By Dan Bernstein
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) — He got out safely, and he’s not looking back. As if anyone would want to.
Bill O’Brien has extricated himself from Happy Valley, that twisted little village with a name ironic enough for horror-story cliché. And indeed, O’Brien’s escape conjures such images.
Zombies roam the streets in central Pennsylvania, shambling with arms outstretched, heads lolled back, their undead eyes gawking at leaden skies. “Paterrrrrnnooooo,” they moan, as they seek sustenance from consuming the brains of those who think a football program knowingly facilitating decades of child rape is a bad thing. Some wear tattered shirts emblazoned with “409,” while others drag cardboard cutouts of their shamed, dead patriarch.
“You can print this,” O’Brien told the Harrisburg Patriot News. “You can print that I don’t really give a [expletive] what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program.”
He’s Ellen Ripley finally lifted off again from planet LV-426, barely able to clamber onto the remotely-retrieved dropship in time to return to the Sulaco in orbit above, away from the siege of relentless, insectile beasts. Instead of the instinctive motivation to defend the hive and destroy threats to their queen, these similarly ugly, poisonous beings exist only to reinvent the false image of a coach that must have given some kind of vicarious meaning to their otherwise empty lives.
O’Brien never wanted any part in that effort, often meeting questions about Paterno’s legacy with icy glares at reporters, and always deflecting such attempts back to his own team, and the quest to win games. Yet the monsters kept at it, even infiltrating Penn State’s board of trustees and fighting their sickening, amoral battles at the university’s highest levels.
“I’ve done everything I can to show respect to coach Paterno,” he said. “Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.”
He’s now weary, cynical and battle-scarred, with the same thousand-yard stare as Snake Plissken in “Escape From New York.” He, too, accepted a seemingly impossible mission that involved a short time in an eerie, isolated community that had evolved insularly into something dark and threatening, where the rules of the outside no longer applied. And the only way out after the job was done was to drive over a bridge laden with land mines.
“For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing,” O’Brien snarled, “it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.”
No exit for a major college coach is pretty, with half-truths and evasiveness now unfortunate necessities as contracts are finalized. There are always promises un-kept and words regretted that cause minor collateral damage to one’s reputation in the eyes of some, but any of it is well worth the chance to just get the hell out of there, and back to something resembling the real world.
Whether or not O’Brien will succeed as head coach of the Houston Texans is completely unknown, and equally beside the point.
Any thought that he’d be more than a stopgap at Penn State was wishful from the outset. He established himself as a pro guy in his five years with the Patriots, and is leaving behind the silliness of this particular amateur hour.
And helping to push him away after two years were the zombies, the soulless aliens, the condemned inmates. The “Paterno people,” as he called them, who ignore sworn testimony and incontrovertible fact in the vain pursuit of an alternate reality – one in which Joe Paterno did not spend years turning a blind eye to unspeakable crimes against children being enabled by his program, and committed in his offices and on trips to his games, by his protected assistant who now rots behind bars.
Al Golden looks to be next, forsaking palm trees and Miami oceanfront for the upcoming perjury trials, board squabbles, ongoing NCAA sanctions, and state and local elections still influenced largely by officals’ responses to the most horrible scandal in the history of college sports.
Bill O’Brien has had enough, having done better than many could have hoped, all while trying to stay above the raving insanity that still percolates through Penn State.
In the words of Private Hudson from “Aliens”: “With those things running around? You can count me out.”