Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Jim Murray Memorial Foundation would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to Emily Kaplan of Penn State University, the winner of this year’s ‘Judges Award.’ She received the top score of all applicants for this piece:

    Bill O'Brien is a bit uncomfortable with the number of couches and sheer size of the spacious corner office formerly occupied by Joe Paterno.
    Yet O'Brien's touches are all over the kingdom that is Penn State football.
    The corner room on the second floor of the Lasch Football Building features large framed pictures of O'Brien, the former offensive co-ordinator of the New England Patriots, posing with quarterback Tom Brady and coaching alongside Bill Belichick. On the coffee table is a white oaktag poster that reads ‘Billieve,’ signed by hundreds of Penn State students as a welcome present.
    Above his cluttered desk is a helmet enclosed in glass, the traditional white logo-free helmet with a single blue stripe, the link between a shaken institution's past and its future.
    The circumstances surrounding O'Brien's emergence as Penn State's head coach last January still seem almost unfathomable. His predecessor was the iconic Paterno, whose ‘Success with Honor’ legacy — as well as Penn State's virtuous reputation — was severely damaged in November by allegations of a child sex abuse scandal involving former defensive co-ordinator Jerry Sandusky.
    But three months into O'Brien's tenure, an overwhelming sentiment has emerged within the campus community: If anyone could be prepared for the unenviable job of succeeding JoePa, it's this 42-year-old Massachusetts native.
    John Nichols, a member of Penn State's six-member search committee, began to make that discovery early in the process as he leafed through stacks of applications.
    Nichols, a professor emeritus and former chair of the university faculty senate, was on a long flight to interview another candidate. He came across a manila folder with a color printout of O'Brien's biography from the Patriots' website.
    Nichols was struck by the candidate's collegiate background. A graduate of Brown, just like Paterno, O'Brien had been an assistant at Georgia Tech and Duke.
    "Those are schools most people see and don't think football," Nichols said. "I consider them outstanding academic institutions, and I was intrigued. So I pulled the file aside."
    After reviewing O'Brien's resume and conducting several rounds of Skype and phone interviews, the search committee finally met O'Brien in person. He arrived with five pages of notes, single-spaced, in what Nichols described as tiny font.
    “He had his whole strategy right there, down to the names of his assistant coaches and their biographies," Nichols said.
    The search committee was under pressure to hire someone with Penn State ties, evidence to measure a candidate's commitment to the program. Paterno had been head coach for 46 seasons and had arrived as an assistant in 1950, three years before Penn State had advanced from a college to a university.
    Intense scrutiny from the Sandusky scandal had created daily questions of leadership and the need for transparency. Numerous news media reports described the period as the darkest in the university's history. The coach whose 409 victories became the most in major-college history was gone, and the committee was considering an anonymous assistant who had never been a head coach and who was best known for a sideline screaming match with Brady last season.
    "I wouldn't know Bill O'Brien if he walked into this room right now," said Sports Illustrated senior writer and NBC Sports analyst Peter King.
    "I don't really listen to what people are saying," said O'Brien, a sturdy, former college defensive end and linebacker often seen in a baseball hat, track pants and a plain, gray Penn State sweatshirt. "I had faith in what I wanted to do."
    O'Brien reads seven books at a time. His current list includes ‘Unbroken,’ by Laura Hillenbrand, and ‘The Long Shadow of Coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant,’ by Dr. Gaylon McCollough. O'Brien seems to have an answer for everything.
    "He's very knowledgeable," starting center Matt Stankiewitch said. "Everything he says, you want to listen to."
    O'Brien has insisted he will maintain Penn State's traditions, especially the absence of names on the back of jerseys. But he has already made significant changes. He overhauled the strength and conditioning program, adding free weights and loud, up-beat music to the weight room. He opened up parts of spring practices to the media and addressed a regional meeting of sports editors.
    "We even changed the date on him and he was fine with that," said Harrisburg Patriot-News Sports Editor Paul Vigna, who organized the mid-Atlantic meeting of the Associated Press Sports Editors. "He was more than accommodating."
    At the end of April, O'Brien jumped aboard, the Coaches Caravan, a nine-day, 18-stop tour to meet fans from Connecticut through Virginia. Twelve coaches are part of the trip. One of them is making all 18 stops.
    O'Brien does this partly because he's still unknown, not unlike a new politician trying to make his case.
    He is also making a statement. This is his program now.
    "Every decision is mine," O'Brien said as he sat on a black leather couch in his office. The pictures of Patriots are on the walls in order to impress recruits. He said they will eventually be replaced by Penn State mementos.
    O'Brien's piercing blue eyes twinkle when he talks about his family. His wife, Colleen, and their sons — nine-year-old Jack and six-year-old Michael — have been frequent visitors at practice. O'Brien also lights up as he describes the process of molding young men into better football players and stronger students. His playbook is so intricate that his star running back, Silas Redd, studies it over lunch and his tight end, Gary Gilliam, uses flash cards to help him grasp what many have described as a new language.
    It's a white binder with more than 150 plays, 17 for the first day of spring practice alone.
    On the front is a quote: "Never be afraid of failure. Be afraid of being unprepared."
    Bill O'Brien hardly seems afraid.

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