Last Saturday, 59 days after firing Joe Paterno, Penn State named a successor to its football coach of nearly 46 years. The man called to the podium, Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, 42, knew that he was not Happy Valley's first choice: In the wake of the sexual-abuse scandal surrounding former PSU defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky (SI, Nov. 21, 2011), Boise State's Chris Petersen, the Titans' Mike Munchak and former Colts coach Tony Dungy each declined the program's once-coveted helm. Meanwhile, State-employed branches of the Paterno coaching tree, such as interim coach Tom Bradley and quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno, were deemed radioactive. But O'Brien? Despite having never held a head-coaching position, he claimed at least three qualifications: his offensive acumen (the Pats' offense in '11 was the second most productive of any NFL team's over the past 10 years), his disconnectedness to the program and his desire for the job. "I'm a mentally tough guy," an enthused O'Brien said on Saturday. "I feel like I'm the right guy."
At the very least, he is no newbie to the NCAA, having been an assistant at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke before being hired by Bill Belichick in '07. "He's done an incredible job with this team," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said last week—encouraging words for Penn State, which ranked 110th out of 120 FBS offenses in points per game (19.3) this season.
But as word of the hire spread, it was O'Brien's lack of ties to Paterno that incensed a row of All-America alumni, from LaVar Arrington ("I'm done with Penn State") to D.J. Dozier ("Go get a Penn State guy"). "Family is being destroyed," former Nittany Lions linebacker Brandon Short fumed. Which is not to say that Joe Pa and Bill O have nothing in common. Both men played for and began their coaching careers at Brown. And now, in a way that neither could have predicted, the two are forever linked.
ROB CHRISTY/US PRESSWIRE (O'BRIEN)
NO BLUE-BLOOD O'Brien's football résumé is impressive; it's his lack of a Penn State past that has alumni rattled.