Despite short tenure, O’Brien did much for PSU – and vice versa

New Year’s Eve was interrupted with news that Bill O’Brien is leaving Penn State to become head coach of the Houston Texans. You may have heard.

Disappointed? Certainly.

In two short years, O’Brien proved himself as an outstanding leader and tactician. He held the program together, overcame unprecedented adversity, countered every negative (NCAA sanctions, Virginia last year, Indiana this year) with a positive and won 15 of the 24 games he coached.

Both of his teams improved, and both finished with resounding end-of-season victories over Wisconsin.

His offenses showed a balanced mix of run and pass, and he reinforced that he is especially gifted at quarterback development, molding a discarded senior in Matt McGloin and helping him become an NFL quarterback and taking a true freshman stud in Christian Hackenberg and laying the foundation for a professional career.

Off the field, he raised the recruiting profile, modernized the program and sold a next-level mentality. His players represented themselves and Penn State well, and O’Brien was a significant and likeable presence on campus and in the community.

Despite being severely restricted the NCAA, O’Brien showed there was no limit to Penn State’s potential with him at the helm.

With one exception: He never saw himself as a long-term solution.

That became evident when he flirted with the NFL after just one year but decided to stay and returned to the dance floor again this year after positioning himself to make a break by restructuring his contract and reducing his buyout to take a job in the Sunday league.

To that end, while some Penn State fans are upset, they cannot be surprised as O’Brien gave them plenty of warning.

Yes, there’s a bit of a spurned feeling that folks here aren’t used to. The cruel irony, of course, is incredible: Penn State was blessed for all these years with a coach in Joe Paterno who didn’t want to leave – and, for the last 10 years, refused to leave – only to be succeeded by someone who apparently couldn’t wait to leave.

To that end, one more year with O’Brien would have been nice, but we said that after the Browns and Eagles came calling last year. If the courtship was going to be an annual event, and apparently it was, O’Brien might as well follow his heart rather than continue to recruit and build false hope.

It’s hard to blame O’Brien for aspiring to the highest level. He has enough confidence in himself that he probably thinks he can contend for a Super Bowl as quickly as the Big Ten title. And with an ideal situation in Houston, he may be right.

Even with five-year contract expected to pay upwards of $25 million, O’Brien is still risking financial security that he had at Penn State, where he could likely have continued until the end of his career, rather than expose himself to a league where coaches without franchise quarterbacks are on the hot seat, often in less than three years, and ones with franchise QBs usually fall short of their fan base’s expectations.

But that’s his choice, and after the NCAA sanctions hit – which he didn’t expect – it was clear he was saddled with a job for which he didn’t sign up. In fact, the two years he spent here, starting with having to re-recruit his players in July of 2012, must have seemed like five to him.

Penn State’s unstable leadership played a role in discouraging O’Brien, too.

Since the week he took the job, O’Brien was working for a lame-duck president, Rod Erickson, and an athletic director, Dave Joyner, who many in the Nittany Nation believe should be a lame-duck (and probably is.)

How Erickson and Joyner are going to manage a search now is curious, since the ultimate choice will likely not be reporting to either after a year or so, and yet based on everything that’s unfolded the last two-plus years, Penn State will somehow get through it.

The next guy, maybe someone with Penn State ties or at least without eyes for the NFL, will have to accept that he’ll also have to be an ambassador, a role O’Brien performed but was not totally comfortable. O’Brien saw himself as the football coach, “not the unity coach,” as he once called it, to mend what still, and probably always will be to an extent, a fractured community.

O’Brien left the program in way better shape than the train wreck he inherited, and with the sanctions having been reduced and the Lions eligible for the Big Ten championship game in 2016 if not sooner, the list of candidates should be attractive.

O’Brien deserves credit for that, and though his annual NFL flirtation wore thin, he should be remembered very positively as the guy who picked up the pieces and succeeded Paterno about as well as anyone could.

At the same time, and this shouldn’t be underestimated, just as Bill O’Brien did a lot for Penn State, Penn State did a lot for Bill O’Brien for it put him on a national stage to shine.

It allowed him to show his great personality and, out of necessity, forced him to show his ability to lead, and he did so extraordinarily well. Between the NCAA and Penn State’s behind-the-scenes bickering, O’Brien faced constant off-field challenges. You can be sure he will not miss that, though it undoubtedly made him even stronger.

As a rising offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, had he passed on PSU two years ago, O’Brien likely would have had an NFL job by now, but it may not have been as good as the one he just landed. He would not have been the first call on the NFL’s Black Monday.

O’Brien went from the anonymous assistant coach known for yelling at Tom Brady to a household name in the football world and a prime candidate for any job, current and future, college or pro.

He pulls out of Boalsburg sooner than almost everyone in the Nittany Nation had hoped, but he left a mighty impressive two-year imprint, and for what he dealt with here and how he dealt with it, he deserves congratulations, best wishes and a rousing curtain call when the time is right at Beaver Stadium.

Now, Penn State returns to the drawing board with two daunting missions: Find the next Bill O’Brien, and make sure he stays much longer.


Neil Rudel writes from the Altoona Mirror.