Rudel: Undermining no help to O’Brien, PSU future

Sports Illustrated certainly got Penn State’s attention.

The Nittany Lion camp has spent the past four days trying to defuse — and dispute — a story that questioned the football program’s philosophy on medical care and suggested a win-at-all-costs attitude has accompanied Bill O’Brien’s arrival from the NFL.

The story enraged O’Brien, who endured 20 minutes of inquiry at a hastily-called teleconference Wednesday afternoon before snapping, “How many more questions?”

Told six, he shaved it to three before excusing himself to attend his son’s Little League game.

Since taking the Penn State job 16 months ago, O’Brien has endured a career’s worth of obstruction, but make no mistake: He’s never been more upset than he is right now.

The NCAA’s overreaction made him mad, yes, but he expected some level of sanctions — just not to this extent.

Sports Illustrated, though, took the word of those with an apparent axe to grind — former employees who were let go and/or those who want to see the program fail in the wake of Joe Paterno’s firing.

O’Brien’s recommendation to change the role of Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli in January is the focus of the story. SI did some extensive reporting. It exposes an alleged rivalry between Athletic Director Dave Joyner and Sebastianelli — both orthopedic surgeons — and reports that Joyner wanted the job when Sebastianelli was hired in 1992. It also brings to light some issues concerning Head Trainer Tim Bream that likely will be addressed.

But there were no bombshells in this “special report,” and were it not for Penn State’s host role in college football’s worst scandal ever, still somewhat recent, this would be a non-story.

You don’t have to be Colombo to unearth what faction is driving the narrative. It’s the same platform that some have used to gain votes onto the Board of Trustees.

O’Brien was asked Wednesday if he anticipated some level of undermining when he took over a kingdom in which many of the serfs are still lurking.

“I didn’t anticipate anything,” he said. “. All I tried to do was come in here and be myself, try to observe and do what was right for the players every single day. How could anyone anticipate being undermined? I mean, we are all trying to win football games and graduate players. Who would undermine that? I don’t even think in that world. I’m not even in that realm.”

Then he admitted, “I guess I’m nave.”

One new trustee, Anthony Lubrano, has been an outspoken critic — willing, though, at least to put his name to his words.

“The fear is that in becoming more like the NFL, there might be more of a rush to get the student back on the field,” he told of the SI story and his medical concerns. “Is that a risk we’re willing to take?”

O’Brien dismissed Lubrano by saying, “I don’t know where anyone can just say a quote about something that they know nothing about I don’t comprehend it,” adding that Lubrano’s assertion “is not true.”

Sebastianelli may have been conservative in getting players back into action. Should that be surprising? He was working for a coach who had lifetime job security and preferred to win 10-7.

O’Brien adamantly says no players are being compromised and the fact that he’s operating under the limit of 65 scholarships further underscores Wednesday’s opening statement, “that the health and safety of our players is on the top — not near the top” — of his responsibility and priority lists.

According to research submitted by Penn State, the Lions’ current arrangement is similar or superior to most other Big Ten teams with regard to having a doctor on site, in practice and obviously at games.

The fact is one of the highest risks on the Penn State practice field these last few years, sadly, was Paterno himself.

It may just be that O’Brien is more comfortable with new, fresh additions in Peter Seidenberg and Scott Lynch, and in Bream, who comes highly regarded, than he was with Paterno’s family doctor (SI reported Sebastianelli also treated Sue Paterno.)

And that’s OK. No one at Penn State is used to change, so it’s having a tough time digesting it, especially the way it all went down.

O’Brien clearly appears to be the right choice, and “the uphill climb” he knows looms because of the sanctions shouldn’t be roadblocked by people eager to take down Joyner, who hasn’t done everything right or everything wrong and is only under contract for another year before a national search takes place and likely produces a successor.

O’Brien reiterated Wednesday that he can only follow his heart and do what he believes is best for the program, and he’ll continue to do so “as long as I’m the head football coach here at Penn State.”

That projected tenure didn’t add any years this week.

It probably subtracted them — thanks in part to those who can’t face the future, who claim to love Penn State but instead shake hands with one hand while hiding a knife behind their back with the other.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or