Memorable Moments Of The Bill O’Brien Era
The loss of Bill O’Brien stings, but there are still plenty of reasons to celebrate the tenure of Joe Paterno’s successor. While his departure to the NFL after only two seasons is a bitter ending to an otherwise sweet story, O’Brien deserves immense credit and appreciation for stepping into the role of head football coach during the most tumultuous years in school history and leading the Nittany Lions to an unthinkable 15-9 record.
Of course, it was never really about that record. Not only did O’Brien succeed at creating an exciting, competitive on-field product with a group of mostly “run-ons” and second-stringers, but he restored a sense of pride when we needed it the most.
Put simply, Penn State football has a chance of returning to national prominence, an idea that seemed impossible following the crippling NCAA sanctions, thanks in part to Bill O’Brien.
As the brief, yet impactful era of Nittany Lion football under O’Brien comes to an end, we take a look back at some of the memorable moments over the past two years.
July 23, 2012 – O’Brien Calls Emergency Meeting
Following Mark Emmert’s announcement of devastating sanctions, including a reduction of scholarships, a four-year bowl ban, and a special rule that allowed current Penn State players to seek immediate transfer, coach O’Brien immediately gathered his players to explain the situation.
“We’re not here to understand the rules,” O’Brien said. “We’re here to follow them. It’s my obligation to tell you that you are free to go anywhere you want, with no penalties. However, if you stay, I promise you, you will never forget it.”
Although a few players did decide to transfer, those who did stay put together a remarkable season, and were honored with the addition of the year “2012” to the Beaver Stadium facade.
July 31, 2012 – Penn State’s Letterman’s Club offer their support
Giving only five days notice, O’Brien sent 1,000 invites to Nittany Lion letterman, asking for their help in explaining what it means to play football for Penn State. Around 500 letterman attended the meeting, including former standouts Franco Harris, Todd Blackledge, Jack Ham, and Matt Millen.
Millen delivered the most powerful speech of the night, receiving thunderous applause from current and former players that lasted an entire minute.
“Forget about what you lost,” Millen said. “This is what you have. I can only promise you, you will have a brotherhood. You may not realize it now, but that’s worth more than anything.”
August 31, 2012 – A Historic Football Eve
For the first time in 46 years, a new coach of Penn State football would lead the Nittany Lions out of the tunnel on Saturday before a raucous Beaver Stadium. Bill O’Brien, the little-known offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, addressed the student body for the first time on a balmy summer night, praising the effort and work ethic of his team. For many, it was our first look at the new head coach, and although we may not have known it at the time, it was the beginning of truly special season.
September 1, 2012 – The Nittany Lions take the field for the first time under Bill O’Brien
It was O’Brien’s decision to alter the iconic Penn State uniforms before the start of the 2012 season, choosing to add names to the backs of the jerseys to honor the players that decided to stay. Watching the Nittany Lions rush onto the field behind their new head coach returned a sense of normalcy to Happy Valley, something all Penn Staters were thankful for.
The confusion of the past 11 months still weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of those close to the university, but for one beautiful, sunny afternoon at Beaver Stadium, the joy and excitement of Penn State football still remained.
September 8, 2012 – Penn State drops second straight to start 2012 season
We all know what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia against the Cavaliers. Following the game, O’Brien remained positive and did not pass any blame for the loss, instead choosing to criticize his own preparation and execution as the head coach.
After back-to-back heartbreaking losses to start the season, all signs pointed to a miserable year of Penn State football. However, O’Brien refused to let the team fall apart.
“It’s a team sport and we have to figure out other ways to improve,” O’Brien said after the game. “I think these kids play extremely hard and I’m very proud to be associated with them and I really appreciate their effort. The sun will come up tomorrow.”
October 6, 2012 – Nittany Lions knock off undefeated Northwestern on ESPN
Penn State’s first chance to prove to the national audience that it was still alive and kicking came on a Saturday afternoon against #24 Northwestern. The Wildcats entered the game 5-0, while Penn State was coming off the first Big Ten victory of O’Brien’s career — a 35-7 drubbing of Illinois and Tim Beckman.
Trailing 28-17 entering the fourth quarter, the Lions scored 22 unanswered to earn a dramatic 39-28 win over the Wildcats, highlighted by Matt McGloin’s five yard touchdown scramble to take the lead with 2:37 left to go in the game.
After the game, O’Brien and the players bounced around in the locker room celebrating an improbable Penn State victory.
November 24, 2012 – Players honor Mauti with “42” helmet decals in OT victory over Wisconsin
After senior leader Michael Mauti suffered his third-career ACL injury in a win over Indiana, Penn State took the field against the Badgers on Senior Day without the heart and soul of the team. On a day where the 2012 team was honored with a place among the all-time great Penn State football teams in Beaver Stadium, players adorned their plain white helmets with “42” decals for Mauti, while teammate and fellow linebacker Gerald Hodges wore his #42 jersey.
Mauti shouted encouragement and barked orders into his headset as he roamed the sidelines, looking on as Sam Ficken booted a 37-yard field goal into the cold November night to give Penn State a 24-21 lead in OT. After the Badger’s Kyle French missed a game-tying 44-yarder, Mauti and the players rushed the field to celebrate the final victory of the incredible 2012 season.
And following that win, Bill O’Brien delivered his most memorable quote as head coach, which to this day stands as the rallying cry for Penn State football.
February 6, 2013 – Five-star QB Christian Hackenberg signs letter of intent to play for Penn State
Edging out national powerhouses Alabama, South Carolina, and the University of Miami to name a few, O’Brien and Penn State snagged the top quarterback prospect in the nation in Christian Hackenberg. The 6-4, 212 lb freshman from Fork Union, Virginia enrolled at the university in June — just enough time to learn O’Brien’s complicated offense and beat out JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson for the starting nod against Syracuse at MetLife stadium in Week 1.
October 12, 2013 – Penn State outlasts #18 Michigan in 4OT thriller – and a star is born
Before a Whitehouse crowd of more than 100,000, Penn State pulled off a miraculous victory against the previously undefeated Wolverines. Trailing by 7 with less than a minute to go, Hackenberg engineered a brilliant drive, highlighted by a spectacular throw and catch to Allen Robinson that set up a Hackenberg QB-sneak for the game-tying touchdown. In OT, following a few stalled drives and missed field goals on both sides, Bill Belton scampered into the end zone from two yards out to give Penn State a 43-40 win, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
With the win, Penn State announced their arrival back into the national spotlight, with a stellar freshman quarterback poised to lead the team to new heights.
November 30, 2013 – Nittany Lions stun #15 Wisconsin to finish the 2013 season
Heading into the final game of the season, Penn State was in need of a spark — something to galvanize the team as they headed into the offseason. A blowout loss at Ohio State (and that’s putting it gently), followed by a disappointing effort in a narrow win over Illinois, a 14-point loss to Minnesota, a win over Purdue, and an overtime defeat at the hands of the Cornhuskers had the Nittany Lions dejected and looking for answers.
With a matchup against a Wisconsin team hungry for a BCS bowl berth, it seemed the writing was on the wall for another blowout loss.
In what we now recognize as O’Brien’s last game as head coach, Penn State marched into Camp Randall as 24-point underdogs, only to dominate the Badgers in a 31-24 victory that wasn’t even that close. Christian Hackenberg put together his best game as a Lion, throwing for 339 yards and four TDs to earn the first Big Ten road victory of his young career.
“I thank the seniors, because they mean so much to this place,” O’Brien told his team in the post-game locker room celebration. “They said we were 24-point underdogs. What are they going to say now?”