Bill O’Brien did what almost every college football coach does when a better opportunity comes along—he took it and ran. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the job.
But at Penn State, where the program is still reeling from scandal and sanctions, O’Brien’s departure feels like a larger betrayal than usual.
On Thursday, the Houston Texans announced the hiring of O’Brien to be their next head coach following a week-long courtship. His jump back to the NFL was always inevitable, but after just two seasons in Happy Valley, it feels like he’s leaving a job unfinished.
Six months into O’Brien’s tenure, the NCAA hit the program with crippling sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The penalties included a reduction in scholarships and postseason ban—harsh, yet typical—and as if that weren’t enough, players were allowed to transfer from Penn State without losing a year of eligibility.
O’Brien helped stave off a mass exodus and incredibly led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record in his first season, earning college football’s coach of the year honors in the process. That success brought national attention though, and O’Brien quickly became the hottest head coaching candidate in NFL.
The Philadelphia Eagles were among the teams to sniff around the former Bill Belichick disciple last winter, but the buyout in his contract with the university was cost prohibitive. Over the summer, O’Brien tipped his hand, reworking his deal for a nice raise and some extra incentives, but also negotiating a reduction in the buyout.
Still, it seemed as if Penn State might have more time. Despite the sanctions, O’Brien managed to land a number of high-end recruits, most notably Christian Hackenberg. Widely regarded as one of the top quarterbacks coming out of high school, Hackenberg undoubtedly chose PSU in part due to O’Brien, who worked closely with Tom Brady as an assistant for the New England Patriots.
One year later, O’Brien is gone after a 7-5 season. Naturally, a lot of young men are feeling less certain about their decisions.
To the casual observer, the situation these student-athletes are in may not seem unique or unusual in the cut-throat world of major college athletics, where coaches are constantly jumping ship for the next big thing. In this case however, these kids stuck it out at Penn State or committed to the university when there was no promise of bowl games or even winning.
O’Brien was one of the primary reasons for that.
What makes the decision even more difficult to accept is the fact that the NFL would still be an option for O’Brien years from now, when the program is finally free and clear from sanctions and promises to young men and their families have been fulfilled.
He didn’t leave Happy Valley for a once-in-a-life opportunity. He left for the same kind of opening that is available every year.
Some of the reasons for disappointment are admittedly selfish. After watching Joe Paterno pace up and down the sideline inside Beaver Stadium for 40-plus years, Penn State simply isn’t used to these types of breakups. And the university can paint the job as more attractive than it was two years ago all they want, the odds of finding a better coach than O’Brien are slim to none.
O’Brien does deserve credit for restoring stability to the program over his two short years. Let’s face it, nobody who was anybody was having anything to do with that vacancy when it opened, and that was before the NCAA came down hard on PSU. Honestly, the position is more attractive now, which the university owes to O’Brien.
And nobody can begrudge a man for wanting to coach in the NFL, which O’Brien described last year as the highest level in his profession. The money is much better, and in Houston he’ll be taking over a team with plenty of talent already, plus the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.
It’s the timing that kind of sucks, and if nothing else, that O’Brien wasn’t loyal to or honest with his players. According to reports, he was telling recruits as recently as December that he would be returning to Penn State.
None of which makes O’Brien a villain per se, just your run-of-the-mill sleazy college coach that the occupation almost demands, somebody who was willing to say and do whatever was necessary if it meant putting a winning football team on the field.
It turns out Bill O’Brien was never a “Penn State guy” at all. Having said that, the university and its legions of fans and alumni probably owe the man a debt of gratitude for saving the football program in the first place.
Bill O’Brien was never a Penn state guy, even if he was exactly what Penn State needed at the time.