The peak of his profession, Bill O’Brien said a year ago, was to coach in the NFL as the man in charge, to instruct football players and install game plans at the highest level possible. He always made that clear.
And now, after two seasons of coaching Penn State, Mr. O’Brien has attained his dream job. He’s an NFL head coach. Late Tuesday night, according to ESPN and the Houston Chronicle, he agreed to become the head coach of the Houston Texans.
“In my profession,” Mr. O'Brien said last year, “the National Football League is the highest level of coaching. You don’t get any higher in coaching than the National Football League."
Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner did not respond to a phone call for a request for comment. A Penn State spokesperson said Penn State had no official comment on Mr. O'Brien.
Mr. O'Brien leaves Penn State with a 15-9 record, a handful of coach of the year honors and a reputation for making the best of a tough situation foisted upon Penn State by the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.
But he’s also leaving early. Even before Joe Paterno stayed on as head coach for 45 years, Penn State had been a destination job. Rip Engle stayed for 15 years and two of his predecessors Hugo Bezdek and Bob Higgins, coached at Penn State for at least a decade.
Behind Mr. O’Brien remains a program sturdier than many prognosticators would have thought, given the NCAA sanctions enacted in 2012. Penn State, next year, is slated to return top freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, tight end Adam Breneman, running backs Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak, cornerback Jordan Lucas, linebacker Mike Hull, several top recruits and possibly wide receiver Allen Robinson, who must decide whether he intends to enter the NFL Draft by Jan. 15.
Current players and recruits have never hidden their respect and admiration for Mr. O’Brien, who quickly represented the new Penn State, helping popularize the mottos “move forward” and “one team.” He embarked on two East Coast coaching caravans to connect with fans. He made 55 public appearances between the end of the 2012 season and the spring of 2013. When he talked about Penn State being special, he often recounted how after the NCAA sanctions were announced, hundreds of lettermen came to address the team in a matter of days. In the months after the Sandusky scandal, Penn State players and staff assumed the attitude of close-knit survivors, and Mr. O’Brien was at the center, helping keep everyone together.
Tight end Adam Breneman said a year ago, “I trust him. If he were to leave tomorrow, he would have fooled me because I trust my career in his hands. He always stresses that we’re making a commitment to him, but he’s also making a commitment to us."
Late Tuesday on Twitter, tight end Kyle Carter said, "It's all a business. Don't forget that."
Fans, for the most part, appreciated his efforts, too. A sampling of responses from his 2013 coaching caravan included such praises as “I knew you were a man of integrity” to “I just wanted to thank you for staying and not going to the NFL; we needed you for consistency” to “we all hope you retire at Penn State.”
Mr. O’Brien always said he was happy here, but complications bubbled under the surface. He was furious last May when Sports Illustrated published an article questioning the efficacy of his medical staff, which had recently been overhauled. Trustee Anthony Lubrano chimed in to say he wondered if Penn State’s model for medical treatment, based on the NFL’s, was risky. His actions were emblematic of a vocal alumni group who continues to long for the past and protest the changes that led to the firing of Mr. Paterno and removal of former president Graham Spanier.
“I mean we are all trying to win football games and graduate players,” Mr. O’Brien said in May. “Who would undermine that? I don’t even think in that world. I’m not even in that realm.”
Later that month, the Paterno family and several former players, trustees and coaches filed a lawsuit against the NCAA. Mr. O’Brien took a respite from his vacation in July to make a presentation at a Board of Trustees meeting in Fayette County. There, according to the Centre Daily Times, he introduced a PowerPoint slide stating, “Individual lawsuits do not help us!,” with “do not” underlined and in capital letters.
As much as Penn State has attained a measure of stability athletically and academically in the two years post-Sandusky, the next Penn State football coach will be hired by what is still a makeshift staff. The Board of Trustees has yet to find a permanent replacement for university president Rodney Erickson, and athletic director Mr. Joyner was originally tasked to remain in his position until Erickson retired in June 2014. Penn State must make an important personnel decision without a full-time president and with an athletic director who could be let go in six months.
Last week, the Patriot-News reported that intermediaries for Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano had expressed interest in the Penn State job should it become available.
For now, though, the future is unknown – other than that Mr. O’Brien will not be part of it. Penn State will have to continue moving forward with someone else.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05