By Greg McCune
(Reuters) - Penn State announced on Friday the hiring of New England Patriots assistant coach Bill O'Brien as its new football coach, reaching outside the ranks of its alumni to try to restore the university's battered reputation after a former assistant coach was charged with serial sex abuse of boys.
O'Brien follows the legendary Joe Paterno, who was coach of the Big 10 conference football powerhouse for 46 years until he was abruptly fired last November for failing to notify police about what he knew of the abuse scandal.
The new coach has never headed a college football program and is best known for a brief incident on the sidelines of a Patriots NFL game earlier this season, when he argued vehemently about game strategy with star quarterback Tom Brady.
The incident was played repeatedly on national television as a rare moment of dissension within a professional football team considered a juggernaut. Brady and O'Brien both downplayed the incident later as a brief flare-up of emotions in the middle of a game.
O'Brien will remain as offensive coordinator with the Patriots until the end of the NFL season.
Penn State took weeks to decide on its new coach, scouring the country for someone who could lead the school's football program back from one of the worst scandals in college sports history.
Several high profile college coaches passed on the job at the university, which faces more negative publicity as the sex abuse trial of former Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky may not be held for months.
Penn State President Rodney Erikson and Acting Athletic Director Dave Joyner said in a statement that they were looking for someone with special leadership qualities.
"He (O'Brien) will embrace tradition, demand excellence and pursue Success with Honor in every phase of our program," Joyner said.
O'Brien said in a statement that he was thrilled to get the job at Penn State, which before the scandal was known as one of the top college football programs in the nation.
"As head coach of this special football program, it is my responsibility to ensure that this program represents the highest level of character, respect and integrity in everything we do. That includes my coaching staff, our players and everyone involved in the football program," said O'Brien, who will be formally introduced on Saturday on campus in State College, Pennsylvania.
O'Brien joins a team and university which has been rocked by the allegations of child sexual abuse by Sandusky, who faces 52 charges stemming from accusations by ten men who say he molested them as juveniles during a 15-year period.
Sandusky, 67, has maintained his innocence. No date has been set for his trial, and he is under house arrest.
In November, Paterno, 85, and university president Graham Spanier were both fired for failing to tell police what they knew about accusations against Sandusky.
Paterno, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, won 409 games at Penn State, more victories in big-time college football than any other coach in the sport's history.
Unrivaled for the longevity of his success, Paterno promoted the notion that football players could excel on the field and in the classroom. "Success with Honor" was the motto of his football program, which boasted high graduation rates among players.
(Editing by Peter Bohan)