New Penn St. coach Bill O'Brien can learn from Indiana's Tom Crean
Indiana coach Tom Crean has turned around Hooisers after unrest, scandal
The road wasn't easy for Indiana, but O'Brien could follow Crean's blueprint
Some suggestions: embrace tradition, alumni, and recruit, recruit, recruit
Timeouts at college basketball games are generally occasions to catapult T-shirts into the crowd, look searchingly at cheerleaders and shout over the pep band's inevitable rendition of "Seven Nation Army."
But as the Penn State and Indiana hoops teams gathered in their respective huddles during a break in their game on Sunday, the crowd erupted into a standing ovation. The Nittany Lion's new football coach -- the man who will succeed Joe Paterno and, more significantly, handle broom-and-dustpan duties after the worst scandal in the history of college sports -- was introduced. Cradling his young son clad in a Nittany Lions jersey (nice touch!), Bill O'Brien walked onto the court, raised a hand and smiled sheepishly.
O'Brien stood just a few feet from Tom Crean, the Indiana coach, who was too busy trying to coax a win out of his team to notice much of the commotion. The two men didn't exchange a word. But when the situation calms down a bit, O'Brien would do well to give Crean a call and, as they say in coach-speak, "pick his brain" on the topic of repairing a badly damaged program. One suspects Crean's advice to O'Brien might go something like this:
Let's be clear about this up front, Bill: no one is analogizing a child sex scandal to a garden-variety NCAA cheating scandal. What you're dealing with makes the discussion of improper benefits and major-versus-minor violations and jerseys-for-tattoos look positively quaint. I can barely comprehend that. I can barely compare the dimensions of your challenge with my situation.
Still, the parallels are unmistakable. We both came to a Big Ten school to take over an iconic college program, shaken to its core. It wasn't just that Indiana basketball and Penn State football were reliable winners; beyond the success there was pride in a certain morality authority. We did things the right way. At least we thought we did. And when that was undermined, it rocked the entire institution. We both followed legends -- your case, directly -- may have left in disgrace but still had a lot of loyalists. We both came in as outsiders.
You're coming into an unprecedented situation. But I didn't have a walk in the park, either. When I came to Bloomington in 2008, I started in crisis mode from Day 1. Wounds were still raw from the exile of Bob Knight, which had divided the entire state. Kelvin Sampson, a cross between the Music Man and Jerry Tarkanian, had come to town, and by the time he left two years later, the program was facing NCAA sanctions for the first time, most of the players transferred, the team GPA rivaled that of the Delta Tau Chi chapter in "Animal House." In one of my first meetings, I called a player, Eli Holman, to my office to discuss his future at IU. He threw a potted plant at me and the campus police were called. It was around then that 3,000 students were dropping their tickets.
Making matters worse, a raft of former players were feeling alienated. Some disassociated themselves entirely; others bad-mouthed the program. Come to think of it, some sounded a lot like LaVar Arrington last week, when he whined that he was putting his trophies in mothballs, that he "didn't want to be affiliated" with Penn State, and then Brandon Short complaining that you were ignorant of the "tangible standard" -- a rible word choice given the Sandusky allegations, I know -- at Penn State.
My title was coach but I may as well have been a crisis manager. But here's general some advice:
Use your outsider status to your advantage. I wasn't an Indiana guy and you're not a Penn State guy. You're going to have to prove that you belong in the "family" and understand the culture, the tribal rituals, the sensibilities, all that. But it also means you're untainted. You haven't burned any bridges. You haven't taken sides in any intra-family disputes. You haven't had to kick any boosters out of practice. You have a clean slate -- use it as a shield and a sword.
In terms of wins and losses, set the bar low. Like limbo-bar low. You and I both know this: coaches always manage expectations. Even when you know your team is good, you make it sound like you'll be lucky to beat a D-II jayvee team. Now, do this by an extra order of magnitude. And preach patience. You might need it. Hell, in my first three years, we went 28-66. This is Indiana, five-time national champion, going entire months without a win. In your case, you'll have more talent than I did. But you'll also have more distractions. Criminal cases, civil cases, depositions, finger-pointing, JoePa making the news. That can't NOT exact a price on your players. Prepare the fans to take a major step backwards.
Repair the fabric as best you can. For months, I made like candidate for governor, barnstorming the state, shaking hands, meeting mayors, doing the rubber chicken circuit, making the same stump speech. (The message was vague, but I stressed tradition.) And just showing up in these towns meant a lot to people.
I also made nice with the former players. I invited them to games and practices. I organized a golf outing. I asked them to address the team. Clenching my teeth behind a smile, I at least pretended to care when they suggested rotations and formations. We may be at big-time programs, but know this: they get small in a hurry. Rumors fly like Usain Bolt. Gossip swirls. Pettiness metastasizes. You need to keep the base happy.
I know, I know. You're within your rights to tell guys like Arrington to stay the heck away from Beaver Stadium. This whole scandal is predicated largely on the insularity of the Penn State football program. And guys like Arrington are fuming because Penn State didn't hire an "insider." How tone-deaf can you be, right?
I'm telling, you though, Bill, take the high road here. Make these guys feel like they're part of the family, that they're valued, that you're all working together to restore honor.
Also, reach out to Paterno, even if you're not sure where he stands on your hiring and you're worried about what he might say or do. I've extended an open invitation to Knight to rejoin the Indiana basketball tapestry. He hasn't accepted. (Maybe be you heard: he tends to be a smidge stubborn.) But I've scored points for making the effort.
Recruit like heck. You can talk all you want about "glory" and "tradition" and that "we-are-Penn-State" business. But you need players. You can't rebuild if you don't have a foundation. It's simple: if you're not coaching your current team, you're recruiting your future team. We had some close calls: Kyrie Irving nearly chose us before Duke closed the deal in the end. We had some bad luck: I brought in a stud, Maurice Creek, but in his first three years he broke each kneecap and ruptured his Achilles. But I finally landed Cody Zeller, a McDonald's All-American center, as good a freshman as you'll find in the country. It's not just that a recruit like that makes your team better. He legitimizes the entire program. My recruiting class for next year? It's top five in the country.
I don't want to minimize this. Rebuilding is a bitch. You're going to lose recruits to other schools that stress the instability and reference the scandal. You'll lose games. You'll have players test you because they know you don't have anyone credible on the bench to replace them with. And again, you're dealing with a situation that's much more complex and less predictable than mine was. If Jerry Sandusky takes a plea your situation breaks a lot different than it does if there's a long, drawn-out trial.
But keep at it. I know you had to leave that basketball game early on Sunday, shaking hands with trustees and meeting your players and doing interviews and whatnot. Had you stayed you would have seen my team grind out a win, our first conference road victory in 16 games. We left State College 15-1 and moved into the top 10. It's a process. Stick with it and you have a shot. By the time you're done, you may even get your own flavor at the creamery.