Bill O’Brien’s Exit
By: Connor Lenahan
A few hours before the conclusion of 2013 Bill O’Brien, head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, accepted an offer to become the head coach of the Houston Texans. Upon Adam Schefter tweeting the news my friends Mary Chuff and Matt Gronsky, both Penn State fans, were furious. They had trusted him and expected him to stay in State College longer than the two years he had been at the reigns already. This was understandable, especially coming off of the Joe Paterno era where he was head coach from 1966 to 2011. Penn State fans, myself included, are not used to turnover in the head-coaching department. At. All.
Throughout the night on Twitter and through texting with other fellow Penn State fans it became relatively clear that the consensus reaction was anger about his decision to leave for the NFL.
I am in the minority. I am not mad at O’Brien in the slightest and I can explain why. There are three main reasons I settled on with this matter, and I stand by them.
Bill O’Brien was hired for the 2012 season away from his position with the New England Patriots as their offensive coordinator. To say he was successful with the Patriots would be like calling the sun warm. He helped coach one of the most potent and successful offenses in the NFL, his promise was obvious.
When he was hired at Penn State he entered the job having to deal with the harsh NCAA sanctions levied on the football program by the NCAA. It’s tough enough to be a successful coach, let alone trying to do it with two hands tied behind your back and a blindfold on. O’Brien stated in a press release in July of 2012, “Today we receive a very harsh penalty from the NCAA and as head coach of the Nittany Lions football program, I will do everything in my power to not only comply, but help guide the University forward to become a national leader in ethics, compliance and operational excellence. I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead. But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes.”
Now, some will obviously point to this quote and what transpired a few nights ago and label him a liar. This is unfair however. In the moment he made this statement, he had no idea what it would be like to actually play under the sanctions. The situation changed immediately. His players, including star running back Silas Redd, fled the team for greener pastures without having to sit out a season under the normal NCAA rules. Once the NCAA gave the green light for players to jettison to a team that could actually play in a bowl game the clock on O’Brien’s departure started ticking.
It must be noted that Penn State actually had a great season in light of the sanctions and transfers in 2012. Outside of back-to-back losses to open the season, which in reality were adjustment games for both O’Brien and the team, Penn State went 8-2 for the remainder of the season with those two losses coming to Ohio State (who finished the year undefeated) and Nebraska (who won the Big Ten).
O’Brien won myriad coach of the year awards for his job that year deservingly. The point that many made quietly as to not spoil the happiness over Penn State’s surprising success is that he was doing this with the remainder of Paterno’s team. O’Brien was going to now have to build the team again to compete for the future as many key players, especially Matt McGloin, were graduating.
2013 was another successful season for Penn State. They finished 7-5 with a true freshman, Christian Hackenberg, at quarterback. Their losses were to Fiesta Bowl winner UCF, Ohio State (playing in the Orange Bowl tomorrow), Nebraska in overtime, Indiana, and Minnesota. Outside of the last two, those are quality losses. Hackenberg was praised around the country for his performance.
It should be noted that he lead a game tying drive against Michigan in under 55 seconds with no time outs and eventually won the game in four overtimes. This was the single greatest sporting event I’ve ever been to in person and the closest I’ve ever been to a hear attack and a stroke simultaneously.
As with the offseason following 2012, O’Brien’s name was consistently mentioned as the top choice among NFL teams looking to hire. After the 2012 season O’Brien renegotiated his Penn State contract to acquire a raise and stay at the school. What was not reported at the time (or if it was, was not made a large talking point) was that O’Brien had also dropped his buyout clause significantly. If an NFL team (Read: Houston) wished to hire him away, they would now have to pay Penn State around seven million dollars as opposed to twenty under the original deal. Once that figure came out, it was clear, at least to me, that he was gone.
Deadspin reported that O’Brien had told a reporter off the record that Penn State was “probably [in] about a month gonna be looking for a new coach.”
On December 31st the deal became official and Penn State was sent scrambling to find a replacement.
Here is the first point I came to realize: How can you possibly blame O’Brien for wanting to leave? Remember he has no previous ties to Penn State, so he’s not betraying any long-standing loyalty. I’ve been connected to the university quadruple as long as he has. He was a newcomer at the absolute worst time in Penn State history to take over. Incredibly heavy sanctions and incredibly large shoes to fill from Paterno don’t make his job easy in the slightest.
With the Houston Texans he will take over a team that was a Super Bowl contender a year ago. They had an oddly horrific season in which everything went wrong. They started out 2-0 only to lose every single game for the remainder of the year, have Arian Foster get hurt, have Matt Schaub become public enemy number one, and so on. The reality of O’Brien’s new situation is that he takes over a team with J.J. Watt (the best defensive end in football), Arian Foster (when healthy, probably one of the three best running backs in football), Andre Johnson (arguably a top ten receiver, I say “arguable” because I think he is grossly overrated), and the number one pick in the NFL draft. The Texans are, with almost absolute certainty, taking Teddy Bridgewater from Louisville to be their quarterback of the future. You probably cannot find a better NFL job opening this year other than Houston (depending on how you feel about Detroit).
Gun to my head, I do the exact same thing as O’Brien, history and fandom included. This is the right choice to make.
The second reason I’m not mad at O’Brien is that his importance to Penn State’s success might not be as crucial as previously believed. Remember, he went 8-4 with an inherited team and 7-5 with an inexperienced one. I’d be dumb to argue he wasn’t successful, but Gus Malzahan is in his first season coaching Auburn and went 12-1 and made the national championship. It’s not like the world is crashing down with O’Brien leaving.
There are plenty of quality names that could end up in the job. James Franklin out of Vanderbilt is the reported top choice, Greg Schiano, who was a defensive backs coach for Penn State in the 1990s, has also been suggested, and Mike Munchak has been a name thrown around by friends and family despite his current employment with the Tennessee Titans. My belief is that Franklin will be hired within the week. My hope is they hire Schiano. His tenure in Tampa was bad, but not entirely his fault. Josh Freeman wasn’t very good, Doug Martin got hurt, and me might not have been cut out for the pro game. But his tenure at Rutgers was good enough to get him noticed by the Buccaneers in the first place. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’m hoping for it. For Munchak it’s simple; If Tennessee was going to fire him they would have already.
Should one of these three be hired for the job, or someone else with a credible pedigree be hired I don’t see why Penn State would be in shambles. O’Brien was able to do well, why wouldn’t the new guy?
The third point has no factual basis to it and is more of a gut feeling. The problem with O’Brien leaving is that Hackenberg might also be on the way out. This is the only fear I have with the situation as Hackenberg has the chance to be legitimately great.
Here is the problem if he leaves: He has to sit out a year before playing again and isn’t necessarily guaranteed a starting gig elsewhere for 2015. I think he stays in State College. If he weren’t leaving after the sanctions, why would he leave because of O’Brien? I mean, he committed to Paterno, not O’Brien. It wouldn’t be the first time at Penn State the coach changed on him.
And yes, this is how I calm myself down when I think about Hack jumping ship.
The world isn’t ending. O’Brien isn’t evil. I get the outrage, but it’s time to take a deep breath, wish Bill O’Brien well in Houston, thank him for guiding Penn State to what could (and should) have been two nightmare seasons, and find someone that will continue to restore Penn State to it’s former glory. It’s all going to be okay, I promise.
Connor Lenahan (@ConnorLenahan) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Connorlenahan.com. He is a freshman at Boston University, majoring in journalism. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org