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Bill O’Brien: Not a Penn State guy

Jan 2, 2014, 4:24 PM EDT


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.

  1. lahoe819 - Jan 2, 2014 at 5:02 PM

    Still tough to swallow. I think psu fans are most upset because we know the caliber of coach we just lost. And it’s slightly hypocritical after how he was saying how proud he was of the guys that stayed at psu. I don’t wish him any bad luck, but also don’t wish him any good luck. Whatever he gets he deserves. I’m apathetic to see how he shapes up as a head nfl coach. Especially for a team in a different divison, different conference than the birds. If he went to coach the redskins that would be interesting…

  2. Paco Beernuts - Jan 2, 2014 at 5:11 PM

    You are seriously going to ignore his comments about the “Paterno People” and how they made it miserable for him?

    You are going to paint him as someone that is leaving on his own, instead of being run out by a small yet vocal group of boosters?

    Pathetic, blind journalism. Penn State deserves whatever replacement the get, that will be willing to put up with that crap.

    Good luck trying to find a coach as good as O’Brian. Things are just going to go downhill from here.

    • Andrew Kulp - Jan 2, 2014 at 5:35 PM

      I saw the comments. My opinion is that kind of stuff goes on everywhere in college football, and it’s a sorry excuse.

      When Joe Paterno was still alive, there were a vocal group of people who wanted him to step down during the last 10 years or so that he was there. Did he? No.

      Bill O’Brien was the head coach of Penn State’s football program, and best I could tell, he exercised all the power he needed to. If there were people who didn’t like the job he was doing, so what?

      He left because he wanted to coach in the NFL. I’m sure his discomfort in a college job contributed, but he made put himself in that position.

      • steve - Jan 2, 2014 at 8:32 PM

        did you truly see any of the interviews? He was miserable. Every coach at Penn State will be miserable, especially when they bring in a non-PSU alum or someone with less credentials than a top 5 offensive coordinator in the NFL. People at Penn State want their coach to be the next Paterno who is a campus leader for the next 40 years, and that wont ever happen…the “horrible” coach a state over to the west was a couple plays away from a national title. What’s more important?

        If Penn State truly wants to be a good football program, they have to embrace coaching changes. There wasn’t anywhere close to this uproar when Chip Kelly left Oregon (they are doing fine without his staff), and I am pretty sure it wasn’t Gus Malzahan coaching Auburn to a national title in 2010, but he’s doing quite alright in his first season.

        It’s an incredibility undesirable job other than being paid a top 15 coaching salary to coach a 7 win team that isn’t in most peoples top 50.

      • sfsu - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:46 PM

        “He left because he wanted to coach in the NFL.”


        “The NFL would still be an option for O’Brien years from now.”

        Maybe correct (if PSU had 3 straight losing seasons under O’Brien, who knows if that job would still be there? Plus, Houston is a better-than-typical NFL job opening). The deciding factor, though, is the legions of Paterno morons who have been unhappy with the success of the program in the past 2 years. People who have been blaming 44-24 losses to Indiana on Obrien, rather than, you know, the pedophile enabler who caused the whole situation.

        My favorite part of this article is that OBRIEN is the one who is called sleazy, but Paterno, who caused the entire situation, is the one portrayed as a demigod.

        I can understand why Penn State is upset though; they just lost their best coach in 50 years.

    • RL23 - Jan 3, 2014 at 2:29 AM

      Agreed. How could this column be written without mentioning that, or at least alluding to it?

      O’Brien may not be “a Penn State guy”, but this column certainly picks up the slack.

    • Tom - Jan 5, 2014 at 11:13 AM

      Outstanding points. Unfurtunately too many people are still drinking the Penn St coolaide. They didn’t deserve Bill O’Brien and he NEVER made it a secret from day one he wanted to be an NFL head coach.

  3. psudrozz - Jan 2, 2014 at 5:39 PM

    I do thank O’Brien for his time. I had just wished he was there for 5 years to see us out of sanctions and back into some bowls.

    But this is his choice. He came to us when we needed him, and I will always be thankful.

    The “paternoists” comment was a little odd. Did he not expect a program rank with tradition that there would be pushback to some of his moves form the elders?

    I always had the feeling that most of us on the outside did accept his policies. But I never saw evidence of the kind of static he had to deal with.

  4. Clueless Guy with No Self Awareness - Jan 2, 2014 at 5:57 PM

    I can’t believe that O’Brien betrayed them students the way he did. They trusted him. And look what he did to them. I doubt I can ever forgive him. Joe Pa would never betray the trust of the students like that!

    • Ken - Jan 2, 2014 at 7:18 PM

      Funniest thing I read all day, lol.

  5. 2sentz - Jan 2, 2014 at 6:53 PM

    Seems to me if he restructured his deal the writing was at least somewhat on the wall.

    And what kind of “vocal PSU-loyal boosters” would run a guy out knowing it would cause yet another crushing long-term hit to the program’s competitiveness?

    That doesn’t make financial or common sense.

    • sfsu - Jan 2, 2014 at 11:53 PM

      Well, the problem with your premise is that it assumes “vocal Paterno loyalists” make any kind of sense.

      • SFSU IS A TROLL - Jan 4, 2014 at 3:44 AM

        Shut up! We get that you don’t like Paterno and you love sniffing O`Brien’s nut sack so you can stop acting like you’re trying debate things with others that post!

        I don’t know who the feck is the dumber idiot you our the chimps “liking” your comments!

  6. Ken - Jan 2, 2014 at 7:20 PM

    I still think there is something in the water at main campus.

  7. Jay Deveski - Jan 2, 2014 at 7:48 PM

    O’ Brien is cut of the same cloth as the rest of the Patriot cheater franchise. His type is not hard to replace. The players stayed because they love PSU. Johnson will be a great coach.

  8. Petey - Jan 2, 2014 at 8:06 PM

    Penn State is Penn State. Kids will continue to enroll and as long as Hackenberg doesn’t leave they’re fine.

  9. dbrick - Jan 2, 2014 at 10:21 PM

    The title of this article is 100% accurate; Bill O’Brien isn’t a Penn State guy. How dare the University hire a coach who wouldn’t want to stay in Central PA for 40+ years, put football and money before the well being of innocent children, and knowingly protect a child molester because it would be bad for the program.

  10. Sean - Jan 3, 2014 at 7:32 AM

    Couldn’t get past the second paragraph.

  11. Formerly PSU - Jan 3, 2014 at 11:29 PM

    Penn State has had a “culture” problem going back more than 30 years when the university vice-president announced, “We must be a good school, look at our football team” after he was presented with evidence of widespread academic fraud. Yeah, well, look at the football team now.
    O’Brien’s interview with says it all. I encountered the same sad “negative personality cult” orientation from many, if not most, Penn State alums, even at the graduate school level. Professionally, it is hardly a surprise that O’Brien left or that there would be a lot of casting about for rationalizations that, in some capacity, find O’Brien was/is deficient. That’s what Penn State alums do, that’s the Penn State culture hidden beyond the Happy Valley facade: externalize and villify, usually endlessly, usually in circular fashion. Penn State is going to have a very difficult time attracting any top quality coach, or any coach, that is not a Penn State alum: the culture at Happy Valley is too ingrown, too intolerant, too cloistered.

    • Formerly PSU - Jan 4, 2014 at 12:07 AM

      And a PostScript: the “double standard” culture at Penn State was tough to take. If it still exists, and based on the interview, no reason appears to doubt that it does, O’Brien may have been fed up with more than meets the eye. In the 1980s, Penn State was running one of the largest sports program “steroid” distribution operations within the NCAA. The Penn State women’s field hockey team was particularly juiced: the player’s kitchens and bathrooms look like a pharmacy exploded with pills, serum bottles, lotions and suppositories laying around everywhere, each with a prescription label ending in “-one” and “-esterone”. The Pennylvania State University health system was the listed dispensory on the narcotics. Even a casual comparison of the players from Penn State versus other schools yielded a shocking study in contrasts in muscle mass that you just never see in young women, let alone see in an entire team of young women. You did see the same physiques on the old East German olympic teams, though. It was sad stuff.

      • F U Formerly PSU - Jan 4, 2014 at 6:18 AM

        You’re a fucking scumbag getting on here and just typing away bullshit! Really easy to do when no one knows who you are isn’t it? Do everyone a favor and kill yourself you worthless piece of shit!

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