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November 28, 2012

Column: O'Brien award important to future success

Tuesday was a very, very good night for Penn State and its first-year head coach, Bill O'Brien.

Certainly, on a personal level, for O'Brien to win the Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, in separate selections by both the media and the conference coaches, there is a level of satisfaction at having produced on-field success in the face of staggering challenges.

Add a Freshman of the Year award to defensive end Deion Barnes, Allen Robinson's Receiver of the Year nod, Michael Mauti's Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award, and first and second-team selections for the likes of John Urschel, Matt Stankiewitch, and Gerald Hodges, and there is further evidence that the Nittany Lions not only overcame adversity through the course of the 2012 season, but also thrived in the face of it.

As it relates to this year's team and the context in which it will be remembered - regardless of an 8-4 final record that, otherwise, would be considered average under normal circumstances - this is important. Literally every player that chose to stay at Penn State in spite of crushing uncertainty, not to mention some of the incredible personal obstacles overcome, deserves to be remembered in the near and distant future.

Tuesday night, however, represented something else entirely, yet arguably more important.

Health.

The dormant giant that has been the Penn State football program is not just alive, it is awake, it is alert, and under the direction of a competent, fiery brain in O'Brien, each and every limb and vital organ is operating at its full capacity. Clearly, Big Ten coaches have taken notice, media members have taken notice, and as a result, a situation that had been described by many as worse than the death penalty has transformed into one of the feel-good stories in college football this year.

As O'Brien and his coaching staff hit the road Wednesday and through the course of the next few months, the perception that Penn State is capable of playing winning football with a hot, NFL-minded head coach at the helm is nearly guaranteed to pay dividends. Same goes for some of the players who will inevitably have to decide between continuing their careers at Penn State or taking advantage of the NCAA's lax transfer rules for an opportunity at another school.

Some of the cautionary tales from the players that decided to transfer before the season won't hurt, either.

Of course, as the late Joe Paterno used to say, "You're never as good as you think you are when you win, and you're never as bad as you think you are when you lose."

While O'Brien's leadership and direction have managed to turn a nightmare scenario into one in which Penn State fans are already looking forward to the 2013 season and it's potential success, the reality of the NCAA's scholarship reductions and their impact are still unavoidable. Even if top targets remain committed to Penn State and continue to be interested in playing for the Nittany Lions, at some point in the future, numbers will indeed matter, even if they don't lead to the Armageddon once imagined.

In other words, the adversity isn't over.

O'Brien knows this, and just as he immediately made a mockery of the 'worse than death penalty' prognosticators, he's likely to temper expectations from getting out of hand knowing the substantial personnel losses that are coming with the departures of his senior class.

When interviewed by the Big Ten Network studio panel following the news of his award, O'Brien was likely gracious for the question about things he learned about himself and areas in which he can still improve.

"I have a lot to improve on, whether it's game management, clock management, practice schedules, dealing with things that happen in the football building, dealing with players. When you haven't done this before, obviously there's so many things that come across your desk compared to when you're an assistant," he said. "I'm going to try to look to improve every single day this offseason and hopefully do the best I can to help this football program improve."

Without question, the success of the program this season will aid in that process. Positive publicity and perceptions have everything to do with recruiting success, and recruiting success has everything to do with the longterm viability and health of the program.

Regardless of the challenges that remain, for those reasons alone, Tuesday was a very, very good day for O'Brien and the Penn State football program.


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