If you’re like me, it’s been a nerve racking few days to be a Penn State fan. With timid-yet-reliable rumors about Bill O’Brien’s potential interest in an NFL head coaching job swirling around national media circles, the reaction has been predictably bipolar. On one hand, you have rabid Penn State fans who scoff at the thought of O’Brien jumping ship after one year. On the other, you have a group of pragmatists cautiously optimistic about O’Brien’s return. Let’s take a look at what has transpired since Sunday.
It all started late Sunday afternoon when Chris Mortensen of ESPN published a story that cited “league sources” in indicating O’Brien’s inclusion on a number of NFL short lists.
Video: Bill O’Brien considering NFL return es.pn/WdKYlk
— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) December 30, 2012
It’s no surprise that many NFL teams are interested in O’Brien, and Penn State fans were quick to point out that being on a short list is often not parallel to actual interest. However, the last line of the video might be the most important:
“Sources say O’Brien would consider a very short list of NFL opportunities.”
Ben Jones of StateCollege.com was able to get in touch with O’Brien’s agent Joe Linta soon after the ESPN report was released. “Bill has not talked to any NFL teams,” Linta said. “Nor have any contacted Penn State about permission.”
Of course, agents tend to be big on semantics. Linta didn’t dispel O’Brien’s interest, he merely denied that he had been in contact with any teams — a claim which was never implicated.
ESPN also published a short report later that night about Penn State blue chip recruit Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg said that he spoke to O’Brien about NFL jobs “a month or two ago” adding, “He’s not worried about it…He’s worried about coaching Penn State.” You would think that Hackenberg — a recruit Penn State absolutely cannot afford to lose — would have been the first person O’Brien called after these rumors came out.
After a day of relative silence, three big sources entered the conversation.
The first is the strongest indicator of O’Brien’s interest, from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King:
Happy Valley alert: I hear Bill O’Brien is strongly considering interviewing with an NFL team.
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) January 1, 2013
Soon after, WTAJ got in touch with Joe Linta again, who had this to say:
“He’s coming back from vacation and we are going to meet in next day or so to discuss.”
— Amy Gill (@amygillsports) January 1, 2013
Not exactly the denial Penn Staters were looking for. Jason La Canfora added this:
Browns and Eagles still primed to take their best shot at Kelly. Whoever doesnt get him will push for Bill O’Brien I’m told
— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) January 2, 2013
So what does all this mean?
Like most people, I would be very surprised if O’Brien wasn’t on the sidelines for Penn State next season. For one thing, O’Brien’s contract has a buyout of $18.4 million that Penn State would need to be paid if he left before his contract expires in 8 years. Some people are only citing a $9.2 million buyout, but as part of the NCAA sanction conditions O’Brien received an automatic 4 year contract extension, which would increase his buyout cost at over $2 million per year. Both numbers are high for anyone’s standards, and an NFL team would need to really want O’Brien to spend that kind of cash.
Additionally, it would take a real scumbag to opt out of a contract after only one year and we have absolutely no reason to believe O’Brien is the Lane Kiffin type. I know it sounds corny — and I admit I’m not the most unbiased source — but it’s hard not to form some kind of bond after what happened last season. There’s not a first year head coach more revered by a fan base than O’Brien is by Nittany Nation in the country and he knows it. Money talks, but the adoration has to mean something.
Look, most people understand that O’Brien isn’t going to be here forever — or even 10 years from now. O’Brien is an NFL guy and I’m sure one day he’ll end up as a head coach in the highest league. He was born in Massachusetts, went to school at Brown, and loves the Patriots. It’s not hard to connect the dots. Bill Belichick isn’t getting any younger and I’m sure O’Brien would jump at the opportunity to coach in New England again. For now, though, I can’t see very many NFL jobs that would be worth taking for BOB.
On the other hand, if O’Brien really didn’t have any genuine interest, why wouldn’t he have denied the rumors already and put Penn Staters’ minds at ease? On top of that, it’s unlikely that Penn State will have a better season next year than it did this year, so his stock might be as high as it will be for the next couple years.
David Jones from the Harrisburg Patriot News believes that O’Brien is simply leveraging for a more favorable contract — and one that has a lower buyout that will allow him to get to the NFL sooner. It makes sense, and with the spark O’Brien put into this school last season on top of NFL interest, he’s in a prime position to leverage for a better contract.
What happens in the next couple days will be crucial for the future of Penn State football. Rest assured, these rumors are very real — it’s not just ESPN and the national media out to get Penn State as some have said — but I won’t start panicking until I see a picture of O’Brien landing at the Philadelphia or Cleveland airports.
Let’s just say I’d be surprised to see any flaming mattresses on College Avenue any time soon.