Succeeding a Legend

It’s tempting to strike back when you’re being attacked through the media. We’re getting a belly full of examples from the GOP presidential debates.

It’s the unusual person who can constrain that reflex and take the high road in such a way that their response is even more powerful.

Bill O’Brien is the newly-named football coach at Penn State. You probably know about the sordid scandal that institution is experiencing regarding a former assistant coach and charges of pedophilia. It cost one of the most celebrated coaches of all time, Joe Paterno, his job. It was very tragic for an icon to be forcibly retired.

And it’s quite a challenge to be the person who follows him.

O’Brien, the successor, has no Penn State roots; no connection at all. And while he has significant experience as an assistant coach in the pros and with major college programs, he’s never been a head coach. Those are two primary reasons his selection was not greeted favorably by everyone. Some notable former players have complained very loudly and publicly.

“It would have been nice if we felt like we were part of the process,” said D.J. Dozier, a member of the 1986 national championship team. “This is a pretty important situation in transition for the university and the program. There are a lot of guys that feel a certain way. Today I have more questions than answers.”

Former linebackers LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short led an online petition in support of interim coach Tom Bradley who’s been with Penn State and at Paterno’s side for decades.

It would be easy to understand O’Brien if he responded in anger. But, instead, his reaction was not only positive, it was powerful, giving his critics little opportunity to continue their public denunciations.

When he was introduced at a press conference, O’Brien acknowledged the controversy, said he understood it and took responsibility to “get this football family moving in the right direction.”

“We respectfully request the opportunity to earn your trust through communication and field it through our abilities, ethics, beliefs, work ethic and commitment to Penn State. In time, we will find that we have more common interests and goals than not. We are here now with you. You should be proud of Penn State’s numerous accomplishments. You should be proud of Penn State’s football program. You should love this school. You are why we want to be here. We want you to know that you will always be welcome and a part of our program because we are Penn State!”

With those brief remarks, Bill O’Brien created an open, accessible and welcoming posture to even his most strident critics, leaving them little room to credibly continue their public complaints.

This is an excellent example of how to channel your emotions through the media to help drive persuasive and positive messaging.

(You can see and hear O’Brien’s statement, which runs about one and a half minutes, just click on the video below.)

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