Back in December, I was watching one of my favorite college football DVDs, Rites of Autumn. I picked the episode about bowl games, with no particular thought in mind other than to get myself pumped up for the bowl season about to take place.
I had completely forgotten that about halfway through, there was a recap of the 1987 Fiesta Bowl and one of the great wins in Penn State football history—if not its greatest. A few minutes into the recap, former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky popped up on the screen and I cringed. Then I got angry. As with many people, I wondered aloud whether I could ever watch Penn State football again or would want to do so.
Years later, my friend and former teammate Bill O'Brien was hired as the head coach at Penn State.
We all knew that his chore was herculean. All "OB", as we called him, had to do was recruit better than Penn State had in the last two decades, win games at a rapid pace, win championships and fight for national championship, all while trying to get much of the nation to forget that a horrid predator preyed on young people on that campus for years.
As I said, herculean... and that my not even do it justice.
Then, the Freeh report came out and the public outcry began. Death Penalty. Shut it down. Take it all away, it's the only thing you can do. The NCAA fueled by a mob mentality hammered current- and future-Lions teams with a four-year bowl ban, scholarships lost and a $60 million fine—with potentially more to come.
In an unprecedented action by NCAA head Mark Emmert, the NCAA leapt over the investigation process to react in a swift and destructive manner. Oh yeah, it also took away Joe Paterno's wins from 1998 through 2011. (I couldn't give two rips about that one, honestly.)
I woke up last Monday to that news and couldn't get back to sleep. Throughout the past seven months, I've often found myself envisioning the pain those young victims felt, often at the most odd times of the day.
On this day, though, I felt for a friend who had worked his entire life to get this one opportunity—an opportunity of a lifetime to take over an historic Big 10 program. Think about that for a moment. Imagine yourself working year after year, aspiring to be the CEO of a company and you finally get that opportunity and the company is put under SEC investigation for the grievous errors of those that came before you. Fair? No, definitely not. But, you know who you won't hear complain one time about his lot in life?
Here is a man who has a 10-year old son who will never be able to care for himself. Can you understand what that means to be a father or parent to a child that'll never have the opportunities that you had? Can you understand the feeling of wondering whether your son will take his next breath or not?
If there's one man who completely understands protecting young loved ones and children, it's O'Brien. Penn State may or may not have considered that in hiring him, but as a role model, there couldn't be a better one to pull Penn State up from its bootstraps and get it back on its feet. And, I'm not just talking the football program either.
He will have to be resolute and it made me think about our time together at Brown. One night in my junior year, we went to a party on campus and OB had been there for a while before me. When I walked in, I saw him on the couch. As soon as he saw me...
"JOHNNY, come here, man," he said. "Hey, we're going to get there, buddy, I promise you. We just need to keep working our butts off and we'll get there. We can do it."
Ever the eternal optimist, I nodded my head in agreement, not really knowing what to say. We had just flown back from William & Mary where we got beat 51-7 and were 0 for the season at that point.
I wasn't exactly sure why he had chosen me to make that point to at that moment, but I never forgot it. There was something about his conviction that the impossible, in this case, us winning games in a season in which we finished 0-10, was possible. In the end, it wasn't possible, but he never let me and others believe otherwise.
I'd go to the ends of the earth following that man the entire way. If I could advise any recruit or current player at Penn State... I'd say if you want a rich education in football, the classroom and life, stay committed. That man will give you that and then some.
If you have NFL plans in the future, who better to get you there than a guy who was the highly respected offensive coordinator for Bill Belichick? If you have plans to be a better man and a quality adult, sign up and don't look back.
No one will ever be able to make it right for the victims of Jerry Sandusky. No one. But, one thing I know is that Bill O'Brien will do whatever possible to preserve their memory, protect the integrity of the position of head coach at Penn State University and never turn his back on that community. That's something this area needs now, more than ever.