John Nichols did not hear Bill O’Brien’s name in relation to the Penn State coaching opening until Nichols and the rest of the school’s search committee were thousands of feet in the air, on the way to interview another candidate.
O’Brien’s file was in a large stack making its way around the country during the winter of 2012. A few things jumped out. Names of proud academic institutions such as Duke, Georgia Tech and Brown, O’Brien’s Ivy League alma mater. Joe Paterno, of course, was a Brown alum, too.
As one of two faculty representatives on the committee, Nichols, a professor emeritus in the school of communications, felt it was his role to guarantee that Penn State’s first football coaching search in the modern era of intercollegiate athletics was performed ethically, with an emphasis on integrity. That was the top priority, but Nichols also was interested in finding a candidate with Penn State ties. He thought a sense of loyalty to the institution would insure that the person they hired wouldn’t jump to another job quickly.
In one sense, O’Brien, who has agreed to coach the Houston Texans after two seasons at Penn State, proved Nichols right. But in another, O’Brien proved wrong many doubters who felt an outsider couldn’t succeed in Happy Valley, especially under such extraordinary circumstances.
“It was unprecedented,” Nichols said Wednesday. “Penn State owes him a very hearty thank you for getting us through tough times.”
O’Brien was hired to bring a fresh vision to the program, and his exit served as a final reminder that things have indeed changed at Penn State. Most of the time, this is how it goes in college football: A coach is hired. If he’s successful, he will have the option to leave. If he feels the pastures are greener elsewhere, he will go. And then you do it all over again, and again, until you really hit the jackpot with a long-term fit.
“Now we’re joining the real world,” Nichols said.
Penn State is now going through what it nearly experienced in 1972 when its young coach, Paterno, received an offer to coach the New England Patriots. He turned it down to stay at Penn State, a decision that endeared him to his fan base even more than his 10-1 record that same year.
“One of the things that created the Joe legacy was his recommitment to the place when he could have had far more money from the Patriots,” said Malcolm Moran, who was the director and Knight Chair of Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State from 2006-12. “It really took the relationship between him and the university to a completely different level.”
Paterno and Penn State were certainly serious about one another. And, when O’Brien arrived in Happy Valley, he was charged with trying to understand this peculiar partnership between this school and its football coach. But really, he just wanted to coach football.
“The expectations for Bill were unfair and unreasonable,” said Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State trustee and major donor to the athletic department. “Bill’s a football coach. He said he was, from day one, to his credit, and too many people wanted him to be much more than that.”
In the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal, O’Brien stepped into a firestorm that only got worse. The long offseason of 2012, which saw the NCAA levy the most daunting punishment since it gave SMU the death penalty, finally gave way to festive fall Saturdays. There, O’Brien showed himself up to the task, leading the undermanned Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record.
That mark, in the face of the university’s darkest period, was enough to get the 2012 team commemorated on Beaver Stadium’s east side suites, along with 15 Penn State football teams that had undefeated seasons, won a national championship or claimed a Big Ten Conference title.
O’Brien flirted with NFL jobs after his first season, and it was hard to blame him, with three more years remaining on the NCAA’s postseason ban. But he came back, receiving a raise of about $1 million to a salary of $3.6 million a year.
This year, O’Brien didn’t turn down the chance to coach the Texans, where he will bring in a hefty sum trying to win a Super Bowl. The idea that O’Brien’s departure from Penn State was related to anything else but accomplishing those goals came as a surprise for alums of the program such as former defensive back Bob Capretto of Oakmont.
“This was a good steppingstone for him. In two years, he’s making $3 million,” said Capretto, who played on Paterno’s first team, in 1966. “I guess that’s the nature of the beast. It’s about the money today.
“It was a win-win for all of us. If you canvassed the lettermen, we were 100 percent behind him. … There will never be another Joe Paterno, and we love the guy, but we desperately wanted Bill O’Brien to be successful.”
Now, Penn State will have to regroup for the second time in two years, and the debate will be whether the school should hire a coach with Penn State ties.
Because Paterno came to embody Penn State during his 46 seasons at the helm, it is often forgotten that he was an outsider when he joined Rip Engle’s staff in 1950. Penn State hasn’t been coached by an alum of the school since 1949, and things have turned out pretty well on the field, O’Brien’s 15-9 tenure included.
Still, there will be a loud drum for a coach who would bring a familiar feel to Happy Valley.
“The coach we hire next is going to have Penn State ties in some form or fashion,” Lubrano said. “I believe we need a coach who has Penn State ties at this point in our history. That will allow the Penn State community to move forward, heal. We could not have hired someone with those ties two years ago. We needed someone with an outside perspective. We really did.
“But again, because of the success over that two-year period, we’re now in a position that we can look to someone who has the Penn State background and that will continue that transition for us.”
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.