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December 18, 2013

Bacon: Under O'Brien, Penn State's future is bright

John Bacon, author of Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, shares his thoughts on the future of Penn State football following an unprecedented inside look at the program.

Check it out, below:


NO MATTER HOW CYNICAL YOU GET

The comedian Lilly Tomlin once said, "No matter how cynical you get, you just can't keep up."

Too often, that's how I feel about college football, which has been my favorite sport from the start. I get jaded about the insane amounts of money generated on the backs of amateur athletes, and certain selfish, egotistical coaches, AD's, commissioners and NCAA leaders, for whom no amount is enough.

As I wrote in Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football, this mind-set seems particularly true of the contemporary CEOs-as-athletic directors, for whom no amount is enough. They remind me of Monty Burns. When Homer Simpson tells him, "You're the richest man I know," Burns replies, "Yes. But you know, I'd trade it all for just a little more."

"And that's the problem," I wrote. "Like Asian carp invading your freshwater paradise, once the money-grubbers take over, their appetites are insatiable, and they are impossible to remove."

So, yes, I was getting cynical. What has restored my faith in the heart and soul of the game - if not the people who run it -- was following Penn State football the past two seasons. I tell you this as an outsider - and a Michigan alum, no less: I don't think I've ever seen a more inspiring display of the true spirit of college football than the Penn State players have showed us.

But what does the future of Penn State football look like, on and off the field? When we calculate their trajectory from two years ago to here, it's not hard to see where they're going.


FINDING THE SOUL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL IN STATE COLLEGE

When people ask me what surprised me most in my year of researching college football, the Big Ten and Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and especially Penn State, two answers pop up pretty quickly: first, how close Penn State football was to dying the week after Mark Emmert laid down his draconian sanctions.

To review: On July 23, 2012, Mark Emmert delivered Penn State's sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which wiped out 14-years of Penn State's rich history, including 111 victories from 1998 to 2011, and threatened its future with penalty-free transfers and a drastic reduction in scholarships. Emmert stated Penn State's penalties might be considered "greater than any other seen in NCAA history."

Then he added a bizarre cheap shot: "Football, will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people."

In doing so, he bolstered the NCAA's new "get tough" image-just in time to return to the podium a week later to announce the long-awaited creation of a four-team playoff, whose TV rights alone would be worth $5.64 billion over twelve years, or about $470 million a year, all for three games.

Whatever Emmert's true motives were might not ever be known to us, but the results are: just about everyone expected Penn State's program to implode. That included the team's underclassman, one of whom told senior defensive end Pete Massaro, an Academic All-American econ major, "he was going and started listing a ton of guys in the freshmen and sophomore classes who were going to leave, too. I was freaking out. Next thing he said to me was 'Penn State football is dead.'

Massaro believed it. "I thought it was the end of Penn State football."

This prompted super-seniors Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich to meet in Craig Fitzgerald's office with Bill O'Brien, to figure out how to keep the team from collapsing - for good.

As I wrote, "No one in that office had time to ponder the irony.

"The NCAA sanctions were encouraging 'student-athletes' to behave like athlete-students. They were putting the lie to the NCAA's own propaganda, which officially discouraged transfers because 'student-athletes' are supposed to pick their schools for the education, not the athletic opportunities.

"But there Emmert was, inviting Penn State's student-athletes to jettison the university that graduated 91 percent of its student-athletes-a big reason many of them chose Penn State in the first place-to transfer penalty-free for bowl-eligible football programs.

"Not only did it suddenly fall to O'Brien, Mauti, Zordich, and every Penn State player who stayed to protect their storied program from disintegrating, they could only do so by upholding the very values the NCAA itself could apparently no longer proclaim with a straight face."

Of course, the people in Penn State's football building - with the help of a few hundred lettermen, who flew into State College on short notice to tell the players Penn State offered them a lifelong brotherhood like no other - managed to keep the team from falling apart before the season even started. Then, after they suffered two painful losses, they did it again.

The team's surprising resilience -- and even more surprising success, after most experts pegged them to finish 4-8 - served to embarrass the NCAA more than any columnist could.

Clearly, Emmert didn't stick Penn State with toughest penalties in a quarter century to make Penn State's coaches, players and fans happy, any more than the Grinch stole all the presents in Hooville to thrill the natives.

But the results in State College mirrored those in Hooville. By taking away all the baubles of a top college football program - from scholarships to bowl games - Emmert actually created the perfect lab to see if the players really did believe in the student-athlete ideal. And - perhaps to his horror - I discovered that the Penn State players believed in those ideals more than Emmert himself. They not only stayed, they sacrificed, they triumphed, and they celebrated. Every single one of the dozens of players, coaches and staffers I talked with told me 2012 was their favorite season - which, I'm confident, is not what Emmert was hoping for.

"For me," Larry Johnson, Sr., told me, "the 2012 season was the best season I've ever had as a coach, at any level."

Since Johnson led high school teams to state titles, and served on the staff of Penn State's 2005 Big Ten champions, that's saying something. "Maybe the highlight of my life, outside the birth of my kids."


RESTORING THE ROAR

But saving the program is one thing. Restoring it is quite another. This fall marked a return to the reality the NCAA had left the Lions to face. Their three best defensive players were drafted, and their quarterback and running back made NFL rosters as free agents. Replacing a legendary senior class of leaders with just 14 scholarship freshmen, you get a rocky 3-2 start, capped by a 44-24 loss to Indiana -- the first time in 17 contests Penn State ever dropped a game to the Hoosiers - with the undefeated, 14th-ranked Michigan Wolverines coming to town the next week.

Penn State had a mere 57 scholarship players in uniform that night, at home, including a dozen-plus glorified walk-ons - O'Brien calls them "run-ons" - who received scholarships this year simply because no one else was going to claim them. The list included their starting holder, Adam Geiger, a true freshman playing in his first game, their starting long-snapper, Zach Ladonis, who just made the team a few weeks ago in an all-campus try-out, and nine walk-ons on the kick coverage team.

On paper, the Lions had no business battling the Wolverines. But on paper, the Lions should have folded the year before -- twice. In State College, they have grown accustomed to ignoring the experts.

After finishing a last-minute comeback to force overtime, in the fourth OT O'Brien made a bold decision which might just have launched Penn State's program - so beholden to its glorious past, and held back by scandal and sanctions - into the future, which suddenly looks very bright.

The Lions faced fourth-and-one from Michigan's 16-yard line, setting up a decision that would not have been debated by the coaches across the field.

"I looked down at the field," O'Brien told me, "and the grass had been all chewed up. We'd run about 180 plays. I looked at the players, and they'd all emptied their tanks - and we don't have as many subs as Michigan does. I figured it was time to take our chances, and win the game. If we didn't, we didn't."

Of course, they made it, went on to score a touchdown to win 43-40. But it was bigger than that.

"Bill's speech afterward was one of the best I've heard," legendary equipment manager Spider Caldwell told me. "'You'll forever remember this game, whatever you do in life. You never quit, you never gave up.' You could tell he wanted to cry."

"It was unbelievable," said Penn State's recruiting coordinator, Bill Kavanagh, who had packed about 75 recruits into Beaver Stadium that night, including just about everyone they wanted. "The recruits' experience - the tailgating, the atmosphere, the game itself - showed them what Penn State truly is: thousands of people who love the school. We were given the stage to show the best players in the country what Penn State really is -- which we hadn't had too many times recently - and obviously Penn State came up huge. We won't have another game like that, all year."

They didn't need to. Having just beaten Michigan with 50-some scholarship players, it won't be hard for the recruits to imagine what Penn State could do after the NCAA reduced the sanctions to allow 75 next year, then 80 the next, and finally 85.

Something changed that night. For one glorious day, the sun came out, the fans came back, the Lions won a game for the ages - and a few dozen top recruits saw it all. If Bill O'Brien -- who once coached Tom Brady, of course -- can turn a two-star walk-on named Matt McGloin into a starter for the Oakland Raiders, it's scary to imagine what he might do with a purebred like Christian Hackenberg, and the others who might follow.

After Emmert took away all their presents, in 2012 Penn State still had its best Christmas ever - literally, in their case, savoring a historic season with their families at home. But after the Michigan game, the Lions were poised to get their presents back sooner than even they had dared to hope. The Wisconsin finale proved it.

"One of the most satisfying things is, we're surviving this," Spider Caldwell said. "We're making it through. The naysayers who want to drive us into the ground aren't finishing the job. There's just too much good here not to overcome the evil."

But that didn't change the central truth of the previous twelve months. As assistant coach Jim Bernhardt put it, "Our kids knew how to handle the situation better than most of the adults. That's what I'll always remember."


WHAT'S NEXT

The result? More backpedaling by the NCAA. George Mitchell - a smart, decent man given a horrible assignment - made a few statements this fall suggesting the NCAA might drop the last two years of the bowl ban. Of course, the NCAA always cites Penn State's "good behavior," but the fact is - and I saw this up close - the behavior of Penn State's football program hasn't changed a bit. It has always been exemplary.

The easy prediction is that the NCAA follows through on Mitchell's hint. But I'll make a bolder one: I believe the day will come when the NCAA reverses the silliest sanction of all: erasing PSU's wins from 1998 through 2011.

Even when a program richly deserves it, "vacating victories" is one of the most unsatisfying of punishments, for everyone involved. The opposing teams that are ruled to have no longer lost those games do not run back on the field, years later, to celebrate. And even though the fans did not apparently see an actual game that day, they surely do not get their money back.

Even more absurd, in Penn State's case, as horrible as Sandusky's crimes truly were, it is an obscenity to argue those crimes somehow gave the current football players a competitive advantage. That conclusion - which only the NCAA could concoct -- is too dark to address here, but the idea that Penn State didn't deserve to win those games is ridiculous.

As the normally stoic Larry Johnson Sr. told me, "Somebody won those games. I was there."

I believe even the NCAA will recognize the silliness of those sanctions, submit to reality, and restore the victories they erased. Not until Emmert is replaced, perhaps, and we learn more about what happened and what didn't happen, but I do believe it will happen. I grant you, however, that I'm in a small minority that believes the NCAA can ever admit it made a mistake.

Soon enough, I predict, Penn State's biggest obstacles won't be the NCAA sanctions, but the university's leadership - which, after all, helped get the team into this mess to begin with. Are the school's leaders up to the task of helping to get Penn State out of it?

We have to start with Penn State's Board of Trustees, created for a bygone era. Unlike its Big Ten peers, Penn State is governed by a board of thirty-two trustees, composed of the university's president; the governor; the state secretaries of education, agriculture, conservation and natural resources; six appointees by the governor, nine elected by alumni, and six elected by Pennsylvania agricultural societies-harkening back to the school's founding as a land-grant college. Six additional trustees are elected by a board representing business and industry enterprises. It's safe to conclude that Penn State's board is the most unwieldy in the Big Ten.

For Penn State to avoid serious problems in the future and achieve its full potential, the board needs to be smaller, and focused on only one mission: What is best for Penn State, and not the various interest groups.

Next, of course, Penn State needs to run another search for its next president, and get someone good.

That brings us to the athletic director. After Tim Curley stepped down, the board named one of its own, David Joyner, to replace him. Joyner had been an all-American offensive lineman who was also an NCAA finalist wrestler at Penn State in 1971. He graduated from Penn State's medical school and became an orthopedic surgeon, focusing on sports medicine. He worked with both the World Football League and the USOC, and was elected to Penn State's Board of Trustees in 2003, 2006, and 2009, taking one of the nine seats reserved for alums, voted on by alums.

Nonetheless, Joyner was an odd choice for athletic director.

That Joyner had no experience working in an athletic department was an obvious weakness, but one university presidents had overlooked elsewhere, including at Michigan, in favor of business experience. But what business experience Joyner had wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement for his candidacy. In 2002, he founded a company which operated a chain of gyms called C-5 Fitness. In 2006, the company filed for bankruptcy. Joyner and his wife, Carolyn, were out of money themselves and lost their home.

When the board, on which Joyner still served, put Curley on administrative leave, Joyner lobbied to become the acting athletic director- which paid $396,000 a year-and thanks to his colleagues on the board, he got it. Billionaire trustee Ira Lubert arranged for the Joyners to stay in one of his homes in State College, and another in Hershey.

This attracted the attention of the Pennsylvania auditor general, who released a report a year later, in November of 2012, stating, "This movement gives rise to reasonable public perceptions of insider influence and conflicting interests, particularly when the movement involves persons at executive levels."

Penn State ignored the warning. But Penn State's players didn't. After they almost came to blows with Dr. Joyner during a players'-only meeting - a scene described in the book - and O'Brien was named the head coach, the entire senior class told O'Brien they did not want to see Joyner or President Erickson on the field before the games. Joyner must have felt some contrition-or embarrassment, take your pick-because he respected their wishes, not setting foot in front of the team again until the 2012 banquet.

Two days after the 2012 season ended, I sat at the O'Briens' breakfast table. Bill and Colleen made it clear they wanted to stay in State College.

"We like it here," Bill said. "She likes it here, and the kids do, too. We love this team, the families. I love the values here, and I believe in them."

But as he was talking, his cell phone buzzed so often it almost danced off the edge of the table. It wasn't friends or well-wishers calling. It was the athletic directors at Boston College, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, and San Diego Chargers. They all wanted to know one thing: What would it take to get O'Brien to jump?

The Monday after the football season ends, college and pro alike, is traditionally the day when the athletic director, the general manager, or the owner calls in the head coach to assess the season just past and to plan for the seasons ahead.

But not at Penn State. At least, not in 2012.

While O'Brien's phone was blowing up, Dave Joyner was on a hunting trip. It was the opening day of Pennsylvania's deer season.

O'Brien shrugged it off, but not Mike Mauti.

"That enrages me," Mauti told me. "Let's lay it out there: he's the reason we did all this. They hire anyone else, this season doesn't happen- and who knows where the program is? He's it. If O-B leaves in the next three, four, five years, it's their fault, not his fault. It's not because of him. It would never be. It's because they didn't do their jobs and do what's right."

O'Brien decided to stay anyway. And he decided to stay again after the equally surprising 7-5 2013 season. But will he keep turning a deaf ear to the NFL's siren song?

I don't think replacing Dr. Joyner is necessary to keep Coach O'Brien - and, to be clear, Coach O'Brien has never said anything like that to me. But when you compare the head coach's duties at the New England Patriots - one of the best-run organizations in sports - to O'Brien's at Penn State, you realize O'Brien has to do a lot more than his mentor, Bill Belichick.

That includes recruiting, of course, which any college coach has to do, but also a lot of duties for alumni relations, public relations and media relations that even O'Brien's peers in the Big Ten don't have to spend valuable time on. At Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern, many of those tasks are covered by the presidents and athletic directors - and should be. But, in my view, too often at Penn State O'Brien has to spend his time and energy doing things other coaches don't.

In the short run, that might not be a bad thing. I was impressed by O'Brien's decision to go on a rigorous bus tour of alumni clubs his first spring, and to do it again this past spring. For both sides to get to know each other, it was probably necessary, but if you have to keep up that level of engagement, burnout is bound to follow.

If Penn State wants O'Brien to focus more on running the program, and less on speaking for the university, it should consider conducting a competent presidential search for a permanent replacement, then let that president hire an athletic director who has actually prepared to perform the duties of athletic director.

I've convinced the Penn State players' stunning performance, on and off the field, forced the NCAA to backpedal. If Penn State's leaders can remove the rest of the obstacles for O'Brien, his staff and players, then the town, the fans, and players like Hackenberg, Adam Breneman and others might be enough to keep O'Brien coaching in State College for years to come - long enough to make the program his own, and put Big Ten and national titles in sight.

If Penn State's leaders step up as quickly as the NCAA's leaders have backed off, I believe O'Brien's Lions will be competing for a Big Ten title in 2015, and a national title in 2016.



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