think O'Brien doesn’t appreciate their culture the way they do, he’s in trouble.
Recruit a mentor. Get a high-powered Penn State alum to do the job, because if O'Brien doesn't have an insider he can trust, one who has the guts to tell him what he needs to say and when he's out of line, he's in for a very hard time. Better to hear you're off the mark from a savvy ally than a hostile press. (And keep in mind, the Penn State press will include crime and education reporters.)
There is a reason why Mack Brown refused to take the Texas job without Darrell Royal’s approval, and his promise to help. They talk constantly, and confidentially. Royal is not afraid to tell Brown when he put his foot in his mouth, and Brown is not too proud to listen. It works.
Have O'Brien sit down for a long meeting with Franco Harris. A convert is the most fervent believer.
Ask Penn State allies to introduce O'Brien to the state’s high school coaches. In a football-rich state like Pennsylvania, they are essential.
Finally, commit to giving O'Brien at least four years, and do so publicly and unequivocally, then give him the checkbook to hire his first choices for assistants. If he starts twisting in the wind, it’s almost impossible to reverse the process. The pressure becomes too great not only for the coaches, but the players. It quickly becomes too much.
Yes, you are giving the new guy a lot of control. That can be scary, as we've seen too often of late. But the alternative is failure. And if that happens, what does Penn State do next? Start a revolving door, and before long, you become every great power's worst nightmare: Notre Dame, which has ridden more on reputation (and a TV contract) over the past two decades than results.
The good news is, Penn State’s cupboard is not bare, and the best players have already said they’re bypassing the NFL (and other schools) to play for O’Brien. "The players are excited about O’Brien," one insider told me. "What does that tell you?"
Winning doesn’t cure every problem -- but it will cure most of the ones Bill O’Brien has.
The amazing thing is this: Despite coming at their transitions from polar opposite directions, Penn State could actually come out of their changing of the guard better than Michigan did.
But here's the kicker: If O’Brien does succeed, will he simply return to the NFL -- as Bill Belichick’s successor? Compared to following a college football icon, that would be a piece of cake.
When you look at all the obstacles a college football coach has to face, you understand why coaching legends are so rare -- and so hard to replace.
John U. Bacon is the author of Three And Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.
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