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Column: Challenges and change

Bill O'Brien's agent, Joe Linta, told a reporter this week that his client has no interest in leaving Penn State.

Bill O'Brien impressed coaches and media alike during his first season at Penn State.

Could you imagine O'Brien's predecessor, Joe Paterno, issuing a statement to the media through his agent? Or even imagine Paterno having an agent?

O'Brien has been on the job less than 11 months, and yet so much is different in the program. You can thank Jerry Sandusky and Mark Emmert for a lot of that, and yet so many of the changes were already set in motion long before the sanctions were handed down.

Comparing O'Brien to Paterno is a somewhat tricky proposition, given the way Paterno left the program, the fact that the seniors who led O'Brien's team to an uplifting 8-4 season were recruited and coached by Paterno and his staff and, especially, the striking contrast in styles (not to mention the generational gap) between the two men.

But if we're going to put the job the Big Ten Coach of the Year has done in its proper context, as so many columnists have attempted to do during the last few days, we must not only hold O'Brien's accomplishments in Sanction Year 1 up to what his peers around the country accomplished this season (or might have accomplished in similar circumstances), but also to what Paterno was able to achieve here during the last few years of his career.

When you look at the 2012 Nittany Lions, you see a lot of Paterno trademarks: a disciplined, aggressive, adaptable defense. Heady, athletic offensive linemen. A running game well-suited for the physical battles of the Big Ten. And, mostly, you see a lot of smart, motivated, talented players who represented their team and their school very well, who seem destined for leadership in various careers well beyond the gridiron.

But we also saw a lot from those players this season that we almost never saw in Paterno's 46 seasons: a versatile, sophisticated passing attack that forced the defense to take what the offense was giving it rather than the other way around. Tight ends running all over the field. A coach who treated fourth downs as though they were third downs, was even more aggressive on the road than he was at home and kept his foot on the gas (and his starters in the game) well into the fourth quarter of games both close and lopsided.

We saw a coach who tried a linebacker as a punt returner (OK, so Paterno did that too -- albeit in the 1960s) and moved a former fourth-stringer into the starting tailback role, then watched him rumble for 1,000 yards. We saw that coach take on what had been an awkward, only-sometimes-productive quarterback rotation, name his starter in early spring and then turn him into the Big Ten's top passer. We saw a sense of urgency that had recently only existed here in Big Ten championship seasons, and we saw it long after two losses in the first two weeks.

Mostly, we saw change, from a program that desperately needed it long before the Sandusky bomb detonated last year. There is no denying that Paterno's influence on the program, the university and, most especially, the thousands of players he led helped build the tremendous foundation O'Brien and his staff had to work upon. In recent years, though, what the previous staff had been able to build throughout the course of each season had not measured up to that foundation.

An 8-4 record should not and will not be the standard for the new era of Penn State football, and O'Brien has no intention of allowing it to be. He knows his job will only increase in difficulty during the next few years and faces the unenviable task of tempering short-term expectations, both inside and outside the wall of Lasch, under the cloud of the sanctions while simultaneously keeping the long-term goals lofty.

Penn State fans, both those who were staunch supporters of Paterno and those who thought he had stayed too long, were impressed by O'Brien's message and his behavior throughout the spring and summer but waited to see if he could, you know, actually coach before they bought in. During the last three months, O'Brien showed them that and more. Replacing Paterno was never going to be easy. Coaching at Penn State after July 23 was never going to be easy.

O'Brien, somehow, only made it seem that way.

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