Two nights ago, after reading #HotTake upon #HotterTake regarding Bill O’Brien — and no doubt contributing to the conflagration on Twitter — I began writing an extensive piece detailing the minefield O’Brien navigated during his two seasons at Penn State, and the complicated angles that shape our individual and collective views of his tenure and resignation. Thankfully for all, I scrapped it. We’ve been so far down the meta rabbit hole that a navel-gazing discussion of “what is a Paterno Person?” would righteously destroy us all.
The simple reality is, O’Brien always wanted to be an NFL head coach. After the 2011-12 NFL season, he drew mild interest from the Jacksonville Jaguars but never interviewed. The man needed to show the NFL that he could handle the pressures and responsibilities of being a head coach, so he took on a job that practically nobody else wanted.
We all remember Penn State’s situation when he took over. For this discussion, it doesn’t matter how Penn State got there. Bill O’Brien, the coach none of us wanted, said and did all the right things from day one, during a time when Penn State essentially had no leadership — and yes, still doesn’t.
Then, the sanctions hit. O’Brien had to re-recruit every player on his own roster, while the program was hit with potentially crippling scholarship reductions. He didn’t complain. He did his job with the type of enthusiasm that had been lacking in Happy Valley for 15 years.
Penn State won eight of its last ten games that autumn, despite an in-house culture so toxic that the athletic director couldn’t show his face on the Penn State sideline without open revolt by the players. O’Brien turned Matt McGloin into a wizard and even more miraculously, helped convert the national perception of Penn State football to something that people felt good about, and even felt sorry for. Consider that for a moment.
He was voted Coach of the Year by peers and media. National Signing Day passed, with universally prized recruits agreeing to play at Penn State despite the draconian sanctions.
None of this was supposed to happen. The NFL called again after the 2012 season, and O’Brien stayed. He was rewarded with a vaguely sourced Sports Illustrated hit-piece about supposedly dangerous changes to the football medical staff, fed to unwitting SI patsy David Epstein by forces within Penn State who couldn’t stand to see any part of the program succeed without the imagined posthumous imprimatur of Joe Paterno.
O’Brien famously said, when asked about his role in healing the hopelessly fractured Penn State community, “I’m not the unity coach. I’m the football coach.” He became the unity coach, anyway. He came to Penn State to enhance his resume and left the program in infinitely better condition than how he found it. The reputation of the program — and by association, the university — has largely been restored. The strength and conditioning program was modernized, with Soloflex machines presumably shipped off to the local Curves. Penn State football became known as innovative, something it hadn’t been in decades.
Many are outraged that he told his players and recruits that he was staying at Penn State, to which I ask, what the hell was he supposed to tell them? ”Hey, five-star recruit, I might be taking the Texans job in two weeks! Tell Urban Meyer I said what’s up when he calls you 30 seconds from now!” Coaches say that they’re staying until they’re not, whether that coach knows he’s about to be fired or is voluntarily leaving for greener pastures. College coaching breakups are never clean. The entire sport is built on a constant cycle of salesmanship and eventually-empty promises.
I’m not sure what any Penn State fans think Bill O’Brien owes them. Here we are, two years into the most severe NCAA sanctions since SMU, and things went so badly that the team compiled a 10-6 Big Ten record and NFL franchises were scrambling to hire our coach. Just like we all predicted when Mark Emmert unsheathed his sword in the holy name of public relations and swung it at Penn State, just to watch it die.
It’s the pinnacle of spoiled fandom, and we should be grateful that despite all of the sanctions and in-fighting, Penn State is now in a position to hire a top-notch football coach with no designs on The League. Did the combination of unexpected sanctions and “Paterno people” help drive him away? Partially, probably. But as a wiser man said:
O’Brien got what he wanted from Penn State. We got what we needed from him. Here’s hoping the irrational bitterness that continues to plague our fanbase will subside with time.