The time of uncertainty has returned for Penn State football fans, who must again wait and see if coach Bill O’Brien will stay with the Nittany Lions or pursue employment in the NFL.
Like last year, the next two weeks could be tumultuous, with reports coming out about NFL interest in the coach, who has gone 15-9 in two seasons at Penn State.
Most recently, the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Houston Texans had agreed to interview O’Brien at some point after Christmas. Jason La Canfora of CBS previously reported the Texans and the Minnesota Vikings were interested in him.
They might not be the only ones. Last year, eight NFL teams switched head coaches, and a similar number are likely to do so this year.
O’Brien was courted last year by the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Browns, according to multiple reports. He said in January that many NFL organizations had contacted him.
“We had conversations,” he said. “That’s as far as it went.”
The biggest obstacle back then might have been financial. O’Brien’s original contract stipulated that an early exit from Penn State for any reason besides retirement entailed a buyout equal to his current base pay ($950,000) and additional pay ($1.35 million) multiplied by the number of years remaining in the deal. Last year, when his contract was for 10 years, leaving for the NFL would have meant a buyout of approximately $19.5 million.
That obstacle largely has been removed, changing in June when O’Brien’s contract was amended. Its duration was reduced to five years, his base pay was increased to $1.9 million for this current year and the buyout package changed. Rather than face a buyout of his base pay and additional pay if he left for the NFL, the buyout now involves just his base pay multiplied the number of years remaining on his contract, meaning his buyout for the NFL is approximately $6.6 million.
The number may sound jarring but not for an NFL owner. Not only do many NFL teams gross more than $20 million in revenue, the owners of NFL teams are among the wealthiest men in the country. They can pay out of pocket for a coach they believe will impact their team for the better.
Besides earning recognition as one of the best young coaches in the country in two years at Penn State, O’Brien has cultivated a reputation for his honesty. As his high school coach, Jim O’Leary, says, “what you see is what you get.” Offensive guard John Urschel was the first to commend him for his transparency, and several players since then echoed the sentiment. The man’s door is always open, they have said, and he’s prepared to talk about anything from football to life to academics.
But in times like these, he is tough to read. When asked about O’Brien’s interaction with the NFL last year, several players said they had no contact with O’Brien over that time. They did not try to reach out to him about his future, and he did not reach out to them. For recruits, this is a dead period, and coaches cannot contact them for any reason.
Last year, when it was over, O’Brien was back at Penn State, saying he and his family were in the right place, they couldn’t be happier. As even O’Brien would acknowledge, plenty could have changed in the interim for him and for the NFL teams pursuing him.
“Obviously, a lot can happen in a year,” he said in January.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05