Column: O’Brien, the Right Man at the Right Time

Story posted January 2, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Eric DeBerardinis

The previously most stable job in all of sports, has ventured into unstable territory yet again.

After four decades of monotony, Penn State football will soon feature its fourth head coach in as many years, following the departure of Bill OʼBrien to the NFL. In 24 short months, the new head man of the Houston Texans, embraced, captivated, and somewhat polarized the widespread Nittany Lions fan base.

Bill OʼBrien was never perfect, but he was always the perfect fit for Penn State.

Despite its isolated location, nestled in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania, Happy Valley received a “fixer” from the outside...and served as a pit stop for the makeover artist.

The two parties used each other, simply put. Both sides were equally opportunistic, and neither can be faulted.

Believe it or not, not every coach remains with a university through double-digit presidential terms. Penn State needed a fiery, temporary injection, and they got it.

Despite a lengthy track record in the college coaching ranks, OʼBrien became NFL- addicted in his time with the New England Patriots. Even at the time of his hiring in January of 2012, it was well known, he had pro head coaching aspirations.

It was never a question of, “if” Bill OʼBrien would return to the NFL, but always, “when.” The Penn State brass was well aware.

However, OʼBrien was anxious to brand himself not just as the guy that yelled at Tom Brady, but as a valuable all-around commodity. Ivy-League educated, a confident OʼBrien calculated that Penn State and a head coaching position could serve as a stepping stone for his dream and ultimate goals. He accomplished just that, garnering NFL head coaching interest and interviews, after one accolade-filled season with the Nittany Lions.

Following a lengthy committee-oriented coaching search, Penn State got the rebound girlfriend that mended wounds and restored faith on the heals of a tumultuous-ending long-term relationship. Each side reaped short-term benefits, but a marriage was never on the horizon.

Now, the inevitable break-up has occurred, begging the question; how will Bill OʼBrienʼs two-year tenure be remembered?

Mutually beneficial, to start.

OʼBrien, at first maligned for his lack of connections to the university, proved that straying away from a Penn State “lifer” was necessary.

Quickly hurdling initial skepticism, Nittany Lion faithful embraced the personality of their new leader. Before ever taking the field in a ball cap and windbreaker, State College stores designated window spots for “We Billieve” t-shirts, slotting them next to or even replacing steam pressed odes to Joe Paterno.

OʼBrien proceeded to make changes, tangible and intangible. Names on jerseys were paired with new offensive philosophies, quarterback development, and many more non- traditional (in Penn State terms) approaches. A 15-9 two-season record doesnʼt fairly measure the 44-year-oldʼs impact. Penn State, and specifically, OʼBrien recruited a top- ranked quarterback, and managed to reel in solid recruiting classes without a selling point of a bowl game for the foreseeable future.

This summer, Showtime devoted a series, Ray Donovan, to glamorize the life of a fixer, or someone who essentially cleans up other peopleʼs messes. Beyond their distinguishable chins, Bill OʼBrien shared commonalities with Liev Schreiberʼs character.

OʼBrien transformed a program on the brink of disaster and death into a fully breathing, feel-good story. He was a primary reason behind the reduction of sanctions, with more reductions rumored to be on the way. The program gained back respect through on-field success and off-the-field personality. The “Penn State Way” seemed to be back intact.

O'Brien was the primer for the vows we'll soon learn about. 

He accomplished everything he could at Penn State, even though the job responsibilities changed drastically and making his job exceptionally more difficult than his peers.

Itʼs a proper time for both parties to amicably move forward. It was never meant to last, and that's okay. 

For two years, Bill O'Brien exemplified loyalty. He rebuilt a foundation that had been kicked and trampled and nearly destroyed and then he left. He doesn't have to belong in the Morals Hall of Fame, making Penn State a destination job again is serviceable enough. 

Rumors, negotiations and flirtations officially came to an end on New Yearʼs Eve, as OʼBrienʼs next duty became rebuilding the NFLʼs worst team in 2013.

So now, those creative tees will be relegated to the clearance rack, and OʼBrienʼs dent in record books will be relatively minimal, but the remnants of his reign will be felt for a long time.

Responses from players have been telling. Perhaps the most indicative reflection on his tenure came from a player that spent just one season with OʼBrien. Quarterback Steven Bench transferred to South Florida following his freshman season, due to his spot on the depth chart, but has maintained a very positive stance on his former coach.

“Respect Coach OʼBrienʼs profession. He saved a storied football program. If you do anything other than praise him, youʼre out of line,” Tweeted Bench late Tuesday night.

By virtue of OʼBrienʼs efforts, Penn State has positioned themselves in a favorable position for its new coaching search.

Penn State is tasked with an unfamiliar, but typical coaching search. When other programs move on, the new coach must convince current players to remain committed to the school, and persuade committed recruits they made the correct decision. Although sects of the fanbase are reluctant to change, they must accept the current landscape of college football. 

Now, if Bill OʼBrien made blatant promises that he would be at Penn State for a set amount of time, then the narrative changes, but that is just speculation at this point.

Who knows if another coach could have handled the situation the way OʼBrien did. We simply know that he performed about as well as anyone could have imagined.

OʼBrien possessed visible flaws. Gameday decisions drew the ire of some, and deemed failures (such as the programʼs first ever loss to Indiana), were the creation of the heightened expectations he immediately set. The positive greatly outweighed the negative, plus his run-to-pass ratio is the Texansʼ problem now.

Bill OʼBrien wonʼt boast a fraction of the longevity or the legacy of Joe Paterno (whatever that may be at the moment), but he should command recognition as the stabilizing force in a time where instability defined the very program he led.

Eric DeBerardinis is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email ejd5136@gmail.com.

Photo Courtesy: (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)