I think this all goes back to the first days of 1973, if you want to know the truth. I think this is all knotted up with memory and mythology and iconography and nostalgia, because, hell, this is college football, and these are its guiding principles. I think this goes back to that time when the New England Patriots attempted to lure away Joe Paterno -- then a bright young coach at Penn State -- with a job as coach and general manager, with the promise of a house and a six-figure contract, with the suggestion his family would forever be secure. Paterno accepted the position, and then he had dinner with his family, and his son cried, and his wife said she would miss the family doctor, and they all wondered what would happen to Paterno's assistant coaches once he left.
"Destiny is a trick bag," he wrote in his autobiography. "How's a guy to know?"
Joe Paterno slept on it, and Joe Paterno chose to stay at Penn State.
And 40 years later, this story has become so iconic it may have led Bill O'Brien to make precisely the opposite decision.
On Thursday, O'Brien will be introduced as the head coach of the NFL's Houston Texans, becoming to the first football coach in nearly a century to leave Penn State for another job on his own volition. A month before it happened, he hinted at the reasons why, telling the Harrisburg Patriot News' David Jones in a telephone conversation that he had grown tired of appeasing the "Paterno people," that the politics of the job were overwhelming him, that "in probably about a month, they're gonna be ----ing looking for a new coach."
O'Brien was venting at the time, but he was also getting at a greater truth: The alumni base at Penn State has essentially been cleaved by those who refuse to let go of the past, who believe Penn State was not sufficiently loyal to the one man who came to represent their own loyalty to the university, the one man who turned down the NFL and every other job offered to him, the one man who stayed at Penn State for the better part of six decades. They are angry at Louis Freeh, and they are angry at a largely faceless board of trustees, and they refuse to rest until the vast conspiracy they believe was perpetrated against Joe Paterno is revealed.
This was the subtext of O'Brien's two-year tenure as the head coach at Penn State. Everything he said seemed to point back to it. He had to deal with a university coming to terms with its own past, a university with an interim athletic director and an interim president, a university faced with crippling sanctions and searching questions about its long-term identity. He was put in an impossible place -- it was already difficult enough to imagine the challenges that would face Paterno's successor even before the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke -- and he held the whole rickety contraption together as well as he possibly could.
And yet for the faction O'Brien referenced in his conversation with David Jones, this would never be enough.
I'm sure O'Brien will now be accused, by many of those same people, of being disloyal. I don't know if he willingly lied to the recruits he told he was staying at Penn State (at least for the short term), or if he changed his mind when he realized Penn State was never going to bend the old ways enough to fit his vision. I don't know if he always planned on leaving for the NFL as soon as he got the chance, or if he just felt the rightness of this situation in his bones, the same way Paterno once felt the opposite on a sleepless night in 1973.
It seems almost hopelessly naive to speak of loyalty in sports these days, but this is the problem, of course: Penn State became so accustomed to one universal way, to a single method, that it is still difficult for some people to let go of this ideal (or of the notion Paterno could have ever betrayed those ideals). College football, for those of us who attended schools like Penn State, is an exercise in nostalgia, and for the final four decades of his career -- once he'd turned down that job in New England -- no one spoke to that nostalgia quite like Paterno. Some of that was a mythological construction, and some of it was real, but when the end came, swift and sudden, it seemed inevitable it would take years to get beyond it.
The obvious moral of Paterno's final days should have been that a university is far bigger than one man; two years later, and here is Penn State, facing up to those same ideas once again.
"I've done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno," O'Brien told David Jones. "Everything in my power."
I don't know what ultimately made up O'Brien's mind. But at some level, I think he finally recognized there was nothing more he could do, the problems he faced at Penn State were so deeply rooted in its past he couldn't pull it any farther into the future on his own. Destiny is a trick bag. In order to be loyal to himself, Bill O'Brien had no choice but to leave.