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Christopher L. Gasper

Challenge awaits at Penn State

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By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 7, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Patriots offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien is not being hired as head football coach at Penn State to reform the insular milieu that allowed former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to allegedly prey on young boys. He’s being hired to win football games and graduate players, in that order.

It’s not the place of a football coach to dictate the culture of a university or be regarded as a weather vane for rectitude. That flawed belief is what got Penn State into this mess in the first place.

The 42-year-old O’Brien can put Penn State on the path of righteousness, but if he loses to Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa too often he’ll be the latest Bill Belichick disciple who struck out on his own.

O’Brien is too smart not to know the challenge awaiting him at Penn State, which has become Unhappy Valley over his selection as Joe Paterno’s successor.

Around these parts, Patriots followers are perplexed that Penn State fans would not immediately drop to their knees and thank their lucky stars that a Belichick acolyte would choose to leave Fort Foxborough for a . . . college job.

Boston is a pro sports town, always has been, always will be. No one even noticed when Matt Ryan had Boston College ranked No. 2 in the country four seasons ago. Penn State can get 106,000 fans for a game against Indiana State. The only way BC would get 106,000 fans is if they held a weeklong tailgate.

College football is autumn background noise here. It is a religion replete with zealotry in places such as State College, Pa.

Penn State supporters don’t care that O’Brien was Tom Brady’s position coach last year when he became the first unanimous most valuable player in NFL history, or that the Patriots have averaged 32 points per game in each of the last two seasons, or that he oversaw an offense that set a franchise record for net yards this season (6,848).

They expected a big-name hire, and in their minds, O’Brien is as uninspired as Penn State’s prosaic helmets. That doesn’t mean he is not ultimately the right person to replace Paterno, the all-time winningest coach in the history of major college football. But it’s yet another blow to a beleaguered and embattled school to realize O’Brien was the most high-profile coach interested in the gig.

Usually, barking at Brady on the sideline doesn’t mean you’re the top choice to take over one of the most storied programs in the college football, especially if you’re an NFL assistant coach with no pro or college head coaching experience who last recruited for Duke.

Taken solely on its football merits, Penn State should be one of the most prestigious jobs in college football. It’s the sixth-winningest program in Football Bowl Subdivision history with 827 victories.

However, after the sordid Sandusky revelations, potential candidates treated the opening like it was radioactive.

Enter O’Brien, who is taking advantage of an opportunity that otherwise might not be afforded him.

The vitriol from former Penn State players such as Brandon Short and LaVar Arrington and the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club is rooted in the delusion that Penn State is still a desirable job, not just O’Brien’s lack of a Penn State pedigree.

After all, like O’Brien, Joe Pa was a Brown graduate with no connection to Penn State before he arrived as an assistant coach in 1950, setting the stage for him to become head coach in 1966.

“There is a tangible standard at Penn State that this poor guy [O’Brien] knows nothing about,’’ Short told USA Today. “I feel badly for him [because] he is clueless and will not have the support of the majority of the Lettermen. This is a hornet’s nest.’’

I doubt that Short and Arrington, who said he was going to put all of his Penn State memorabilia into storage because of the school’s decision not to hire interim coach Tom Bradley, would be so adamant about the new coach having ties to the school if Penn State had announced it had hired Nick Saban or Urban Meyer.

With all due respect to the aptly named Billy O, the Patriots will be just fine without him unless he’s taking Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Wes Welker with him to State College.

Brady has evolved to the point where like his Indianapolis counterpart, Peyton Manning, he is basically the co-offensive coordinator and quarterback.

Word is that former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who oversaw the record-setting 2007 offense, is already lined up for a Foxborough reunion. So, it’s possible the Patriots could not only lose nothing in losing O’Brien, but upgrade slightly.

It wasn’t that long ago there were questions as to whether O’Brien could live up to the high standards McDaniels set during his time running the Patriots’ offense. Although O’Brien has been the Patriots’ primary play-caller since 2009, Belichick didn’t officially bestow the coordinator title on O’Brien until this year.

As for the playoff run, the sprained left shoulder Brady has and the team’s charitable pass defense are a much bigger threat to their playoff aspirations than O’Brien being distracted by his new job. O’Brien is too dedicated and detail-oriented to lose focus.

National Signing Day is Feb. 1, which is four days before Super Bowl XLVI, but O’Brien can burn up the phone lines to try to convince recruits to sign on the dotted line and game plan at the same time, just like Charlie Weis did in 2004, when he was revving his engines for South Bend.

O’Brien is taking a job he has to take, but, if the early reaction is any indication, he’s not going to be fighting just to change the perception of Penn State to outsiders. He’s going to be fighting to change the perception Penn State insiders have of him.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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