Bill O’Brien Defends Nittany Lions

Story posted May 15, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Eric DeBerardinis

Bill O’Brien spent considerable time on Mother’s Day on the phone with Sports Illustrated. However, the second year coach claims Sunday’s conversations were ignored in this week’s issue of the reputable magazine. While many of his comments were left out of the 23-page “special report,” (which negatively portrayed some aspects of Penn State athletics), O’Brien was able to express his true feelings with dozens of reporters in a 21-minute conference call on Wednesday afternoon.

Harsh words were used in abundance and in rapid succession by a man obviously and audibly upset with the nature of the report, which documented changes, labeled to be for the worst, within the Penn State athletic department, and specifically changes to the medical staff.

“To accuse Penn State of not having athletes’ top priority is, irresponsible, reckless and wrong,” declared O’Brien.

Although not recognized this time around by a full-fledged cover, Penn State garnered another dubious placement on SI’s most recent issue. Newsstand passersby could see a semi-misleading headline, reading, “Do Athletics Still Have Too Much Power at Penn State?” Inside, the article, written by investigative medical reporter, David Epstein, is titled, “What Still Ails Penn State?”

(I’d encourage everyone to read the article. Whether that means purchasing the magazine, or obnoxiously standing at the front of your local convenience store for the half-hour-plus that is necessary to finish). At the very least check out the summary offered on Sports Illustrated’s website here.

The very basis of the article is unwarranted according to the man in charge of the football program, who shot down the report with overwhelming conviction and ferocity.

“You think for one second I would jeopardize the health of this football team, with 65 players on scholarship?” asked a rhetorically fuming O’Brien. “That’s preposterous.”

Well, yeah, he has a point.

Beyond the passionate, loyal, subtle-cussing, dimple-chinned 43-year-old, is an Ivy-League educated, smart, smart man.

Bill O’Brien is under an intense microscope, and despite a successful season and numerous coaching honors, is still faced with the task of combatting less-than-positive Penn State news.

“I want people to understand the No. 1 priority to myself and the staff here at Penn State are our players” insisted O’Brien. “We have a deep connection with our players, and we are battling here.”

GOPSUSports.com has a list of statements regarding the article as well that are worth a look. You can see them here.

If this was a year ago, doubts regarding how he chooses to run a program would be understandable. Now, it makes less sense.

In an article appearing on PennLive.com, Penn State Board of Trustee member, Anthony Lubrano, expressed his worries about the direction of the football program.

“The fear is that in becoming more like the NFL, there might be more of a rush to get the student back on the field,” Lubrano told PennLive.

“I don’t understand how someone can say a quote that they know nothing about,” retorted O’Brien, when informed of the comments, citing that other Division 1 schools use similar models.

Thanks for the donations Anthony, but I’m going to side with BOB on this one.

Why would a coach who just over the past few weeks has made comments about eliminating the annual Blue/White scrimmage out of fear of his players being injured, take those same risks with a less than capable medical team?

There is something to be said for having your own people in place. By all accounts, Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli was and still is a fantastic doctor who gave a lot to Penn State. (Seemingly lost in the Sports Illustrated article is the fact the Sebastianelli is still the head of sports medicine at Penn State). But changes are made all of the time. Take a look at pro sports, when a new ownership group arrives. Lots of discussion focuses on the fact that the front office or coach in place, are not “their guys”. Inherited guys don’t stick around too often.

For better or worse, there is a certain sense of ownership that people adopt when placed in new positions of control. On the strictly football side of things, Bill O’Brien made changes to the coaching staff, and brought in a few of “his” guys. He also retained a few Nittany Lion coaches from the previous regime. O’Brien didn’t implement guys off the street who had caught a few throwback episodes of ER, he recommended established members of the medical profession.

He did what he felt was best for his football team.

“In order to fulfill my role as the head football coach, I also feel like I need to assemble the right team,” explained O’Brien. “The right team of coaches, the right team of academic people, administrative assistants, recruiting personnel, and janitors.”

Bill O’Brien has made wrong decisions on varying scales (Gerald Hodges returning punts?), and will likely continue to do so. Nonetheless, as head coach of a football team, you are given opportunity for input. And as O’Brien hammered home, he made evaluations of his staff, and made recommendations based on them. Nothing wrong with that.

During his 16-month tenure in Happy Valley, and at previous stops, we have seen the fiery (a terribly overused word, but still fitting) side of O'Brien.

Wednesday rivaled animated disagreements with referees or sideline arguments with the likes of Tom Brady. Bill O’Brien was mad about the accusations made towards himself and the people around him. 

And rightfully so.

Dave Joyner’s rise to his current position of Athletic Director may have been somewhat curious, and non-traditional, but the man has performed admirably.

O’Brien defended the work and intentions of his superior.

“What that article was to me was a character assassination on Dave Joyner,” he said. “I think [Joyner] is doing the best job he can in a very difficult situation.”

The issue at Penn State doesn’t appear to exist with regards to team doctors, but rather the health of certain relationships. Relationships that are key for the future success of the university. Relationships between members of the Board of Trustees and other members of the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees versus everyone else. Relationships between old and new. While not deserving of national introspection, it is cause for concern for the university. A semblance of common ground needs to be achieved, or perceived problems will persist.

O’Brien was repeatedly asked if he felt like others were trying to undermine him and the football team.

“Who in the world would try to undermine us?” challenged the coach. “Why would you try to undermine something that is good.”

I don’t have the answers for you Bill, but you need to become aware that it is happening. David Epstein, despite some absurd Penn State loyalists opinions, did not fabricate quotes and formulate the tension. On the surface, it exists, but probably not to the degree insinuated.

After phone calls that were of no use just a few days ago, O’Brien made sure to avoid the doghouse on the family front. As the teleconference wound down, he slipped from high-decibel attack mode to a softer, comedic side.

“I got my son’s little league game in 15 minutes,” he exclaimed, still with an edge in his voice. “If I’m late to that, I might be divorced.”

No one knows when the eventual divorce (I’m not suggesting anything, plus it could be amicable) between Bill O’Brien and the Nittany Lions will occur. We do know, for however long he stays at the helm, he will defend his team and the athletic program as a whole. And he probably won’t be renewing his Sports Illustrated subscription.

Eric DeBerardinis is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and is the Chief Editor for ComRadio. To contact him, e-mail ejd5136@gmail.com.