It was January 7, 2012, and the conversation is still vivid in my mind.
The Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien had been introduced as Penn State’s 17th head coach at a press conference earlier that day at the Nittany Lion Inn, and the mood around town was complex. Surely, no candidate would ever live up to our gargantuan coaching expectations left over from six decades of Joe Paterno, but Bill O’Brien? Few people had ever heard of him, and while we recognized the tough spot the athletic department was in, most Penn Staters were nonplussed at the selection. I remember thinking (and probably Tweeting), “This is an NFL guy through and through…what the hell does he know about Penn State?”
I was eating dinner at the Penn Stater later that night when athletic director David Joyner strolled through the lobby on his way to the volleyball team’s end-of-the-season banquet. Still feeling a bit emotional about the day, I gained up the nerve to approach him and pick his brain about the hire — did he really see Bill O’Brien leading Penn State out of the tunnel for the next decade?
“You saw that press conference,” Joyner said. “He didn’t go here, but we got ourselves a Penn State man.”
I wanted to believe him, of course, and we all did for awhile. That’s probably the hardest part. How could we not? The 2012 Penn State football season will always be something of legend. When the NCAA reared its ugly hand, O’Brien kept things from spiraling out of control. He became the face of the school seemingly overnight, not because he wanted to, but because there were no other options.
In the end, that’s probably why this happened the way it did. Bill O’Brien simply wanted to show up and coach football — nothing more, nothing less. He hated doing those stupid summer PR road shows in cramped buses driving all over the state to smile and sign autographs. But, like it or not, that’s part of the job for good college coaches these days — not only being a great X’s and O’s coach, but an ambassador to the university. No, Joyner was wrong — we got a good man, but we didn’t get a “Penn State man” or even a man who understood the responsibilities of a college coach at a university like Penn State. Maybe we should’ve known that from the beginning.
There’s still something to be said for loyalty in this game. I refuse to believe anything else. Leaving before even one recruiting class walks across the stage with diplomas in hand must be a mark against O’Brien, even with his NFL aspirations fully disclosed. As much as we can try to rationalize and dignify the business aspect of college football, we should still reward loyalty and scoff at the alternative.
The main O’Brien criticism, as it usually is in situations like this, is that he lied to his recruiting class. It’s a tough pill to swallow. At some point in any coach’s life, they’ll let a recruiting class down. Even if O’Brien stayed at Penn State for 20 years and left for the NFL, he would have broken a promise to the 2032 recruits. It’s an inevitability. But to leave after two years, especially given the spirit of loyalty at Penn State since he was hired? He doesn’t get a free pass.
“They stayed committed to Penn Stater during a very tough time, including the incoming recruits, the guys that are here for the first time on campus,” O’Brien said while accepting the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award. “We talked to them about commitment and loyalty and they stuck with us.”
“I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead,” O’Brien said after the sanctions. “But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes.”
There’s a reason those quotes are hard to digest today. It’s easy to give O’Brien a pass for jumping at a personal opportunity. But Michael Mauti, Christian Hackenberg, and Adam Breneman all had opportunities they could have acted on too, but they chose loyalty over personal gain. And they’ll be admired in Penn State legend for generations because of it.
But even though I’m having a hard time rationalizing all of this now, I think back to 2012. I’m comfortable admitting, even though I have no tangible connection to the team other than my status as a student and lifelong fan, some of the most rewarding moments of my life came during the 2012 season that Bill O’Brien helped orchestrate. I went to every game that season, home and away, and I’ll never forget that feeling after the final Wisconsin victory for as long as I live. Those moments were real, and so was that inimitable sense of pride. It’s trite to say at this point, but he left Penn State football in a better place than when he got here. For that, I’ll be forever thankful.
It was 42 years ago now that Joe Paterno went to bed as the New England Patriots head coach and woke up with a change of heart. The rest, of course, is history. “Last night you went to bed with a millionaire, but this morning you woke up with me,” he famously told his wife Sue about his decision to stay.
That’s because Joe Paterno fell in love with the Nittany Valley and idealism of college football. Bill O’Brien didn’t — and that’s okay too. That makes him no better and no worse than those of us who do love this place so deeply and unequivocally, and it’s important to realize that.
But in Penn State circles, I suspect there will always be a cloud above Bill O’Brien’s legacy — a perpetual “yeah, but…” — and to me, there’s a certain tragedy in that.
And you know what? As Bill O’Brien looks out the window of the Texans private jet about to touch down at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, he probably doesn’t care.