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Can O'Brien Weather Storm At Penn State?

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Head coach Bill O'Brien so far has backed his word he'll see Penn State through its NCAA probation, but what does history tell us about his chances to win games? Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images.
Head coach Bill O'Brien so far has backed his word he'll see Penn State through its NCAA probation, but what does history tell us about his chances to win games? Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

Year one of the post-Paterno era in Happy Valley went as well as anyone could have hoped. While it’s too early to completely asses the job Bill O’Brien has done as a leader, the initial returns are outstanding. Most thought the Nittany Lions would win four games and O’Brien somehow calmed the storm enough to post an 8-4 record in 2012. This was done without a number of players that took advantage of being allowed to transfer to other FBS schools.

But what are O’Brien’s chances at long-term success? By looking back at past scandals that are most similar in terms of punishment, can we identify any common threads? How did the coaches that were forced to pick up the pieces of previous wrongdoers fare in both the short and long term?

"I’m not a one-and-done guy. I made a commitment to these players at Penn State and that’s what I am going to do,” O’Brien told David Jones of the Patriot-News after recently turning down an NFL approach.  "I’m not gonna cut and run after one year, that’s for sure.”

Penn State was fined $60 million as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and is ineligible to compete in the postseason until 2016 with a loss of 10 scholarships per year until that time.

Ohio State And Tattoo Parlors

Trouble began in December 2010, when Ohio State suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor and a host of other players for receiving improper benefits stemming from selling memorabilia in tattoo parlors. The catch was the suspension did not kick in until the beginning of the 2011 season, allowing the suspended Buckeyes to play in the 2010 Sugar Bowl.

Initially Tressel was suspended for two games, which he later upped to five, and fined $250,000. The situation appeared to be somewhat resolved. However, as the spring progressed, more and more details emerged about what was going on, from incriminating forwarded e-mails to shady car sales.

The biggest infraction committed by the Buckeyes — at least in the eyes of the NCAA — was Tressel deciding to hide the details and not report them as soon as he found out. That is what ultimately cost him his job.

Tressel resigned in May 2011 and coordinator Luke Fickell was called upon to lead the team. The penalties, announced after the 2011 season, included a one-year bowl ban and a loss of nine scholarships spread over three seasons. Fickell was a temporary hire as the Buckeyes scoured the coaching landscape for a year looking for the perfect coach. Did they ever find it.

Urban Meyer fell into his dream job: an Ohio boy that started his head coaching career at Bowling Green taking control of the Buckeyes. After leaving Florida due to a health scare, and a year off at ESPN, the stars aligned at one of the nation's premier programs. While the image of the school was temporarily tarnished, this was an incident of a handful of players and a coach that acted neglectfully, not a campus-wide problem. Considering how harsh the penalties were, Meyer did not walk into that difficult of a situation.

The one-year bowl ban took the immediate pressure off as Meyer got acclimated to his team. On the field, Ohio State posted its first undefeated season since claiming the National Championship in 2003 and may have had a chance to play for the title if eligible. Meyer’s offensive philosophy fit the personnel, and the last 18 months have allowed him to recruit players that will keep the Buckeyes competitive for years to come.

The next 10 years could be a golden age for Ohio State football. The combination of Meyer’s ability and the recruiting drive of Ohio State will make everyone in Columbus forget about 2011 — if they haven’t already.

USC And Reggie Bush

It seems so long ago, but the Trojans were the dominant team in college football in the 2000s. Led by Pete Carroll, USC went 80-9 between 2002-2008, including a 6-1 record in bowl games and two AP national titles. Trouble arose in 2006 when former running back Reggie Bush was beginning to be investigated for receiving improper benefits. The investigation, which expanded to other members of the football and basketball programs, lasted a full four years before the NCAA handed down its verdict.

USC got a two-year postseason ban and a loss of 30 scholarships over three years. Bush was forced to relinquish his Heisman Trophy.

Carroll bolted for the Seattle Seahawks in January 2010, a few months before the punishments arrived. How convenient. Lane Kiffin, who ironically bolted the University of Tennessee after just one year at the helm, was hired soon after.

Although the limit on scholarships affected the depth the Trojans could field on a weekly basis, Kiffin still had plenty with which to work. Carroll was an outstanding recruiter with a solid track record of producing NFL players. The cloud over the university had more of an affect than any tangible setback. The punishments, although severe, shouldn’t have had the impact on the field it ultimately did.

The Trojans have gone 25-13 under Kiffin with mixed results. After posting a 10-2 mark in 2011, everyone and their mother believed the Trojans, led by senior quarterback Matt Barkley, would make a run at the national championship in 2012.  That never happened, and USC finished a disappointing 7-6.

In terms of a program, it appears USC is back to where it was pre-scandal. The Trojans are back to getting any five-star player they want — USC had the highest average recruit by star rating in 2012 and 2013 according to Rivals.com — and they were ranked in the preseason top five to start the 2012 season. Whether or not Kiffin has the coaching acumen to get the most out of these players is another story.

In short: The decline of USC football since 2008 has more to do with leadership than the Reggie Bush saga.

As an aside, it's often amusing to look back at what coaches said.

"To walk in yesterday and from the janitor to the president, to feel the passion that they have for Tennessee football is special,” Lane Kiffin said when he was hired by Tennessee in 2008. “It's something I'm going to understand. I get right now what I need to do. I have a plan for that and I understand that. I'm going to bring you guys with me. It's going to be something very special as we do this."

SMU Gets The Death Penalty

The Mustangs were a consistent top-25 program throughout the 1980s. Head coach Bobby Collins spent five years in Dallas, compiling a 45-14-1 record. However, a scandal broke out in 1986 involving a “slush fund” and a booster named Sherwood Blount that paid between 10-15 players a total of $60,000. The entire 1987 season was canceled and a team wasn’t fielded in 1988 because of competitive reasons.

The NCAA revoked 55 scholarships during the next four years and placed SMU on probation until 1990. Other limitations restricted the number of allowed staff members. Collins resigned in 1986 right after the scandal broke.

Forrest Gregg, who had been an assistant in the NFL for a decade, returned to his alma mater in 1988 to help rebuild the program. While his public expectations remained high — he predicted the Mustangs would return to the Cotton Bowl in the next 10 seasons — Gregg was far more concerned with leading a group of athletes that had been let down by the system.

“I never coached a group of kids that had more courage,” Gregg told the New York Times in 2012. “They thought that they could play with anyone. They were quality people. It was one of the most pleasurable experiences in my football life. Period.”

Gregg had no shot as success on the football field and that was secondary to cleaning up the image of the program and giving it a positive connotation in the community. Gregg went 3-19 in two seasons before reliving himself of his duties and focusing on his job as athletic director, a position he held until 1994. The Mustangs haven’t been the same since.

This example has to be viewed in a different prism, only because the death penalty has only been applied once. Not too many coaches in the history of the sport could have walked into Dallas and rebuilt that program in 1990.

Alabama And A Very Weak Rope

Alabama was an up-and-down program in the 1990s under a variety of leaders. In 1999, the Crimson Tide won the SEC under coach Mike DuBose and look poised to return to the list of elite college programs. That failed to happen and the DuBose lost his job after the team went 3-8 in 2000.

The 3-8 season wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to Alabama. Five-star defensive lineman Albert Means was investigated in a pay-for-play accusation. It was eventually revealed that an Alabama booster played $200,000 for Means’ services and the program was hammered as a result.

The Crimson Tide were banned from bowls for two years, placed on probation for five and lost 21 scholarships over three years. DuBose, who tried to quit during the 2000 season after an alleged affair with his secretary, was let go after the season. Alabama hired Dennis Franchione was hired for the 2001 season. The NCAA handed down its verdict early in 2002.

Franchione inherited a mess in Tuscaloosa, but went to work. The Crimson Tide went 7-5 during a transition year before the sanctions and Franchione had to do a whole lot of politicking to ensure everyone was on board for the 2002 season. Convincing upperclassmen to stay at a program with no shot of playing in a bowl game wasn’t an easy accomplishment, but Franchione managed to do so without losing a single player.

“It goes back to the analogy of if you’re hanging over the edge of a cliff, you want someone that will hang on to that rope for you,” former Alabama coach Dennis Franchione explained in a press conference in 2001. “You don’t want someone whose hands might slip. Even if the rope is tearing at the skin and their hands are bleeding, they still hang on.”

Everything paid off for the Crimson Tide, who went 10-3 in 2002. The final game was Nov. 30, a 21-16 road win over Hawaii. Alabama reportedly offered Franchione a new 10-year contract. On Dec. 6, Franchione informed his players via teleconference he'd accepted the job at Texas A&M, never returning to Tuscaloosa.

Wait, what?

The same person that spent a crazy amount of time and effort promoting a unified front left Tuscaloosa in the dust when the Aggies and their dollar signs came calling.

In stepped Mike Shula, who had a difficult time winning the support of the team and its fans. Despite one successful 10-2 season, Shula lost 24 games in four seasons and was canned in 2006. Nick Saban succeeded Shula and we all know how that worked out.

This is another case of leadership overcoming the sanctions. Had Franchione stayed at Alabama, the Crimson Tide probably would have returned to national prominence; it was a good fit at the time despite the sanctions. Shula was not capable of building a program and didn’t last long as a result.

Cowboy Up To Irrelevancy

During the 1970s and '80s, the Oklahoma State Cowboys were a consistent if not spectacular program (similar to the current Nittany Lions) that was occasionally in the top 15.

Just one (by comparison) minor crime changed all that.

Wide receiver Hart Lee Dykes played for the Cowboys from 1985-1989, a span that included two 10-win seasons. Dykes received improper benefits toward a sports car while he was recruited (by then-head coach Jimmy Johnson) out of Texas.

Johnson was long gone by the time the NCAA came down on Oklahoma State in 1989, but the punishment was severe. The Cowboys received a three-year bowl ban, lost five scholarships and were put on probation for four years. The NCAA also warned the school that if there were any more infractions it would be given the death penalty that had just been applied to SMU. 

Because the incident occurred before Jones was hired, he was able to stay on and coach the team going forward. However, the results were disastrous; the Cowboys went 18-45-3 during the next six seasons and Jones was fired as a result. It took contemporaries Les Miles and Mike Gundy to get the program back where it was before the scandal.

Summary

While certain examples share similarities with Penn State, there doesn’t appear to be a common denominator. There are too many variables — the state of the program after the punishments, the quality of the coach coming in and the talent of the current roster just to name a few — to compare one to the next. Some coaches choose to stay and weather the storm; others choose to head for greener pastures. At least one program (Ohio State, it appears) emerged stronger than ever out of the sanctions.

If O’Brien stays he could be well on his way to becoming the next elite college football coach. Programs with a rich history such as Penn State, Ohio State and USC can recover without significant long-term ramifications — they just have built-in advantages that can survive nearly any type of scandal. All O’Brien has to do is execute his vision of a highly competitive, clean college football program.

Will he stick around to reap the benefits?