Ed Note: The following appears courtesy our friends at Crystal Ball Run.
Bill O'Brien was focused on the future when the NCAA handed down harsh sanctions against his new football program last summer. He was short and upset after he suffered his first coaching loss in Penn State's season opener. On Wednesday he was livid and noticeably annoyed as a result of a Sports Illustrated story he referred to as a character assassination against his boss, Penn State Athletics Director David Joyner.
On Tuesday Sports Illustrated teased an investigative story asking the question "Do athletics still have too much power at Penn State?" The report authored by senior writer David Epstein digs in to Penn State's handling of medical care available to football players by suggesting changes in the school's medical staffing were perplexing to many others tied to the Penn State football family and that the changes made result in inadequate and sometimes flawed medical treatment.
O'Brien vehemently disagrees with that concept, and he let everyone know that on Wednesday.
To set the scene briefly, Penn State made a medical staff change in February. Long-time team physician and orthopedic surgeon Wayne Sebastianelli, who had served in that capacity since 1992, was replaced after a review of the football team's entire staff at the end of the 2013 season. These types of reviews are common around the country. Sebastianelli was replaced by Peter Seidenberg and Scott Lynch as team physician and orthopedic surgeon, respectively. Penn State also added Tim Bream, who had previously been an athletic trainer for the Chicago Bears. Sebastianelli remains at Penn State as the Director of Athletics today.
The problems Sports Illustrated takes aim at stem from the relationship and leadership of Joyner. Shortly after having his interim tag removed as Penn State's athletics director, the changes with the football program's medical staff started. Citing a conflicting existing relationship between Sebastianelli and Joyner — also a doctor with an orthopedic surgery background and a career in sports medicine — Sports Illustrated reports Sebastianelli was removed from his football position without clarity and openness. Confusion over Sebastianelli's position and status could be found with players and other staff members. According to the report, the decision to make staff changes was tied to costs. Citing a significant drop in donations from 2010-11 to 2011-12 as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal fallout, Penn State could not afford to provide the same medical care they had been accustomed to.
Much of what Sports Illustrated's report points out is that Joyner and Sebastianelli were at odds for a long time. Other claims in the report suggest Penn State does not have comparable medical staff available for football practices and that Bream has provided medical assistance he is not qualified for.
Given the information provided in the report though, the question asked by Sports Illustrated is never truly answered by the details reported. According to a small sampling of college football programs, mostly from the Big Ten, shared by Penn State, it seems as though much of what Penn State provides is pretty much on par with other programs. Which brings us back to O'Brien on the defense of the program.
Having covered Bill O'Brien since the day he was introduced as head coach at Penn State, I can name three moments that really stand out in his dealings with the media. His introductory press conference was a home run. His post game press conference after losing his coaching debut was what I will refer to as Belichickian. His upfrontness with the media and fans has been refreshing to see over the past year, especially following the NCAA sanctions. But Wednesday afternoon's conference call with the media may crack my top three Bill O'Brien media moments.
He started his call with a rare opening statement, and his voice was as though he was giving a locker room speech at times. He was defensive, in a good way, and you could tell everything was getting to him. At one point he asked the moderator how many questions he had left.
"We have six more."
"Six? No, we have three."
Throughout his conference call and his interview on ESPN's College Football Live with Sam Ponder, O'Brien reiterated the point over and over again that was crystal clear from his point of view; player safety is not to be put at risk.
"At the top of [my] responsibility list, at the top, is taking care of this program’s players," O'Brien said during a media conference call Wednesday afternoon. "The student-athletes in this football program are the No. 1 priority to me. Their health and safety is the No. 1 priority to me. It’s not near the top. It’s not around the top. It’s at the top."
O'Brien was clearly taken off guard by the result of the Sports Illustrated story, and he was adamant in pointing out the article missed a significant amount of information provided to the magazine by the school.
"I believe in the model that we have right now, which we sent to Sports Illustrated. You guys that know me and have been around me now for a year [referring to Penn State beat reporters on a conference call], I’m not sitting in this office trying to hide. What we sent from Penn State, our medical synopsis to Sports Illustrated, that was not in the article. We had our Dean of the Medical School had a significant amount of quotes. That was not in the article. I spent much of my time on Sunday on the phone with Sports Illustrated back and forth. I didn’t have any quotes in that article. [Note: O'Brien is actually quoted four different times]
To me, what that article was to me, was a character assassination on Dave Joyner. That’s what that article was. And it wasn’t anything other than that. The care for our players medically is superb."
O'Brien has a point in his favor. At a time when health of the players has become a growing concern with NCAA sanctions cutting back on scholarship limits and thus depth on the roster, why wouldn't Penn State want to provide the best possible medical treatment? O'Brien addressed health concerns following the annual spring game. Zach Zwinak, a 1,000-yard rusher had suffered an early injury in the spring game and he did not return. A handful of other players were also held out of the game due to medical concerns. With safety of the players in mind, O'Brien has already gone so far as to suggest changes to the approach to spring football may be coming at Penn State.
Does this sound like a program that takes the safety of their players lightly? You decide.