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November 2, 2013

Column: The 'fortunate' ones

The point was not well-taken.

Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien, his Nittany Lions winners of a hard-fought 24-17 overtime win against lowly Illinois, heard the statement disguised as a question.

"Certainly no such thing as an ugly win, but your team kind of likes to do it the hard way, don't they?" one reporter asked after the game.

O'Brien, visibly aware of the perception that his Nittany Lions should have waltzed past this Illinois team that had and has yet to win a Big Ten game this season, was hardly amused by what has become a growing disconnect between expectation and reality.

"We cherish every win; we cherish every single win here at Penn State," O'Brien responded. "We have a happy locker room. Give credit to Illinois, they are a much improved football team. Our kids battled and we cherish every win.

"There is no ugly win."

Coming off an afternoon in which O'Brien was revealed to have dressed in a grown-up Lion costume at practice for Halloween, the Nittany Lions' second-year head coach can be extremely self-effacing at times.

The exception, of course, has come from a fan base and, maybe more so, a media that seems to have lost all perspective on the challenges this program faced - and continues to face - as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and its fallout.

Just months after earning multiple national coach of the year honors for his guiding the program through, unarguably, its most challenging year in existence, a certain level of familiarity has returned to Penn State. Games that the Nittany Lions are "supposed to win" are still considered as much by the larger fan base and media, but as O'Brien has repeatedly tried to make exceedingly clear, absolutely nothing is taken for granted by anyone in or around the program.

Fully understanding the limitations, complications, and flat-out handicaps that exist as a result of the NCAA's sanctions against the program, O'Brien explained his outlook on a win that multiple reporters deemed Penn State "fortunate" to have.

"I don't feel fortunate to win. I think it's a hell of a win," O'Brien said. "I think that we have a chance to be a good football team and I think there is a lot of football left. I do believe that we need to cut down on certain mistakes… I enjoy coaching this team so much because I think that they are tough guys that love to practice, that really appreciate playing for Penn State, that stuck with us and I just really enjoy coming to practice every day with these guys. They are just a bunch of great kids and I feel very, very happy for them today that they won this football game.

"I don't feel fortunate; fortunate is when you win the lottery, like `I won $50 million dollars, I'm fortunate to win the lottery'. We went out there and did what we had to do to win the football game, give the kids here at Penn State a lot of credit."

Offering plenty of self-criticisms of his team's performance and need to improve following the game, O'Brien's message distinctly attempts to reject the notion that he or his program are beyond reproach. They aren't, and when fairly criticized, the head coach no doubt has thick enough skin to handle it, as evidenced by his brutally honest assessment of his Nittany Lions' performance last weekend in Columbus.

Yet, he's clearly attempting to instill a sense of appreciation from a vocal group - be it a minority or majority - that seems to have lost sight of how much worse of a position the Nittany Lions could be in right now, or simply does not appreciate the sheer magnitude of each win.

Whether his message is received remains to be seen, but in a move that attempts to honor the hard work and dedication of his assistant coaches, players and support personnel, O'Brien's loyalty and intent are crystal clear.




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