I said I wouldn’t talk about it, but sports editor Mike Kuhns asked me to so here it is. Enjoy.
How should someone with close ties to Penn State react when the football coach lies his way out of town?
That’s exactly what Bill O’Brien did when he went back on his word to current players and those who were verbally committed to Penn State as part of the 2014 recruiting class to take the head coaching job with the Houston Texans.
Commitment, honor and loyalty — words that have always defined Penn State football — were torn up and tossed aside with no regard by O’Brien when news of his agreement with the Texans broke around 10:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
I’ve made no secret about my allegiance to Penn State. I’ve been a fan since 1987 when I watched the Nittany Lions beat Miami to win their second national championship in four years. I’m a graduate of Penn State, doing my first two years at branch campuses before moving to University Park and earning a degree in journalism in 2002. I covered the Nittany Lions in 2007-2008, the last year resulting in a second Big Ten title in four seasons.
I have great memories of Penn State football — Craig Fayak’s late field goal in the upset of No. 1 Notre Dame in South Bend in 1990, Bobby Engram’s touchdown catch that beat Michigan in 1994, Ki-Jana Carter’s 83-yard TD run on the first play of the Rose Bowl in 1995, watching Joe Paterno earn his 300th victory in my first game at Beaver Stadium in 1998, the comeback victory against Ohio State that made Paterno the winningest coach in major college football in 2001, the 2005 Big Ten championship following four losing seasons in five years, and Paterno scolding me once for asking him a question about Mickey Shuler in 2008. There are plenty of bad memories, too — losing to Notre Dame in the snow in 1992, being in the stands as Minnesota kicked a field goal as time expired to beat No. 1 Penn State in 1999, losing 6-4 to Iowa in 2004, and falling to Iowa on another field goal as time expired when the Nittany Lions were No. 2 in the polls in 2008.
But it wasn’t just the success on the field that drew me in.
I was hooked on the nameless, plain uniforms that emphasized team over individual. I was won over by Paterno’s ‘success with honor’ mentality. I loved that Penn State players were expected to do as well in the classroom from Monday to Friday as they were on the football field come Saturday afternoon.
For two years I thought O’Brien was upholding the principles Paterno established during a 46-year exemplary career. When players like Bill Belton and Richy Anderson weren’t allowed to play or practice because they needed to focus on the “academic side of things” I figured that O’Brien was exactly the man Penn State needed.
When the NCAA leveled Penn State with unprecedented sanctions in July 2012, thanks to the shoddy work of Louis Freeh and laziness of Mark Emmert, it was O’Brien — with a huge assist from the likes of Michael Mauti and Michael Zordich — who helped the Nittany Lions from falling apart. Penn State lost only 11 players to transfer and kept most of its top-notch recruits, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, on board because O’Brien said if they stuck with Penn State through the tough times then so would he.
Fast forward 18 months and O’Brien did the exact opposite. His lies to recruits like five-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley, who O’Brien told that talks of a deal with Houston weren’t true and that he’d be there when Holley arrived at Penn State, was a kick to the Penn State community while they were down.
There are no sour grapes. There’s no point. O’Brien did what he thought was best for himself and his family and that’s fine. What he didn’t do was uphold the ideals of Penn State, ones that were firmly in place when he arrived and made it more than just a football program.