A year after taking over a program mired in chaos, Bill O'Brien has made believers out of most of Nittany Nation.
Exactly 365 days ago today, Bill O'Brien was announced as the new head coach at Penn State, capping a chaotic and confusing search conducted by the search committee at Penn State, a veritable brain trust put together to find the best person to take over for the late Joe Paterno.
Early reactions were, well, varied. In the beginning, few people outside of Foxboro and a handful of southern college towns knew O'Brien, so emotions, already high following the previous two months' constant news cycle, were further confused. He was an outsider. He had never been a head coach. He wasn't Tom Bradley.
He wasn't Joe Paterno.
But time has a way of straightening things out, and the people of Happy Valley just needed to calm down and wait, a task much easier said than done.
O'Brien's first two tasks, occurring simultaneously, were to fill out his staff and to try and salvage the Class of 2012. Would he retain any of the current staff members? Or were all of them too toxic to retain, and if so, who would he bring in?
O'Brien's first great decision, one which immediately turned some of the skeptics into believers, was to retain defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Sr. and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden. Everyone else on the old staff was let go, and the hires that O'Brien made varied from solid, to questionable, to "Ted Roof? Oh shit." But the retention of Johnson and Vanderlinden went a long way to not only stabilizing the defense, but also to allaying some of the fears of some of the Penn State fan base. The hiring of Craig Fitzgerald as strength and conditioning nutjob, one of O'Brien's best new hires, was a home run, as well.
After that, O'Brien was able to finish out the Class of 2012, a once vaunted class decimated by the news in November. Players like Akeel Lynch and Steven Bench would be among the first true Bill O'Brien commits, while other notable players like Eugene Lewis and Nyeem Wartman, each of whom committed during the summer of 2012, expressed their support for O'Brien, and stuck to their commitments.
O'Brien, his new staff, and his new team progressed through the spring and summer, constantly under a microscope. The media was allowed unprecedented access to football practices, which allowed wondering eyes to peer at what this new guy was up to. Gone was the nasally, shrill voice of an old Italian from Brooklyn, and in it's place was the booming, aggressive voice of an Irishman from Massachusetts.
The players bought in early, at least officially, and that also went a long way to changing the early skeptics' position of O'Brien. Matt McGloin was named the quarterback early, the first time in years that Penn State didn't have a controversy at the position heading into the season. And while transfers at some key positions led to some lingering depth chart questions, O'Brien went about his business and put together a team with the players he had left. What that team would look like, and how it would react, were now at the forefront. The season had arrived.
A couple of early stumbles turned some of those converted skeptics back into worry warts. An 0-2 start was not what O'Brien envisioned, but he kept his focus, and righted the ship in impressive fashion. The Nittany Lions would win eight of the next ten games, with the only losses coming to an eventually undefeated Ohio State team, and a solid Nebraska team. 8-4 in Year One...not a bad result for a team that had gone through what this team did over the previous 12 months.
A year and a brief flirtation with the NFL later, and Penn State is solidly behind their head ball coach. He has said all of the right things, done most of the right things, and carried himself like a true Penn State man.
Will he be here for 40 years? No, and how long he will be here will always be questioned, especially when NFL teams come calling. But the first year was going to be the hardest, and Bill O'Brien made it a little easier for Penn State.
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