By Frank Fitzpatrick, The Philadelphia Inquirer –
Forty-six years after it hired Joe Paterno as its head football coach, Penn State reportedly has replaced the tarnished legend with another middle-aged Brown graduate.
According to an ESPN report late Thursday night, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has agreed to succeed Paterno, who was dismissed in November after a child sex-abuse scandal rocked the Nittany Lions’ program he had built into a national symbol.
Quoting unnamed sources, the network’s Chris Mortensen said the move would be made official Saturday. Terms were not disclosed, and there was no immediate comment from Penn State officials.
O’Brien, who popped onto the national sports radar last month when he argued on the sideline with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, interviewed with Penn State’s search committee earlier Thursday, 57 days after Paterno’s stunning dismissal.
Like Paterno, who became big-time college football’s all-time winningest coach with 409 victories, the 42-year-old O’Brien is a product of the Ivy League, having graduated from Brown in 1992.
A native of Dorchester, Mass., the Pats assistant previously coached 14 seasons at his alma mater, Duke, Maryland, and Georgia Tech.
He joined New England in 2007 as an offensive assistant, coached the receivers in 2008, worked with the quarterbacks for the next two seasons, and was named offensive coordinator this season. The 2011 Pats finished 13-3 and are the top AFC seed in the postseason.
The news came after an extensive 40-day search by a six-person committee headed by acting athletic director Dave Joyner. Joyner and his colleagues were remarkably closemouthed during the process, though the AD did indicate he was looking for someone who exemplified Paterno’s best qualities.
O’Brien is two years older than Paterno was when he succeeded Rip Engle as the Nittany Lions’ head man in 1966. He, too, has an academic background and a resume filled with schools that, while not always successful, managed to avoid NCAA sanctions as well as major off-the-field problems.
During the committee’s work, several more familiar names, including Boise State’s Chris Petersen and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, had surfaced. There also were reports suggesting Penn State was looking at other big-time college coaches, young up-and-coming coaches, successful coaches who were Penn State alums, current Penn State coaches, and coaches with strong academic backgrounds.
Whether people like Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak, a PSU alum, turned them down or was rejected by the committee might never be known.
But in the last week, the panel seemed to turn its attention to NFL assistants. In addition to O’Brien, Green Bay quarterbacks coach Tom Clements and San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman also reportedly were contacted.
In the two months since Jerry Sandusky’s arrest triggered the scandal that led Penn State’s trustees to dismiss Paterno, numerous college coaching vacancies, including those at UCLA and Ohio State, were filled.
During an interview with the Penn State Network just hours before ESPN’s report, Joyner had predicted the school would have a coach in place by Jan. 13 when the final recruiting push begins before the national signing day on Feb. 1.
“It’s been a very coveted job,” he said. “We have received a tremendous amount of interest throughout this time frame. … I got their general and specific thoughts. . . . (It) was a great opportunity for me to mix and mingle with those folks.”
Longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley served as an interim replacement after Paterno’s dismissal. The Nittany Lions went 1-3, including a loss to Houston in Monday’s TicketCity Bowl
The protracted hiring process produced no shortage of jokes, speculation, and frustration among those fearful that Penn State, already in a precarious competitive situation, had fallen even further behind.
While it was always going to be difficult finding Paterno’s successor, the Sandusky fallout appeared to have complicated the task.
After all, how do you convince a coach — or players, for that matter — to come to State College when the scandal’s short- and long-term effects probably have not even been fully realized?
The Sunbury (Pa.) Daily Item said as much this week when it editorialized that the university needed to find a “Goldilocks, someone with just the right mixture of experience, vision, charisma and energy needed to revive a program that was eroding and now is in complete disarray.”
Bradley and the rest of the current staff might not be around to help Paterno’s replacement make what figures to be a near-impossible transition.
Most observers believe the university, with possible sanctions and lawsuits clouding the horizon, will want to clean house in the coaches’ room, whose occupants were all longtime Paterno aides.
Bradley, who said he has been interviewed for the job, tweeted Thursday that he and the staff were continuing to recruit, even in the face of all the uncertainty.
“As always, receiving great feedback from high school coaches in Western PA regarding Penn State football,” his tweet read.
Face-to-face recruiting can continue through Friday, followed by a week off before the final push toward national signing day.
The NFL Jacksonville Jaguars, according to various reports, had asked permission to talk with O’Brien about their head coaching job, which opened up last month when Jack Del Rio was fired.
“Bill does a good job,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of O’Brien at a news conference earlier this week. “He works hard, he’s smart, he’s got a lot of experience. He’s done different things here in terms of working with the receivers, working with the quarterbacks. I think he’s got a good understanding of what our system is, what our players can do, and he’s put them in good position to do it.”