Thursday night, I told my wife the Penn St. Nittany Lions are about to finally hire a head coach. She doesn't care about sports at all, and especially not college football, because she can't stand Kirk Herbstreit's face. She cares about the Penn State story though, and was surprised when I told her PSU fans are especially unhappy about the Bill O'Brien hire.
"But he coaches for the Patriots, and they're really good."
Well, he wasn't all that incredible when he coached in college, and it was kind of a while ago. [O'Brien coached on the offensive staffs at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke in a run from 1995 through 2006.] He's never been a head coach, either. [And has spent only five years as a coordinator.]
"Shouldn't they be happy with whoever they can get?"
It means separating what Penn State football means to Penn State from what Penn State itself means to the general public.
Maybe O'Brien's lifelong dream was to coach a college program. Maybe he'll prove to be really good at it. Lots of unheralded coaches have found success before. You'd have to assume he has just about the cleanest background check in the country, for one thing. Placing his livelihood on the line in the country's most toxic environment is brave, to say the least, though Penn State vets are already wondering whether he really knows what he's walking into.
But there's the sense that hiring an unknown coach is an admission of football guilt, that the school didn't seek a big-time coach because it didn't want to appear like it still cares too much about football. We've all grown up thinking Penn State would one day replace Joe Paterno with absolutely any coach it wanted, and now they're bringing on Duke's 2006 offensive coordinator.
Former PSU star LaVar Arrington called it a scapegoating of the football program.
The relevant suits said early in the coaching search that they were concerned with finding a way to tone down football's dominance of the school's public image. You can call it a PR thing or a necessary shift, whichever you like. Hiring a name coach for $3 million would not prove football is being de-emphasized, especially since that salary would multiply what Paterno was making.
A major hire would be business as usual and proof that nothing's changed at football-factory Penn State.
But here's the thing. Penn State was already rolling in money thanks to football, and donations to the school are actually up in the wake of the disaster. Fans showed up for the Nebraska game. Fans are still spending money. All that money's going somewhere, and if it's not going to pay for the program's single most important cost, where's it headed?
Football is not being de-emphasized. Investing in football is being de-emphasized. And for people who care about the school, that's not going to be easy to take.
(This story has actual victims of actual crimes, so it's fruitless to try and come up with some sort of grievance scale and figure out where to slot Penn State fans who have to root for a lesser football team for a while. But Penn State fans despise Sandusky's alleged actions even more than the average outsider does, so it's hard to find the value in saying they shouldn't care about sports anymore. The rest of us are still allowed to care about sports.)
Which isn't to say that it would've been easy for PSU to produce a stellar hire, or even a satisfying conclusion to its nearly 50-day coaching search.
They couldn't hire a cheap, up-and-coming college assistant, since those guys have careers to think of. With recruiting sailing off a cliff and the administration downplaying athletics, no coach with a plan to remain a head coach for a long time should've taken the job.
They couldn't hire Urban Meyer, who'd reportedly had the Nittany Lions in his final two, because Urban Meyer is a renovator, not a rebuilder.
They couldn't lure away Chris Petersen or Mike London or Greg Schiano, all of whom currently have jobs where recruits won't be mocked for showing interest.
Some think Penn State fans have more important things to worry about than who will be the school's next football coach. But this isn't about getting over Jerry Sandusky. Nobody would ever suggest the story has played its course and that we can all finally move on to football as usual. But should Penn State alumni have to divorce their school based on the actions of a group of men who are all now disassociated entirely?
Maybe O'Brien will be a fine college coach who sees Penn State through. Maybe Bill Belichick gushed over his offensive genius and pointed out he couldn't get him to stop talking about one day coaching in college. You probably couldn't have made much of Duke's offense in 2006, either.
The thing is it shouldn't take nearly two months to find a hire that's so, so far away from a sure thing.
There is serious work to be done to repair Penn State's internal ethics, and there's serious work to be done to repair Penn State's football program. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Related: Jerry Sandusky fallout, replacing Joe Paterno, and Penn State's movement to support sexual abuse survivors. For more on the Nittany Lions, visit Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries. More college football news.