The guy did an incredible job.
Any analysis of the Bill O’Brien era at Penn State has to start there—with the results. Because Bill O’Brien is a football coach, and a damned good one, and his job is to win football games. That’s what he did at Penn State.
That’s what he did despite all of the obstacles that were placed in his way: the sanctions and the sanctimony, the real transfers and the speculated transfers, the bowl ban and the scholarship limitations, the wayward and sometimes directionless administration, the tiresome push-and-pull between the fractured alumni base, the tensions between the old and the new.
All of that stuff—all of that noise—could have derailed O’Brien’s vision for this program, and in the end, I guess that’s precisely what happened (more on that in a moment). But for two years and 24 games of football, this outsider who hardly any of us wanted when he was hired showed that, when it comes to X’s and O’s and coaching up players and getting the most of what he had, he's one of the best in the business.
His teams played with style.
His teams played with passion.
His teams played, really, like professionals.
They went out there on that field, just like their coach, for one reason -- to do a job. To win football games for Penn State. And you know what? In the end, they won more than any of us thought they would.
We got two good years out of this football program. Not great years, no. But entertaining years. Fun years. The fact that we did is no small achievement by O’Brien, given what he was up against, and no small gift for a fan base that so badly needed something to feel good about.
On that account, O’Brien delivered. And if you’re a Penn State fan, you ought to be thankful that he did.
I don’t mind that he’s leaving.
Of course, I had hoped that he would stay. I wanted to see what he could do with a full roster and something to play for. I wanted to see just how far he could coach up Christian Hackenberg, and just how great his offense could be with the kind of talent that Penn State used to have. I wanted to see him try and go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer out at Ohio State—on a level playing ground, with years to put his plan in place, and the resources to turn that plan into reality. I wanted to see what O'Brien could do with a real Penn State.
Sadly, we won’t get to see any of this. O’Brien is off to the NFL now, off to a league where he believes he won’t have to deal with any of the noise that (possibly) drove him out of State College and a place where he won’t have to coach with one hand tied behind his back. Oh, and he’ll get a nice payday, too. So I get it, even if I don't really get it.
I'm not an NFL guy. I find 'The League' to be pretty stale. I don't like the sameness of it all. I don't like the parity. I don't like how it all feels so ... antiseptic. I honestly think it's a bore. But I know I'm in the minority there, and I know, too, that O'Brien always was an NFL guy. We all knew that.
It was never going to end any other way than like this—with O’Brien leaving the program and his players behind for an NFL job. The fact that he's leaving now, two years into his tenure, doesn't make him a bad guy. It doesn't mean that he’s disloyal, or at the very least, it doesn't mean that he's any more disloyal than anybody else in this nasty business. It just means he's a professional football coach.
Which brings me to a point that I think we need to accept: There is no loyalty in football. None. Coaches leave jobs all the time and coaches get fired from jobs all the time. They live nomadic lives and work horrible hours and know that they are always just one or two bad losses from unemployment. These guys scrap and claw their way up the coaching ladder, and then, maybe if they’re lucky, they end up like Bill O’Brien—a hot commodity in the otherwise cold and miserable coaching market. So, of course, when they do get there—when they finally escape the hamster’s wheel—they usually want to take what's theirs.
I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying it's wrong. I'm just saying this is the way it is, and the way it will remain.
Could O'Brien have saved some face with the Penn State fan base if he had stayed three or four years instead of just two?
But does it really matter for Penn State that O'Brien is leaving now, rather than next year, or the year after that?
No, not really.
O'Brien was always going to be The Guy Before The Guy.
That's precisely what he proved to be. And he did as good a job in that role as anyone could have asked for.
So ... now what?
Well, now Penn State has to get it right. Penn State has to find The Guy. And I think they're in a great position to do precisely that.
The worst of it is over. The program survived when many believed it wouldn't, and thanks to O'Brien, there is a great base to build on. Penn State is now just a couple years away from normalcy, and so what it needs is somebody who can and will stick around long enough to seize on that normalcy.
The next coach doesn't need to be a Penn State guy, but I do think he needs be a college guy. At the very least, he needs to be the kind of person who views this job as a gem, and not a stepping stone.
For O'Brien, it was the latter. And I'm fine with that.
Say what you will about how and when he left, but the guy helped save the program. That's a fact.
Now it's time for the new guy to come in, stick around for five or seven years, and get this program back to where it can and should be. Maybe that guy is Al Golden. Maybe it's Greg Schiano (though, honestly, I don't think it is). Maybe it's James Franklin. Maybe it's somebody we haven't even considered yet.
No matter who it is, though, there's no denying one thing: The job they inherit will be an easier job thanks to the efforts of the guy who came before them.
If you want to know O'Brien's legacy, that's it.