Column: Penn State forever grateful for Bill O’Brien

posted September 12, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Joe Garofalo

There is an old adage in sports that reads: “you don’t want to be the coach who follows the legend, you want to follow the coach who follows the legend.”

When the NCAA announced on Monday it was lifting the last two seasons of Penn State’s postseason bowl ban, James Franklin continued to reap the benefits of not being the man who followed Joe Paterno.

If we go back to the start of the 2011 college football season with Joe Paterno standing on the sideline, the thought had to cross the mind of every Penn State football fan or observer – who is going to be able to replace him and will they have similar success?

The pressure of living up to an icon that so many fans loved is nearly impossible. Now, throw in a four-year postseason bowl ban, losing a great deal scholarships and being an unknown head coach commodity; O’Brien had the cards stacked against him from the beginning.

There is no denying, no matter how his coaching tenure ended, that Joe Paterno did a wealth of great things for Penn State and its football program over his 46 years as the head coach. There is also no shying away from the immediate success James Franklin has had since being named the 16th coach in program history, whether in recruiting or his 2-0 record thus far on the field.

Now lets take a moment to recognize the most important coach in Penn State’s history – Bill O’Brien.

How can Bill O’Brien be the most important coach in history when Joe Paterno was here for 46 years, won national championships and built the program from the ground up?

If not for the coach who followed the legend the program would’ve been back on the ground and the news of restored bowl games would’ve been meaningless, or more likely, non-existent.

Many Penn State fans were bitter when O’Brien left to become the head coach of the Houston Texans, but it wasn’t out of anger. These were the same fans that faced instability two years earlier and were afraid it would return.

When Bill O’Brien was hired, people around Happy Valley wanted a “Penn State guy” to replace Joe Paterno because that was all they had ever known. The decision to go outside the norm and hire Bill O’Brien was exactly what was needed.

In his two years at Penn State, Bill O’Brien handled a nearly impossible situation with class, poise and success. He could’ve left Penn State the moment the sanctions were handed out by the NCAA, but he didn’t. He could’ve left for the NFL after one season, but he didn’t. He could’ve failed miserably as a first-time head coach at any level, but he didn’t.

Aside from the two winning seasons and strong recruiting efforts that brought in many top recruits including quarterback Christian Hackenberg, O’Brien’s real impact was, and forever will be, felt in the stability he brought to the program.

He guided the program to a change in culture that the NCAA and Senator George Mitchell were looking for before reinstating Penn State’s postseason eligibility.

A lot of credit must be given to the players who stood by the school and program in its darkest hour - not to mention the recruits who committed to a school knowing they couldn’t play for championships – all of whom could’ve jumped ship and left immediately. But much like their leader, O’Brien, they didn’t.

In the aftermath of the NCAA’s announcement Monday, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien reacted to the news of the postseason ban being lifted for Penn State during a news conference in Houston.

“I think that’s great news for Penn State,” he continued. “It’s a fantastic place. Great education. Great football program. Lot of great people.”

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, James Franklin was quick to acknowledge the efforts of his predecessor. “I actually texted Billy last night, thanking him for all that he's done the last couple of years because I think he's had a huge role in what's happened here," Franklin said.

The education may not have changed as a result of Bill O’Brien, but the football program certainly did. Over the last two years there may not have been a greater person to step foot on Penn State’s campus.

He took a challenge so many wanted no part of and handled it just about as well as anyone could have dreamed.

People around Penn State have a right to celebrate and enjoy Monday’s news, but before any of that occurs they must take a moment to thank Bill O’Brien.

No coach has done more for a team in as limited a time as O’Brien did for Penn State, and that should never be forgotten.

Joe Garofalo is a senior majoring in Broadcast Journalism. To contact him, email joepgarofalo@gmail.com.