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May 3, 2013

Column: The voice of reason

Last May during Penn State's first Coaches' Caravan tour, first-year head coach Bill O'Brien sat outside the Washington Hilton on a sun deck, flanked by a just a couple of reporters as part of his media obligation.

As casual an atmosphere as O'Brien can appear, the occasion brought an unusual opportunity to inquire about topics unrelated to choosing between Matt McGloin or Paul Jones in favor of broader, less pressing subjects.

Just a couple of months into the job, O'Brien's first as a head coach on the collegiate level, I asked him whether or not he had envisioned himself becoming - immediately or in the future - a strong voice of reason within the NCAA during his career. The question was premature, but coming off an era at Penn State in which former head coach Joe Paterno was a frequent advocate of certain rules changes within major college football, the pulpit and responsibility that come with leading one of the nation's most iconic football programs was an idea worth exploring.

(This, of course, was more than two months before the NCAA leveled unprecedented sanctions against O'Brien's program and, really, the very notion of such an action wasn't even a consideration at the time.)

Having recently settled into the job and without having experienced any type of conference coaches' meeting yet, O'Brien noted that, at the time, he wouldn't have that type of cache or influence. Eventually, though, he said could envision himself becoming that type of figure within the college football landscape.

Twelve months later, that landscape has slowly, but surely, arrived.

A hostage to the NCAA's absurdly short-sighted set of penalties that did more damage to inarguably innocent people than anyone else, O'Brien's success guiding the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 season - and the multiple national coach of the year honors that came with it - has changed the conversation entirely. A well-respected assistant coach to an NFL coaching icon, Bill Belichick, O'Brien has emerged from a pedigree of some of the game's most influential figures. He's intelligent, educated, considers all sides, but ultimately, speaks with conviction about the rights and wrongs he has encountered along the way.

In other words, his opinion matters.

Seemingly immune to the indoctrination of college football's governing body, O'Brien has, can, and will continue to quickly distinguish between the rules intended to protect players, and those that ultimately serve no purpose, other than to act as a public relations red herring to protect the state of amateurism within college athletics.

When asked to reflect on the original question Thursday night in Camp Hill, Pa., at the final stop of the first leg of this year's Coaches' Caravan, O'Brien's response was decidedly different. Revealing the growing confidence of a coach with incredible cache and support after only a year on the job, O'Brien's measured response offered some insight into his experience at Penn State.

"I think when you asked me that question, I had yet to attend a Big Ten head coaches' meeting, so I hadn't even met the others," he said. "Now, I've been to three Big Ten head coaches' meetings. Pat Fitzgerald is the head of the Big Ten coaches and he does a great job of that.

"I try to listen there a lot, but I also give my two cents on things. So, hopefully as the years go on, I can be somewhat of a voice to help make sense of some of the things that we have, like the rules, and different things that I think are good for the players."

O'Brien won't, and shouldn't, come across as being disrespectful to the NCAA, but the pretense of college football as a lighthearted, extracurricular activity engaged in by everyday students just isn't there with him. Certainly, Penn State's football program follows the letter of the law - and then some - as it's athletes typically excel in the classroom and on the football field, but to suggest that big time college football is anything other than a full-time endeavor would be disingenuous at best and, frankly, an outright lie at worst.

So, O'Brien isn't, doesn't, and won't.

"I don't understand why in the summertime, as football coaches, we can't meet with these kids at all. I don't understand that rule," O'Brien continued. "We cannot talk to these kids at all about football. I don't get that. Now, we follow it, quite obviously, but that's a rule that I think we should really talk about. We talked about that as Big Ten head coaches a couple of weeks ago.

"In winter conditioning, why can't we use a football? It's football, so why can't we use a football in winter conditioning? I don't understand that rule, but we follow it. Of course we follow it. I think we follow the rules to a T at Penn State, but there are certain ones that I think myself and a lot of the Big Ten head coaches would like to see changed over time."

Other rules, like a proposed relaxation of recruiting restrictions that will allow college coaches to flood and dominate the lives of high school students, are also now within the scope of being publicly questioned.

With reality, and plenty of support, on his side, O'Brien seemingly has nothing to lose.

"A lot of the deregulation that you're talking about, the unlimited text messaging, we met as an organization of Big Ten head coaches led by Pat Fitzgerald, and I believe we're at the forefront of getting those tabled," O'Brien said. "A lot of that hasn't actually gone into play yet, some of those rules. Hopefully they won't go into play, to be honest with you, because some of those are not good rules for Division I football."

Whether or not changes occur to the NCAA's operating procedures as a result of O'Brien's influence - now or in the future - remains to be seen, but through the course of an unbelievable year and a half, O'Brien is now showing the mettle to enter the arena and engage in the debate both publicly and behind closed doors.

In that, college football has added another true advocate.





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