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In Defense of the ‘Paterno People’

By now, you’ve probably read Patriot News columnist David Jones’ rabble-rousing piece outlining some of the reasons behind Bill O’Brien’s departure — specifically quoting O’Brien during profanity laced tirade against so-called “Paterno people” that supposedly drove him right out of Happy Valley. If you haven’t, you should.

I couldn’t help but feel compelled the first time I read the story Tuesday night. On the surface, it has significant shock value and information you won’t find anywhere else. But then I read it again. And again. And now, three days later, I find myself reading it for the dozenth time and growing angrier and angrier at an ill-conceived quote that went viral and once again damaged our collective identity for no good reason.

Before I explain, let me make two things clear:

1. Joe Paterno’s legacy has no bearing on the ridiculousness of this story and O’Brien’s comments. It’s a complete non sequitur to the negative impact of this story as far as I’m concerned. Let’s not distract the point with those arguments.

2. I’m actually a big fan of David Jones. I don’t always agree with his opinion, but he’s one of the most eloquent and well-connected writers on the beat and I have immense respect for his work. No matter how angry you might be at Jones for this one, don’t let this incident devolve into ad hominem.

Now, to the story. Here’s an excerpt of a conversation Jones had with O’Brien in early December, which he left unpublished until Tuesday:

O’Brien’s ire also was raised that day by my suggestion that a faction of Joe Paterno-era loyalists seemed to me to be miffed by Vanderlinden’s departure or dismissal, depending upon their view, and that they might want some sort of explanation. The former linebackers coach had been the second-longest-tenured member of the staff, dating to 2000, one of only two remaining staff members hired by the legendary coach. This really got O’Brien going:

“You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a —- what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.

“For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.”

This entire exchange is just a head scratcher. It was doomed from the beginning, starting from when Jones made the false assertion that “Paterno loyalists” specifically were miffed about the Vanderlinden dismissal. I’ve heard very few people mention the Paterno connection as a reason to be upset about Vanderlinden’s departure. No, people are confused about the Vanderlinden dismissal because he was a great coach, independent of his Paterno affiliation.

Is O’Brien really so thin skinned that he can’t understand why fans would want answers about why one of the best position coaches in the country was fired? I don’t know why Vanderlinden was dismissed, and I trust that O’Brien had a good reason for his dismissal. But to fault fans for questioning a decision to let a coach go, with no explanation, who seemingly developed Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers year in and year out? That has nothing to do with Joe Paterno, and they’re fair questions to ask.

The second part of the exchange is just as absurd: “So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.”

This is coming from a man who was one of the most ubiquitously loved college football coaches in the entire country. In two years, I can count the number of Penn State fans on one hand — Paterno loyalist or otherwise — who did not support Bill O’Brien. To claim that Paterno loyalists were in any large number against O’Brien or what he did with the program is a lie. O’Brien was adored at Penn State by essentially everyone in the community — I suspect only a handful of coaches would have a higher approval rating at any level of football.

Sure, some of the more traditional fans were upset about O’Brien’s decision to put names on the jerseys and a few other small decisions. They have a right to be, because for many people, tradition is important and change is hard. But even the fans upset about those relatively inconsequential changes almost always supported and loved O’Brien.

Obviously, O’Brien had plenty of valid reasons to leave. Coaching in the NFL is the top of the profession, and he made no secret that it was a dream of his. He’ll undoubtedly be making more money. Now he can just coach football instead of being forced to act as an ambassador for he university, something he never really embraced. But, to tell David Jones that the reasons for leaving Penn State are fans questioning a high-profile coaching change and fans being unhappy with the direction of the program? The former is reasonable; the latter is simply untrue.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an instance of confirmation bias — David Jones, after all, coined the term “JoeBots” to describe the folks that are still fighting to restore Paterno’s legacy. Jones asserts “Some of his frustrations revolved around what he saw as the lack of leadership at Penn State” but offers no flippant quotes or insults about that nugget. And then again, maybe O’Brien does actually harbor some deep-seated hatred for any fan who dare question the departure of the best linebackers coach in the country. I don’t understand it, but it could be true.

So why do I care? If this was just a typical Jones column that gets passed around for a day or two and then falls into the abyss, as most things tend to do on the Internet, it wouldn’t really matter. But telling Joe Paterno loyalists to fuck off was, of course, too much for the national media to pass up.

More than 41,000 articles now show up on Google that include the terms “O’Brien” and “Paterno people”. Almost every national outlet picked up the story — ESPN, USA Today, Yahoo, Fox, Daily News, Washington Post, Sporting News, Philadelphia Magazine, and Chicago Tribune just to name ten. Of course, the articles didn’t mention the fact that almost every Penn Stater loved and embraced O’Brien — that we believed in him almost unequivocally and that, ultimately, he had honest NFL aspirations all along. No, that quote and those articles paint a picture of a crazy Penn State cult that ran O’Brien out of town like a bunch of lunatics, a situation that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an incredibly damaging narrative, and there’s no going back at this point.

Steve Jones had similar things to say on his radio show yesterday. Jones dedicated the first 15 minutes to discussing the article, saying “I don’t think (Dave Jones) had it quite right.”

“I think more context was needed beyond everyone just picking up this story,” Jones said. “You can’t paint with a broad brush unless you come to the table with a full palette. Dave needs a fuller palette to give perspective on what this actually means.”

Just another day at Penn State, where one off-the-record, fallacious quote paints the entire community as an insufferable cult. Here’s to a new coach and a new era.

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About the Author

Kevin Horne

Kevin Horne was the editor of Onward State from 2012-2014 and currently holds the position of Managing Editor Emeritus, which is a fake title he made up. He graduated from Penn State with degrees journalism and political science in 2014 and is currently seeking his J.D. at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law. A third generation Penn Stater from Williamsport, Pa., Kevin is also the president of the graduate student government. Email: [email protected]

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