How times have changed for Penn State football.
With Bill O’Brien finally accepting a deal to become the head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans, the Nittany Lions will be searching for their second full-time head coach in three years.
It could even be the third depending on how you view the multiple game tender that Tom Bradley served as interim coach in 2011. For the moment, defensive line coach Larry Johnson will take over that same title as the university looks to the last remaining Paterno staff member to hold together an impressive 2014 recruiting class ahead of National Signing Day, in addition to a roster full of O’Brien’s past recruits.
For O’Brien, a return to the NFL was always part of the plan. The former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots has always called the league the peak of the coaching profession, and it’s not like he wasn’t successful with the Patriots prior to taking the Penn State job in 2012.
In between his now two NFL stops, O’Brien led the Penn State football program through the seedy and dark aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. With the Penn State community reeling, it was O’Brien who the university tabbed to lead them out of the unknown.
All he did was win 15 games in two seasons, put together two impressive and lauded recruiting classes, and hold together perhaps the most important team in Penn State history -the 2012 Nittany Lions. All of those feats are impressive considering he accomplished those feats after the program was hit with heavy NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
Among those sanctions were a dramatic reduction of scholarships and a four-year bowl ban, two directly crippling blows to a coach and his program.
The kicker, though, was that the NCAA granted every Penn State player currently on scholarship the ability to transfer for one calendar year without penalty (having to redshirt a season). This prompted the newly minted coach to re-recruit players already on his roster in addition to the incoming recruiting class with notable standouts.
There was a recruit summit at Happy Valley that summer in which the 2013 recruits met with O’Brien, each other and their families to decided how to move forward given the sanctions handed down. By all accounts, O’Brien was masterful in provided comfort with the situation going forward and how it would impact each and every player. The group left convinced that O’Brien was not only the right man to lead Penn State through the dark, but also to lead them.
Sure O’Brien was aided by the players already on the roster like Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich and others to prevent a mass exodus from the program, but the former NFL assistant was at the front of the charge forward. Even with the NCAA’s free transfer offer, the group of players that left could be counted on two hands, a true testament to O’Brien and those players.
On the field, O’Brien’s Penn State tenure couldn’t have started worse. Worse than a loss, it was one in front of a packed Beaver Stadium crowd eager to put the summers depressing events to a close with a win. A heartbreaking one-point loss at Virginia the next week only complicated matters, as Penn State football began to fade just as the NCAA had hoped.
But O’Brien’s leadership qualities reigned through even after the nightmare start. He preached his team to stay the course and that good things would happen as long as the hard work and commitment continued. His first win came in a pounding against Navy, and snowballed as the Nittany Lions won eight of their final 10 games to finish 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten). Save for the sanctions, the team would have battled for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis.
The 2012 team was full of heart, drive and desire; qualities none more exemplified by senior captains Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich and Gerald Hodges. But with a massive senior class leaving Happy Valley, year two would be perhaps an even bigger challenge for O’Brien.
He spent the offseason keeping tabs on prized recruits Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman and bettering his current players, but all the while keeping a keen eye on the NFL. He was a candidate for a couple of open jobs in Philadelphia and Cleveland, even taking interviews.
It was then that Penn State fans began to realize that the very coach they were enamored with was essentially a square peg in a round hole: an NFL mind masquerading as a college coach.
And boy was he good at it.
After flirting with the aforementioned jobs, O’Brien returned to Happy Valley armed with a young football team. Gone were many key seniors that made the 2012 team so special and Matt McGloin, a steady and efficient passer under center in O’Brien’s system.
With no experience at quarterback (Tyler Ferguson was a JUCO transfer, Hackenberg wouldn’t arrive until late summer), the Nittany Lions weren’t favored heavily to replicate their 2012 success. But with doubters all around, all O’Brien did was transform Hackenberg into the nation’s best freshman quarterback in one of his admitted best coaching jobs of his career.
The Nittany Lions started 2-0 with wins against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, then alternated wins and losses the rest of the way, finishing 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten) in O’Brien’s second season. The record is deceiving, though, as the team lost to a pair of teams bound for BCS bowls (UCF, Ohio State).
After the end of the season, it has been reported that O’Brien grew frustrated with the politics of the college game and had issues with some of the dedicated Penn State fans still loyal to the old ways of football in Happy Valley.
The Texans had become smitten with O’Brien early on in their coaching search, and gave a tight deadline following the season to get a new coach in place. Once O’Brien became the clear favorite, the Texans closed a deal within a week and finalized the hire late on New Year’s Eve. The team is expected to introduce O’Brien as it’s new coach sometime before Saturday.
In the end, O’Brien and Penn State was perhaps a perfect fit at the perfect time for both parties. The school needed an outsider to push through the turmoil and mush forward, and O’Brien needed to prove he could lead a team with success in order to line up his dream job as a NFL head coach.
But make no mistake, Bill O’Brien didn’t jump ship or leave Penn State high and dry. He left the program a much, much stronger place than it was when he arrived there almost two years ago exactly. He took the program from a standstill and got the ball rolling toward the future, and has left it so that the next guy can come in and continue to push it forward.
As former Nittany Lion Michael Zordich once said, “One man didn’t build up this place, and one man certainly isn’t going to bring it down, either.”
With O’Brien gone, it’s up to the brain trust of Penn State to find the next man to lead Penn State football, and that man will have some large shoes to fill.