Two years ago, the name "Bill O’Brien" was being bandied about as a serious potential candidate for the head coaching position at Penn State. I know I wasn’t alone in not taking that name seriously; I had no idea who this guy was, and I had pride and hubris enough in the PSU brand and program (despite the scandal we were engulfed in) that I was sure we would still be able to attract a name that most in the college football world would recognize.
Flash forward one year, and we were all singing a different tune—yours truly most definitely included. After facing unprecedented sanctions, after having to re-recruit not only his incoming recruiting class but the current players on his bench, O’Brien did the near-impossible: he had a winning season in Happy Valley, and was named Coach of the Year. He was, improbably and quite quickly, beloved in State College.
After that crazy dream of a season, his name was everywhere, for every vacancy. Because, despite everything he’d done at Penn State—why wouldn’t he want to leave? O’Brien went so far as to interview for the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles, keeping his name out there for the NFL GMs to see, and the PSU brand out there during a recruiting dead period with no bowl game to publicize. Reportedly, O’Brien wasn’t serious about either offer, but rather leveraged the teams’ interest into contract changes for himself, and upgrades for his staff.
A year ago, and the Penn State community was shocked that a coach might look elsewhere for employment—but they shouldn’t have been. Besides the fact that the average coach in NCAA football lasts less than five years, beyond the fact that O’Brien’s obvious goal from the moment he was hired was always a head coaching position in the League (one of the reasons why people like myself were unhappy with the initial hire)—we as a fan base were incredibly spoiled for so many years with not having to deal with rumors like this surrounding our coach and our coaching staff. Last year, seeds were planted by many in the media--both mainstream and new media, like on BSD—that rumors like this would be the new normal for followers of Penn State football. And yet…
It seems so many are shocked that, once again, Bill O’Brien’s name is being bandied about whenever a vacancy is discussed. The idea, the even possibility that O’Brien might depart Penn State is met with hostility, and in some instances downright vitriol—despite the fact that this is no surprise, would have been no surprise in 2011, was no surprise in 2012, and will be no surprise in 2014, or 2015, should O’Brien still be on the sidelines in Happy Valley come fall (and despite the fact that there could be very valid reasons why he should want to threaten to leave PSU).
O’Brien is a hot commodity in the coaching world. Owners and programs want him, other coaches want to work with him, and players want to play for him. At Penn State, we have a coach that is respected and loved (by none other that Mike freaking Mauti). How is this not a good thing? Other teams in the Big Ten, teams like Michigan and Nebraska and Wisconsin, are hoping against hope that O’Brien leaves Happy Valley—because they’ve seen what he can do with one hand tied behind his back, and are scared of what he might be able to accomplish when at full strength, with no scholarship reductions or bowl bans in place.
I’ve seen a lot of different arguments as to why the news that O’Brien may be interviewing with the Texans is an affront, or immoral, or something we should all be up in arms about. These arguments vary from asking him to make up his mind already (with myriad numbers of fans telling him to "just go") to claiming that it’s unfair to ask recruits to commit to the university when O’Brien him self can’t do so. Beyond the obvious (who amongst us wouldn’t at least listen when an offer from a lifelong dream job came calling?), it’s incredibly presumptuous for us to think that someone whose stated goal all along was an NFL job wouldn’t at least listen when a decent franchise with a potential #1 overall draft pick requests an interview with him.
As a fan base, we as Penn Staters have an overarching sense of entitlement. We’re often called the best fans in college football—and for good reason, because we’re pretty awesome. But we’re also demanding. Despite that, though, Coach O’Brien doesn’t really owe us jack. The list of who O’Brien owes things to is a short one: his family. His players. His staff. His recruits…and that’s about it. He doesn’t have an obligation to tell us—fans or media—what he’s thinking, what’s going on, where his head is at, whether he’s leaning towards staying or going. And, from what we’ve seen from O’Brien these past two years, I can pretty much guarantee you that the coach has been upfront with the people who matter about where his head is at—and that’s the way it should be. You and I don’t need or, frankly, deserve to know. The players and staff do, and nothing I’ve seen—including the distinct lack of chatter from them on social media—suggests they don’t.
Personally, I don’t see O’Brien leaving Penn State this offseason, but I may be wrong. I may be labeled a homer, or misreading the signs, but I don’t interpret someone who has just made changes on his staff to be someone looking to leave. I don’t think someone who has been working tirelessly off-field to reduce draconian, controversial sanctions levied at a football program is looking to leave without realizing the benefits of that labor. I don’t look at a fierce competitor and see an 0-2 record against Ohio State and Nebraska, a recent loss to old mentor George O’Leary, and an historic program loss to Indiana and think that’s how he wants to go out. I can’t picture someone who promised Christian Hackenberg he would be at Penn State through his college career, that told senior banquet-goers "see you next season", as leaving this off season.
But, hey, I didn’t picture the Nittany Lions hiring O’Brien, and I certainly didn’t picture liking him so quickly (though his retention of Larry Johnson, Sr, definitely helped)—so I’ve been wrong before. And I will be wrong again.
One thing that I won’t be wrong about, though, is that the program is in a better place now than it was two years ago. And, whether he stays or leaves, in very large part we have Bill O’Brien to thank for that. If it weren’t for a virtually unknown Patriots offensive coordinator, we wouldn’t be talking about what NFL coach might be the next hire for Penn State. We wouldn’t be talking about having a top 20 recruiting class. We wouldn’t have a former walk-on QB starting games in the NFL, have the Big Ten freshman of the year or the reigning Campbell Trophy winner or a unheralded wideout named a six-time All American. We wouldn’t be seriously looking at emerging from the NCAA sanctions without a losing season, having the most electrifying win in Beaver Stadium in eight years, or an away game victory over a top-15 team as a three-touchdown underdog.
Bill O’Brien will likely interview with other teams, like he did last year in the offseason. And he might go to an NFL team, or he will stay at Penn State. And regardless of what happens, in Happy Valley? We’ll be better off for it, and for him.
I can’t fault him for whatever happens, though I truly hope and believe he stays. It’s the nature of the college football game nowadays, and as much as we as Penn Staters like to think (rightly or wrongly) our program is above some of the muck and mire that weighs down much of the college football landscape, this isn’t something we will ever be above again. Penn State will continue to attract top coaching talent, but college football is so rarely a destination job anymore, for any program—and so many fans are unrealistically expecting O’Brien to stay at Penn State for their lifetime, or his, because that’s what has happened in State College before.
There will never be another Joe Paterno in college football, let alone another one in Happy Valley. And however long Bill O’Brien coaches the Nittany Lions, that’s just the way it should be.