Bill O’Brien‘s news conference performance as Penn State’s new football coach was a tour de force. Analyzing his messaging and the university’s first major counter-attack in the crisis that exploded over the Jerry Sandusky child abuse allegations produces all A’s.
He won hearts and minds by starting with family, not incidentally a tradition in the job. He first introduced his wife and gave her credentials as a Boston College graduate and lawyer. He introduced his sons and brother, mentioned his in-laws and parents. He praised ousted former coach Joe Paterno and the many mentor coaches in his career.
And O’Brien showed a lot of courage in not dismissing, or even dissing, the elements and traditions that make Penn State football successful and envied. He said he wanted a championship-caliber team, but one that taught and enforced rules and character; one that competed on the field, but produced graduates who would contribute in their lives and communities; and he reached out to the Penn State lettermen, fans and community and invited them back into the fold.
Strictly from the point of view of blunting the negativity of the crisis that still surrounds the university, and that will continue to swirl around it for years, he could not have done better. On the university’s first major public stage to re-assert leadership, integrity and excellence, he spoke to the honesty and integrity of the acting president and the acting athletic director.
The strength of O’Brien’s messaging is that the temptation for a new coach had to be to sweep out the old for the sake of the new; there is immense pressure to reject all that’s successfully gone before, just to distance oneself from the last three months’ scorn.
O’Brien did none of that. He retained a key assistant coach, embraced the tradition, the uniforms, the graduation rates, the students and the players. He re-inflated some of the crushed egos and feelings about and for Penn State University, State College, and the real and mythical Happy Valley.
The team that found and evaluated O’Brien deserves praise. But from a crisis counselor’s point of view, the team that prepped him, helped with his messaging and coached him with his presentation was stellar. Ketchum was reported in November to be working with the university and if its experts worked with O’Brien, they earned their fees in one day.
Will O’Brien win? It almost doesn’t matter.