PSU Conspiracy Theories: Was Hiring Bill O’Brien a Power Play?

After the Sandusky scandal, Penn State has to adopt a culture of transparency.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Mahon, Vice President of University Relations at Penn State, sent a response to this post.

There are some factual errors in Michael Bradley’s opinion blog (dated 1/09/2012) about the search for Penn State’s new football coach, Bill O’Brien, which I want to correct for Philadelphia magazine readers.

1) Former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski did not have “a heavy hand in the search.” The hiring of Bill O’Brien was unanimous among the search committee, made up of faculty, athletic department representatives and one member of the Board of Trustees.

2) Search committee member Ira Lubert did not pay “the $500,000 salary and $1 million bonus that lured big-name grappling coach Cael Sanderson to Happy Valley in 2009.”

3) Lubert is not “providing the funding necessary to make O’Brien’s contract commensurate with other big-time coaches…” He is not providing any money toward O’Brien’s contract.

4) It is false to report “Lubert courted O’Brien without consulting each of the other five members of the committee.” In fact, it was a faculty member on the committee who first pushed O’Brien’s name for consideration by the group.

If LaVar Arrington’s recent statements are to be believed, there’s going to be some pretty cool stuff on eBay in the next couple of weeks. Arrington has said he is “done with Penn State,” since the school didn’t hire someone from the its “family” to take over the football program. So, Arrington will put away his jerseys, his Butkus Award and any other sweaty stuff he may have saved from his time in Happy Valley.

Here’s a bit of advice for Arrington–and anybody else who is furious Penn State didn’t shake the Joe Paterno tree to find a new coach: Hold on to your items. Business may continue as usual at the central Pennsylvania school.

If the conspiracy chatter is to be believed, search committee member Ira Lubert had a heavy hand in the decision to hire Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. So did former Birds’ QB Ron Jaworski, who has partnered with Lubert on several business ventures and has no ties to the school. If this is a power play by Lubert, as Yahoo! Sports columnist Pat Forde suggests, then Penn State is operating according to the same Byzantine rules that characterized the past several decades. And that does not bode well for the hiring of a new school president and a new athletic director.

According to Forde, Lubert–the man whom Harrisburg Patriot-News ace David Jones said represented “the power and money” on the search committee charged with finding Paterno’s replacement–used his relationship with NFL analyst Jaworski to identify professional assistant coaches who might be interested in coaching the Nittany Lions. It was Lubert, a former PSU wrestler, who paid the $500,000 salary and $1 million bonus that lured big-name grappling coach Cael Sanderson to Happy Valley in 2009. And Lubert, whose casino in Valley Forge is scheduled to open later this year, could well be providing the funding necessary to make O’Brien’s contract commensurate with other big-time coaches throughout the Big Ten and the nation. If other reports are to be believed, Lubert courted O’Brien without consulting each of the other five members of the committee.

Penn State’s community must understand that the Old Way must be reversed completely. There cannot be one person on campus with a disproportionate amount of power, as Paterno had. There cannot be back-room dealings and the kind of attitude that pervaded the university, where the football coach can tell a university vice president that players shouldn’t be expected to speak honestly about incidents that occur because it would hurt team morale. There can be no more cover-ups. There can be no more buck-passing or ass-covering. If the Sandusky debacle has shown anything, it’s that a culture of transparency must be created in Happy Valley.

If Lubert indeed tried to pull a power play in the hiring of O’Brien, then Penn State has made no progress. If the university allowed someone to engineer a huge decision so that he could have influence down the road, then the school has learned nothing from the Sandusky disgrace. Further, we can expect an administrative climate that puts a premium on secrecy and the accumulation of power and authority–just like it did before. Back in the fat days of the Paterno administration, Penn State could count on plenty of public goodwill and a corresponding reluctance to look closely at the coach’s Happy Valley fiefdom. That era is gone. Everybody, from crack Harrisburg Patriot-News crime reporter Sara Ganim to the big national outlets, is poking around the school community and won’t likely forget about Penn State, just because Paterno is gone. The wall has been torn down. Because of that, PSU needs to be, in the words of Top Gun’s Stinger, “doing it better and cleaner than the other guy.”

This is not about O’Brien as a coach. There is no way of telling whether he will succeed or not, although his lack of head coaching experience would indicate he is starting from a position of deficit. (Don’t forget what happened when the last Patriots offensive coordinator took a big-time college job. See Weis, Charlie.) Then again, O’Brien could instill discipline, invigorate an offense that staggered through the 2011 season and use his NFL experience to convince recruits he can help prepare them for the professional life.

Despite the protestations of Arrington–who never seemed so invested in Penn State to begin with; it was always more about him–O’Brien is off to a good start. His press conference was positive. His first meeting with the team went well. Aside from the fact that his duties with the Patriots will prevent him from recruiting full time over at least the next week (Tebow is coming! Tebow is coming!), O’Brien should have a solid start to his tenure.

But O’Brien can’t be answering to Lubert or anybody else outside the university hierarchy. He must be accountable to the athletic director, whoever that may be. The AD, in turn, needs to report to the president–again, identity unknown–who must be responsible to the board. This can no longer be a one-man show. Even though many other big-time football schools allow their football, and sometimes basketball, coaches to have way too much authority and money, Penn State has forfeited its right to be like everybody else. Its behavior as an institution during the Sandusky tragedy shows the need for dramatic change.

On the surface, the hiring of O’Brien represents a strong first step in the right direction. Penn State had to hire an outsider, even if more qualified and experienced college head coaches with ties to the school were available. But if someone, like Lubert, engineered the hiring in order to have behind-the-scenes power, that is not good news. If Penn State is going to change its national image–and believe me, the jokes and bad feelings continue around the country–it has to become something it wasn’t. It must prove it is an institution that operates without secrecy. Without allowing individuals to make self-serving decisions that compromise the whole. It matters not what other schools are doing. Penn State no longer has the right to say, “If they’re doing it, why can’t we?” Those other schools didn’t create a climate in which a football coach could perform alleged monstrous acts.

Penn State fans should wish O’Brien the best, even if he doesn’t have blue-and-white blood. More importantly, they should hope their school is doing things the right way, the better to create a new future in the wake of a catastrophic past.


  • Stop the hand wringing, Eagles fans. If you actually thought Jeffrey Lurie was going to fire Andy Reid, then you haven’t been paying attention the past 12 years. The owner/coach bond is strong, and it’s going to take more than an 8-8 performance by the Dream Team to break it. Now, if it happens again, the owner might just sing another tune. But ask yourself: Do you really want to root against the home team, just to get rid of the coach?
  • 1-2-3-4-5-Sixers! Sure, it’s early, but the 76ers are playing some good ball. Better still, by opening the season with five straight road games, they’re in the middle of a stretch that features 13 of the next 16 games at home. Want better news? Most of those contests are against the dregs of the Eastern Conference–which is to say most of it. Don’t make plans for a parade, but if the Sixers keep playing strong defense and sharing the basketball, they could climb into the top four spots in the East.
  • Temple beat Duke. Saint Joseph’s bumped off then-17th ranked Creighton. But the hottest team in the city right now is La Salle, which has won 10 of 11 and appears to have the toughness necessary for a run at the top of the Atlantic 10. We have seen the Explorers start quickly before, but this year seems to be different. Three straight road games (Penn, Dayton, Temple) over the next nine days will tell whether La Salle is for real.
  • Tebowmania continues. His performance against Pittsburgh was right out of central casting–again. It can’t possibly continue against New England, can it? But how much fun will it be to root against him against Captain Hoodie and his forces of evil?