In January, making his debut as Penn State’s new head football coach, Bill O’Brien explained his understanding of his responsibilities ahead: “I’m in charge of this family, the football family... I know that I have a lot of confidence in my ability to lead us through what some people have called a tough time right now.”
That was about two months after Penn State’s leadership — administrative, athletic and otherwise — drew rightful criticism surrounding the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case. It was also about two months after Joe Paterno was fired, and plenty of alumni and former players alike were in no position to let him or anyone else forget that they still weren’t happy about the late coach’s departure.
From the beginning, sure, O’Brien knew a position at the top of Penn State’s football program would be no ordinary coaching job.
Then July arrived. When the NCAA issued its consent decree, O’Brien’s task as a leader of a sports team that was already one of the most heavily scrutinized in the nation only grew more precarious.
But as the season comes to a close, Penn State’s new head coach has proven to be just the leader that team — and the community looking on — needed. O’Brien’s not perfect, and there’s no reason to deify him as anything beyond a strong leader who handled hardship with class. But O’Brien did set an example that many in the Penn State community should note.
He might not have been happy with the NCAA sanctions. But he hasn’t let a defensive mentality define his response.
O’Brien did what any of us can do when faced with adversity — he didn’t let the challenges keep him from doing his job or being there as a sound mentor for his team. While others were busy calling for resignations, or making T-shirts likening the NCAA to communists, O’Brien focused on the road ahead. For him and the program to which he served as caretaker, it paid off.
Those still bitter about the cards Penn State’s been dealt in response to the Sandusky case should consider following his lead.