Penn State athletics emerge from last fall’s crisis with transformative leadership


Penn State head football coach [still feels strange to write this] Bill O’Brien finished an 18-city bus tour last night in Buffalo. It’s pretty clear why O’Brien became a football coach — New England no longer has whaling ships and grist mills and never had coal mines.

He will be warmly embraced in Pennsylvania. How can you not love a guy who as the college football world — and thus the NFL draft — tilts toward Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, proclaims that he’ll recruit mostly within six to eight hours of State College’s central Pennsylvania campus?

Penn State is in the seventh month of a crisis that’s far from ended. The child sex-abuse trial of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is coming and will tear off all the healing scabs this great university grew in the last few months since legendary coach Joe Paterno’s firing and death.

But O’Brien and his fellow coaches on the bus — men’s hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, women’s hockey coach Josh Bradwene and men’s volleyball coach Mark Pavlik — are moving on, with reason.

Thanks to the largesse and love for Penn State of Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula and his wife Kim, Penn State will open the nation’s most impressive college hockey arena in September 2013.

Pavlik, when he’s done reaching NCAA Final Fours, could take over for Leno, Letterman or Kimel. Pavlik runs the only men’s volleyball program east of the Mississippi that’s competitive with the California and Texas teams.

The message a little under all the [appropriate] rah-rah boosterism at last night’s stop was that Penn State athletics is moving on. The four coaches impressed with their character, comments, intelligence and descriptions of their programs and those programs’ values. Even a non-Penn Stater would be impressed, and this one was.

Gadowsky came from Princeton. O’Brien from the New England Patriots as Tom Brady’s coach. [Though in a Buffalo hotel, O’Brien didn’t bring into it Brady’s pre-Super Bowl comments about Western New York lodgings; he did joke about being a Sabres fan, and about how tough the Bills are to play]. Bradwene coached New England prep hockey and internationally. And Pavlik’s just a guy anyone would want in the foxhole next to you.

They’re all moving on. New rink, new football coach, fresh approaches. As a crisis manager, there’s no better show to take on the road — especially to your internal constituency you must retain and re-engage — than these guys.

There are too many variables in football to predict how O’Brien’s team will do this season or next. But I guarantee you those young men will learn life lessons they can apply after their football careers end — just like JoePa insisted. And they will charge onto that field with O’Brien’s Boston twang fresh in their highly motivated minds.

All four coaches are helping Penn State manage and move beyond the horrible crisis and hypocrisy of the last six months. Transformative leadership is the best-possible result of any crisis. Penn State is getting there.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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