Carpetbagging Coach's Last Lesson

The hasty departure of Penn State's football coach -- after begging his players to stay amid scandal -- is yet more evidence of college sports' hypocrisy, writes William F. Devine.

January 10, 2014
Bill O'Brien and his (former) players

Criticizing people who run football colleges for not paying their players has become easy.  The players, after all, are the ones who have enabled those football colleges to lock in place all their contracts with ESPN, CBS and Fox.  Those contracts are now worth more than $20 billion.  The industry’s economic inequity is obvious to anyone not already on the football college payroll. 

Unfortunately that inequity, though significant, is just the tip of the iceberg.  The football windfall creates a problem for higher education, and indeed for the nation, that runs deeper than higher education trustees will admit.  The abbreviated tenure of William O’Brien as coach at Penn State illustrates that problem perfectly.

Back on July 23, 2012, just six months into his tenure in State College, O’Brien needed his players. The university had just agreed to penalties for the Sandusky child sexual abuse cover-up. Those penalties included a reduction in football scholarships and a suspension from bowl game participation. 

The university could thus no longer deliver on fundamental elements of its agreement with players -- i.e., the opportunity to play with a full complement of other highly skilled players, and the chance to win a trip to a bowl game. 

Many observers expected wholesale player transfers and the demise of Penn State football. If indeed players transferred and the losses piled up, those losses might diminish the arc of O’Brien’s career.  The penalties were announced at 9 a.m.  O’Brien wasted no time.  He met with the players at 10 a.m. 

One would think he would feel compelled to be straightforward with the players about the university’s inability to deliver on its bargain with them. Penn State’s Strategic Plan, after all, claims the university holds high-minded values -- i.e., “The best education produces knowledgeable, critical, creative and ethical students,” and, “The quality of the intellectual life of the University is fundamental to success.”

Given this emphasis on critical thinking, ethics and intellectual life, one would expect O’Brien to make clear to the players that their best interests and their educations were the most important aspect of their decisions, and that he would support them whether they decided to transfer or stay.  

He later reported what he said at the meeting: 

 “…I talked to them about the bond that they've formed with this football staff…  I talked to them about adversity…. And the measure of a man is how you overcome adversity…. I talked to them about this staff and our ability to develop these guys for the National Football League…”

Nowhere in Penn State’s list of values can one find discussion of football staff bonds, NFL preparation, or a measure-of-a-man statute. 

 In the wake of the meeting, the bulk of the players did not transfer, and the team performed better than expected. Then last Friday, and after just two years on the Penn State job, O’Brien landed the higher profile, higher-paying job that fits into his conception of his career arc.  He is head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans. He no longer needs the Penn State players.

What about the Penn State players’ bond with the football staff? That no longer matters. What about preparing those players for the NFL? That no longer matters. The measure-of-a-man statute? Apparently it was just a convenient invention. 

What is now clear is that, on July 23, 2012, when O’Brien met with his players just an hour after Penn State's penalties were announced, he was not concerned with embodying Penn State values.  He was concerned with saying whatever he could think of to manipulate the players into not transferring.

The irony here is large.  In July 2012, the players could have transferred and played immediately at another school, but instead listened to O'Brien and decided to stay and play for him.  Now, by contrast, those players, plus the ones who came to Penn State to play for O’Brien, would probably be forced to sit out a year at a new school before playing, thanks to the transfer restrictions that football colleges force on players.

So as he hits the door for Houston, O’Brien’s last lesson to his players is simple: say what you need to say, and exploit whomever you need to exploit, to grab the cash.

That someone involved in higher education conducts himself in a way that broadcasts such an economically unevolved lesson is distressing yet, unfortunately, not surprising. 

All colleges that play big-time football enjoy a slice of the $20-plus billion television revenue pie. That slice remains supersized because football college trustees cannot hold themselves back from exploiting their players, who are too economically weak to stand up for a paycheck.  The lesson from all these trustees, broadcast in prime time, is thus the same as O’Brien’s:  say what you need to say, and exploit whomever you need to exploit, to grab the cash. 

This is not the lesson that will help higher education's graduates survive and rejuvenate our troubled economy.  

One wonders when higher education trustees will realize that they can run a profit-driven football league or they can educate students, but they cannot do both.


William F. Devine directs the Institute for Education in the New Economy, and is the author of Penn State’s Other Cover-up (IENE, 2013).


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