Sports writers generally are an analogous lot. When asked to weigh in on a newsworthy topic, we frequently seek historical precedents that might serve as reference points for what is happening in the present, and possibly will resonate into the future.
But how do you frame the enormity of the task confronting first-year Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, whose Nittany Lions march into a hazy unknown of indeterminate length beginning with their Sept. 1 season opener against Ohio University in Beaver Stadium? Not only is O'Brien Penn State's first field leader since
fellow Brown alumnus Joe Paterno replaced Rip Engle in 1966 and began his 46-season trek into legend and, ultimately, an image-wrecking scandal, but the former offensive coordinator of the NFL's New England Patriots must chart a course through a minefield of NCAA-imposed sanctions that could harm the program for years, if not decades, to follow.
The undeniable reality is that there are no analogies that apply here, no coaches - living or dead - who could have offered meaningful insight into what Bill O'Brien must deal with, because his circumstances are unique in intercollegiate athletics. Oh, sure, some coaches have borne the heavy burden of trying to succeed larger-than-life predecessors, icons of the sideline who cast shadows that offered little chance for the new guy to shine by comparison. Some coaches have been charged with cleaning up the messes left behind through the malfeasance of others. But rigging transcripts, paying players under the table and other citable violations in the NCAA rulebook pale when stacked against what happend in Happy Valley, when a coterie of officials decided that protecting the school's football brand was somehow preferable to the embarrassment of helping bring a suspected sexual predator to justice.
When the hammer came down and Sandusky was convicted of 45 of 48 counts involving 10 underage boys, Happy Valley became anything but. The serene, picturesque central Pennsylvania community of State College transformed into a witch's brew of outrage, bewilderment, sadness and denial. It was divided into opposing camps of still-staunch supporters of Paterno, who was 85 when he died of lung cancer on Jan. 22, and those who accept without reservation the conclusions of the Freeh Report that university administrators with the power to do the right thing allowed evil to fester under a blue-and-white tarp for 14 years.
Penn State president Rodney Erickson, who replaced the fired Graham Spanier, accepted, seemingly without complaint, the draconian punishment subsequently meted out by NCAA president Mark Emmert: The Nittany Lions will lose 10 scholarships annually through the 2016-17 academic year; there is a postseason ban through the 2015 season; the school must establish a $60 million endowment to serve victims of child sexual abuse, and 111 of Paterno's once-record 409 victories have been vacated. The Big Ten Conference also slapped Penn State with a $13 million fine over 4 years, that money also to be set aside for victims of child sexual abuse.
But Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley (who is on indefinite administrative leave while awaiting trial on charges of lying about what he knew to a grand jury) and some members of the Penn State board of trustees have indicated they will legally challenge certain conclusions of the Freeh Report, which could serve to delay a healing process that already figured to be drawn-out and painful. Whatever the outcome of new developments, it seems now seems certain there will be scattered patches of debatable gray, as there always are, raising at least the occasional question as to what constitutes absolute truth and what does not.
Paterno's death means he won't get an opportunity to offer a more detailed explanation as to what he knew or didn't know of Sandusky's debasement of children. JoePa's former players and coaches continue to revere the man, but it seems clear that public opinion is such that his many successes on and off the field will forever bear a taint that can't be scrubbed clean. And maybe that is as it should be.
From a purely football sense, the most immediate concern is absence of nine members of the Nits' 2011 team, including tailback Silas Redd, wide receiver Justin Brown and linebacker Khairi Fortt, all of whom have transferred to other schools, without being required to sit out a year as is normally the case. Those departures, while not exactly gutting O'Brien's roster, have left it thin at some positions and comparatively lacking in star power. No less significant, two oral commitments from the recruiting class of 2013 have indicated they'll now look elsewhere. More could follow.
But time marches on, and eventually Penn State people must look to the here and now. And if there is no anology to the situation O'Brien has inherited, there is a corollary for the task the coach will face each Saturday. And while at first glance Ray Perkins would appear to have little in common with Bill O'Brien - whom he has never met or even spoken to - there are certain parallels in their professional lives that merit mention.
Perkins, 71, is entering his second season as head football coach at Jones Community College in Ellisville, Miss., not far from his hometown of Petal, Miss. But the two-time All-America wide receiver for the Alabama Crimson Tide (1965 and '66) knows better than most what it is like to try to step into the oversized footprints of a giant. In 1983, after Paul "Bear" Bryant died a mere 28 days after his retirement from coaching, Perkins succeeded his college coach.
It was Perkins' dream job, but he lasted just four years. He left Tuscaloosa after the 1986 season, with a 32-15-1 record, in no small part because Bryant's six national championships with the Tide made for a legacy that no 'Bama coach could hope to duplicate until, perhaps, Nick Saban and his Bear-like aura arrived in 2007.
Besides being 29 years older than O'Brien, Perkins' honeydewed Southern drawl is in stark contrast to the clipped-speech pattern reflective of O'Brien's suburban Boston upbringing. But geographical differences aside, coaches understand the difficulties everyone in their demanding field sometimes faces, and the need to adjust on the fly as those difficulties present themselves.
"I can't speak to all the particular issues coach O'Brien has to deal with, because I never had to deal with some of them," said Perkins, who was head coach of the New York Giants before his return to his alma mater, and was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thereafter. "I do have an idea of what he's facing coming in after coach Paterno, because I had some of that coming in after coach Bryant. It's my understanding that coach O'Brien has been very complimentary toward coach Paterno, and I think that's a good thing. I had the occasion to meet coach Paterno several times and I had the privilege of coaching against him. I have nothing but the highest respect for him as a man and as a coach, as I did for coach Bryant.
"As far as everything else, I know I never went into any situation thinking, 'Wow, this is going to be tough.' I always looked at any job I took on as a challenge, and that I would do the best I could with what I had. I'm pretty sure that's the way coach O'Brien is looking at it.
"You have to win. That's the bottom line. I admit to being pretty flabbergasted at some of what's happened at Penn State over the last several months, but that's a traditionally strong program and there isn't any reason why coach O'Brien shouldn't get things back on track, eventually. He's a good football man from what I've heard. People just need to be patient."
It will be curious to see just how patient members of Nittany Nation will be while the expected hard times are ridden out. The closest thing to the stiff sentence handed down by hanging judge Emmert was the so-called "death penalty" the NCAA imposed upon a rogue Southern Methodist program in 1987. There was no football at SMU in 1987 and '88, the second season canceled by school edict, whereupon a long and laborious rebuilding process commenced. The Mustangs suffered through eight consecutive losing campaigns since football was reintroduced in 1989. In the 23 post-"death penalty" years they are 82-181-3, with only three winning seasons. Their 45-10 rout of Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl following the 2009 season was SMU's first postseason appearance in a quarter-century.
Some will argue that Penn State is not SMU, and that the rebuilding process during and after these next 4 years at hard labor won't take nearly as long to complete. That probably is correct; the Nits who stayed aren't on campus because they'd been bought and paid for by cash-dispensing boosters. They came for Joe, not dough, and are sticking because of the vision of better things to come espoused by O'Brien, who helped develop Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into maybe the best ever to play the game. The Penn State brand has taken a hit, to be sure, but apparently not irreparably so.
O'Brien - who has said and done all the right things to this point - will be given every benefit of the doubt for at least several years. He can go 7-5 here or even 5-7 there and not find himself on the sort of hot seat any Paterno successor would be squirming on had there never been a Jerry Sandusky and subsequent lowering of expectations. Nor would it be cheap to cut O'Brien loose in any case; his 2012 compensation reportedly calls for a base salary of $950,000, plus $1 million from television and ad revenue and $350,000 from Penn State's deal with Nike, but the contract he signed in early February included a clause that called for Penn State to automatically extend the deal by the number of years equal to any possible NCAA sanctions. The university now is bound to him, and he to it, through the 2020 season.
Perhaps by then, the smarmy references to "Ped State" and "State Pen" will have been reduced, and whatever sins that were committed in the name of expediency will have been consigned to a dark chapter in a book whose more inspiring chapters have yet to be written.