WATERBURY, Conn. — Penn State Athletic Director David Joyner expects Bill O’Brien to be the Nittany Lions’ football coach for a long time — even if O’Brien keeps attracting interest from the NFL.
In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, Joyner said he and O’Brien speak several times a week and when they do, “I can tell you we talk in terms of years and years. We make plans for years and years.”
O’Brien led the Nittany Lions to eight victories last season, his first with the school. Penn State was in the first season of a four-year postseason ban, part of severe NCAA sanctions related to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
O’Brien, a former NFL assistant, was courted by pro teams after the season, but chose to stay put. Joyner, a former Penn State wrestler and football player who took over as athletic director in the midst of the Sandusky crisis, said he doesn’t stress over the possibility that O’Brien will continue to get NFL suitors.
“First, of all I think we’re going to have this guy for a long time. I truly, truly believe that,” he said. “But whenever the day comes that Bill may chooses to leave — if it’s five years from now, if it’s 10 years; he may never choose to leave, this may be his last job, I certainly hope so — then we’ll adapt and deal with it.”
The Nittany Lions’ surprising success last season helped O’Brien win over Penn State fans, many of whom were still stinging over the way the late Joe Paterno was ousted after the shocking charges against Sandusky came to light in 2011.
Yet in a recent Sports Illustrated story, former Penn State players and others who had been associated with the program under Paterno questioned some of the changes O’Brien has made to the way football players receive medical treatment.
O’Brien responded angrily to allegations that he was not doing what was best for his players, and the story seemed to signal that there is still a rift within the Penn State community.
Joyner said he doesn’t think that division will push O’Brien toward leaving, but he would like his coach not to have to deal with it.
“It sure would be nice if Bill could be laser focused and not have to react and deal with those type of things,” Joyner said. “I think his job would be easier. He’s very good at focusing through the noise as you know. But nonetheless it still would be nice not to have those distractions so that in my mind that he could really focus on what he has to do and his players. As he does, he doesn’t miss a trick.”
Joyner calls O’Brien the best rookie head coach in history, and is happy to have the problem of employing a head coach who others find an attractive job candidate.
“I’m also flattered because if we’d have made a lousy hire, you wouldn’t be asking me these questions,” Joyner said. “That’s the baggage you get for hiring a really, really good coach. Having people want to talk him. That’s great. That’s flattering. All indications are we’re full speed ahead.”
While Joyner stresses looking forward, the Paterno family and their supporters have been looking back at how the Sandusky scandal was handled by Penn State and the NCAA, trying to rehabilitate the legacy of the Hall of Fame coach.
Joyner said the lawsuit filed by the Paterno family, and their supporters’ attempts to re-examine the case against the coach and other school officials made in the Louis Freeh’s report, have not hindered the university’s efforts to move away from the scandal.
“My job is to be laser-focused on moving the athletic department forward and continuing to learn from whatever has come in the past,” Joyner said. “I don’t begrudge them their rights and their feelings, but I don’t focus on that at all.”
The successful football season, along with a school-record eight Big Ten championships in 2012-13, gave Penn State confidence that the sanctions wouldn’t doom Nittany Lions athletics.
“It said, ‘We can do this,’” Joyner said. “We can do this.”