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January 4, 2013

Column: Pushing for improvement

Penn State has a culture problem.

The problem is not, as proclaimed by Louis Freeh, an unusual deification of the football program, at least as it relates to the rest of the country's out-of-control obsession with the sport.

No. Far from it.

As Bill O'Brien, a results-oriented, forward-thinker, has come to recognize, Penn State and its many tentacles are incredibly stagnant. It's a culture of complacency and self-satisfaction, a mentality of patting oneself on the back for prior achievements, then refusing to ever seek improvement upon those earlier successes.

That mentality is pervasive throughout much of the university, and it's a problem.

Though O'Brien's main concern is football and the success of the program that he's been tapped to oversee, the health of his business is directly related to the overall health of the university. In his first year on the job, O'Brien has seen with complete clarity how toxic this mentality is within the athletic department and by extension the university as a whole.

Placing the blame on lame duck university president Rodney Erickson and lame duck athletic director David Joyner is too simplistic, though the very nature of their hirings only went to further perpetuate the old boy network mentality that existed before their promotions.

While certainly, tradition and the very concept of stability are important to such a large, living organism as the university and its athletic department, there's an imbalance between those virtues and others, like innovation and ingenuity. Even in the wake of an incredible tragedy and the shakeup that it resulted in, the overwhelming response was to maintain a 'business as usual' strategy moving forward.

O'Brien's power play this week - though somewhat troubling to the most altruistic of Penn State fans - is yet another shot at rectifying some of these wrongs, and this time, it's on a much grander scale.

With reports surfacing last Sunday morning suggesting, once again, that O'Brien would be a prime target for NFL organizations looking to fill coaching vacancies, O'Brien and his agent, Joe Linta, decided to employ a strategy that sent seemingly every single Penn State fan into a worrisome fit of hysteria.

O'Brien had already been through this - in fact, just two months ago - but by remaining silent, with no leaks of factual information, between Monday and Thursday afternoon, what had started as blurry bits of NFL-insider information gradually grew into a full-throttle, mass hysteria-driven conviction that the first year head coach was leaving Penn State.

Though O'Brien left even some of his inner circle in the dark regarding his plans regarding interviews with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, it turns out he was just setting up his demands for the Penn State athletic department and upper administration.

To ignore the money - a reported $1.3 million increase in salary - would be disingenuous. Certainly, O'Brien has met his market value following an incredible 8-4 season in the face of intense adversity.

But the bigger details, "a chance to accomplish structural and personnel changes in the Penn State athletic department," as reported by Patriot-News columnist Dave Jones, are far more important.

Although O'Brien declined to specify exactly what changes would be on the way, he's a brilliant tactician with the foresight to understand what must be done if Penn State wants to have a competitive football team and athletics program in the future while maintaining previously established standards of excellence. An educated guess points to some key personnel changes in the athletic department, a forceful voice on behalf of the program as it relates to the NCAA, and a savvier marketing approach to selling the program.

In the weeks leading up to the NFL flirtation, multiple sources said that in conversation, O'Brien was passionate about his vision for the future. With those conversations in mind, the very suggestion that O'Brien would abandon ship one year into his tenure at Penn State was seemingly incomprehensible.

Now that Penn State has acquiesced to some of O'Brien's bigger wishes, his return as the head coach - though clearly still not a guarantee for the duration of his contract through the 2020 season - becomes a much more permanent proposition.

Whether or not O'Brien is able to achieve everything he'd like, Thursday's dramatic turn of events, and the upcoming changes they represent, are exactly what's needed for the football program. For the ongoing recuperation of the university, Penn State fans should hope O'Brien's refreshing mentality is the one that takes hold.




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