As Bill O'Brien strode to midcourt during a timeout at the Indiana-Penn State basketball game on Sunday, fans rose to their feet and showered him with applause before the public address announcer even got a chance to introduce him. He waved to the crowd for a few moments, then began walking up to his suite through the crowd, shaking hands owned by smiling faces all the way.
The scene was a stark contrast to the hours after ESPN first reported last week that O'Brien was to be named Joe Paterno's replacement as Nittany Lions head coach. Internet message boards, blogs and the Twittersphere exploded with disapproval. Some commenters threatened to revoke their donations, while others began calling for the resignation of acting athletic director David Joyner, the leader of the search committee that targeted O'Brien. One anonymous blogger even called for open revolution in the fan base.
And then there were the disgruntled ex-players, led by former All-Americans Brandon Short and LaVar Arrington. The pair made repeated statements highly critical of an outside hire, with Arrington going so far as to say he was "done" with the program over the way the search was handled.
All of this led to Sunday's reception at the Bryce Jordan Center coming as a bit of a surprise. Granted, Internet vitriol rarely translates to public fury unless a universally despised figure is involved. However, the apparent show of overwhelming support really could not have been anticipated from the initial reception.
If O'Brien is going to be successful in his new role with the program, though, especially in the early stages, fans are going to have to make a habit of backing him up and putting their disappointment in Penn State's inability to draw a big name onto the back burner.
Ultimately, despite what some armchair quarterbacks claim, no one really has any idea how O'Brien's first head coaching gig will work out one way or the other.
He could be great. With Ohio State on probation next year and Wisconsin losing a number of coaches from its staff in addition to All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson, the Big Ten Leaders Division race is wide open. Who's to say O'Brien can't lead the Nittany Lions to a division title, then perhaps a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance?
O'Brien could also prove to be a bad hire. The fears of many that his inexperience and lack of name recognition will fail him against the likes of Ohio State's Urban Meyer over the next few years could come true. The ex-players' concerns that he doesn't fit the Penn State mold could be founded.
The possibilities are endless.
If there's a way to ensure his failure before he even stands on a Beaver Stadium sideline, however, it's to withdraw support from the program over his hiring.
The atmosphere in Happy Valley is poisoned enough as it is in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. O'Brien already faces an uphill battle in winning back the support of those disgusted by the allegations and the university's response to them. He'll also find it hard selling the program to recruits and their families with so many negative headlines flying around.
A lack of support of his hiring will only compund his problems and will prove to be very counter productive.
Make no mistake. If the last few months have taught the Penn State community anything, it's that a healthy dose of skepticism never hurt anyone. The concerns of the critics should not be ignored, as many of them are legitimate and should be accepted in the discourse about the hire.
At the same time, though, fierce fanbase division over O'Brien will make it nearly impossible for him, whether he's capable or not, to build momentum for the program and get it back moving toward its "Success With Honor" goal that so many Penn Staters purportedly share.
Former All-American Shane Conlan has this to say about O'Brien.
"He has great knowledge of the tradition and history of Penn State football," Conlan said. "He is going to reach out to the former players. He has great presence and leadership qualities and it was easy to tell he is committed and can't wait to get started. I'm excited and I am going to support Coach O'Brien and the program any way I can. I think Bill will do a great job."
The sooner the Penn State fanbase begins projecting that kind of message to the world, rather than one of division and strife, the sooner O'Brien can reach his potential with the program, whether that potential proves to be what fans are hoping for or not.