Very few coaches have any kind of perspective on rebuilding a program, the way Baylor now has to.
But Texans coach Bill O’Brien saw it first hand during his days at Penn State, and said the most important thing for Baylor to remember moving forward is that it’s just football.
What appears to be a house-cleaning of the football, athletic department and administration is in process after allegations that rape and sexual assault were covered up for football players at Baylor, with coach Art Briles fired and interim coach Jim Grobe brought in.
O’Brien’s situation at Penn State was comparable, taking over the storied program after longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky’s child sexual abuse scandal.
“We didn’t try to distance ourselves from child sexual abuse,” O’Brien told John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. “I think, most importantly, in any situation that involves some things that are hard to talk about, you have to face it and think about the victims. The first thing you have to do – in addition to putting your staff together and connecting with your players – is to make sure people know there are things a lot more important than football.
“Whenever I spoke to our team, especially that first year, you couldn’t forget about what had happened. You have to express how important and how much bigger sexual violence is than football. That was an educational experience for me. Whether it was a media session or what, we never tried to distance ourselves from that.
“To me, it’s a big thing to say, ‘This is football, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about victims. We have to understand how to solve that problem before we get back to winning football games.'”
In addition to the legal and image problems Penn State was hit with as O’Brien took over, they also penalized the football program with a bowl ban, and taking away scholarships and allowing players to transfer freely without the normal year’s wait. Those penalties were eventually reduced after the school showed compliance.
O’Brien’s on-field success was significant, going 8-4 and 7-5 before leaving for the NFL, but his job repairing the school’s tarnished reputation might have been harder.
“In recruiting, we answered questions to the best of our ability, but we also said, ‘Look, here’s what we have to offer you: a brand new coaching staff, a great education – Penn State is a fantastic academic school with a great campus and student body.'” O’Brien said. “We ran a disciplined program at Penn State. We were going to recruit the right kids. You can’t be perfect, but we put a lot of emphasis on character and academics as well as good players.”
That’s a message that clearly needs to be delivered in Waco, and making sure those priorities are placed in the correct order is the biggest challenge moving forward.