By Mike Poorman
No one lived and breathed the NCAA sanctions on Penn State football more than Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien was hired as Penn State’s 15th head coach on Jan. 6, 2012.
He succeeded the legendary Joe Paterno and inherited the most precarious coaching position in the history of American sports.
Exactly 199 days after he took the job, the NCAA delivered a devastating set of sanctions against Penn State football — taking away scholarships, victories and bowl opportunities that would have ripped the heart out of almost any other program in America.
Players were permitted to transfer immediately and play elsewhere without impunity. In short order, O’Brien lost his top returning receiver, rusher and point-scorer to transfers. He faced the very real possibility of being unable to field a competitive team.
But the New Englander from Brown, who cut his teeth as the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach under Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots after numerous college stops (including at Maryland, with James Franklin), stuck out his considerable dimpled chin and held Penn State together.
He was the face and voice of not only the most embattled football program in America, but also of a university and an athletic department that were under siege. He held the team together, leading the Nittany Lions to 8-4 and 7-5 seasons, and was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2012. He guided Penn State to dramatic overtime wins over Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan (4OTs, in fact) in Beaver Stadium, and a 31-24 upset over the 14th-ranked Badgers in Madison on Nov. 30, 2013.
It was the final Penn State game O’Brien would coach.
A month later, he left for a head coaching job with the Houston Texans. Since then, he’s had three consecutive 9-7 seasons with the Texans, winning the AFC South division the past two seasons and making it to the NFL playoffs. Although he speaks very fondly and sincerely of his time in State College, he has settled into life in Houston with his wife, Colleen, and sons Jack and Michael. He even coached first base for Michael’s Little League all-star team this past summer.
We caught up with O’Brien on Sunday night, after he had spent the day in the Texans’ offices, getting ready for summer camp. His team will head to The Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, later this week, to begin O’Brien’s fourth season with Houston. If he can find a quarterback, the Texans could very well advance deep into the playoffs in 2017.
His impact on Penn State was memorable and ever-lasting, in a very positive way. In the following Q&A, we focused mainly on the NCAA sanctions, although we did drift into present-day Penn State as well, to include his thoughts on Saquon Barkley and their first meeting (in the head coach’s locker room in Beaver Stadium), and his sincere joy at the on-the-field success of the Nittany Lions and Franklin, his former co-worker, in 2016.
To say nothing about the Penn State’s upcoming 2017 season — although O’Brien did say a lot more than nothing in that regard.
“I don’t want to put any pressure on James,” O’Brien said, “but they should be really good this year.”
Then he chuckled.
SC.com: What was it like being Bill O’Brien five years ago?
O’Brien: (laughs) I don’t enjoy talking about myself, but I will tell you that since it was my first head coaching job a lot of it was learning on the job while all those things were happening. The thing that was great about it was we had a really strong staff and a great, great group of players.
My memories of those kids are just incredible. The way that they bought into what we were doing, the way that they practiced. Everything that they brought to the table — I don’t think it was easy; none of it was easy. But it sure did make it a lot easier when you had a staff like we had and, most importantly, the players we had.
SC.com: When you took the job, did you have any idea there were going to be any sanctions or that they were going to be that bad?
O’Brien: When I interviewed for the job, I asked a lot of questions. And one of the questions that I asked was, “Was the NCAA going to come in and rule on this?” I was told at that time — and by good people; I don’t think anyone was lying to me, I just don’t think anyone really knew — that it was a criminal case and the NCAA has no jurisdiction in this type of case.
I also felt that if they did come in they were punishing a lot of people that had nothing to do with what had happened. So I didn’t think they would (impose sanctions).
SC.com: Would you have taken the job if you knew the sanctions were coming?
O’Brien: I would have taken the job. I grew up admiring what Coach (Joe) Paterno did there, and the history and tradition of Penn State. That wouldn’t have affected whether I would have taken the job.
People asked me at the time the sanctions came out whether I was going to quit. That… that, none of that, ever came into my mind or the mind of anybody on our staff. It was a place that you knew was going through a horrible time. We just had to right the ship. Hopefully, we had the right people at the time to do it — and I think we did.
SC.com: Did you have a heads-up that the sanctions were coming? And if so, were there certain things you lobbied for?
O’Brien: I remember that basically the day before the sanctions were going to be announced, (then-athletic director) Dave Joyner called me over to where he was staying. I think he was at (Board of Trustees member) Ira Lubert’s house over by the (Penn State) golf course.
He kind of laid it out. He had been given a heads-up as to what was going to happen. I know that (then-Penn State president) Rodney Erickson had a terrible choice to make: It was either the death penalty or to continue playing with the reduced scholarship numbers, no bowl games and no ability to compete for a national championship.
I don’t think people understand that at the time it was really a six-year sanction, because the NCAA was going to give us two years to get down to 65 scholarships. And then we were going to have to play for four years at 65. You couldn’t get right down to 65; that would’ve been impossible.
So what I said was, “Look, I guess we can’t do anything about the scholarship reductions.” There was a conversation where we weren’t even going to be able to be on TV. I felt that recruiting was such a huge part of college football, and being on TV, in that stadium with our student section, and the crowds — I felt that being on TV would really help us continue to be able to continue to recruit, even though it was going to be hard to still have an ultra-competitive team because of the numbers.
Being on TV was important. That was the big thing for me at that time, because the sanctions were already basically in place, and were going to be announced the next day.
SC.com: Did you have a short-term plan, then a long-term plan for dealing with the sanctions?
O’Brien: The short-term plan was, No. 1, to keep the team together. Because they were sanctioning us, they were going to allow the current players to transfer to anywhere they wanted to go without penalty to that other school. That meant if the other school was at 85 scholarships, they could go to 86, 87 scholarships if they took a kid from Penn State.
That was a very, very troubling thing at the time. That’s what led to other schools recruiting those kids. The only rule the other schools had to adhere to was that they had to fax a list of players to our compliance people of who they were going to recruit. I can remember Donovan Smith, specifically, had like 50 scholarship offers, because he was a top left offensive tackle. Everybody was recruiting him. Other kids had multiple, multiple scholarship offers. The big thing was to keep the team together and that’s been well-documented. Mike Mauti and Michael Zordich and Matt McGloin and Jordan Hill — all of those guys. It’s tough to name names because they all contributed to helping that team stay together.
Every morning, we had meetings where a member of the staff would stand up and talk to the team about the importance of Penn State football, the importance of sticking together and trying to lay the groundwork for whenever these sanctions would be over.
SC.com: And the long-term plan?
O’Brien: It was, “OK, how in the world are we going to do this?” If you can only have 65 kids on scholarship and you have two years to get down to that, we would go to our (roster) board in our recruiting room and basically say, “We can only sign two offensive linemen.”
We had to make decisions that were really brutal because we had to think about things like, “In the ’13 class, in the ‘14 class, in the ‘15 class we’re going to have to get down to 65 — so how are we going to do this?”
The other big long-term decision was about how we would practice. You have all kinds of different players on the team — you have your star players and you have your role players, who really make up the bulk of your team. You can’t get guys hurt. But you still have to practice football the right way. I think my pro experience helped me with that. In the pros, it’s a 53-man roster, so I kind of had an idea about how we could do that.
SC.com: You played a prominent leadership role within the athletic department among the other head coaches, in the Penn State, local and state communities, and at the university level. Why did you do that, and how did you make the time to do so?
O’Brien: You quickly learn when you get the job there that you hold a prominent position within that university. You obviously have a chain of command — you have the president, the athletic director, you have a Board of Trustees.
To me, it was a matter of it being my duty to do that. One of things I was taught during my coaching career was some organizational skills from some great coaches. So I was able to organize my time. It was work, but I depended a lot on my staff. I had a really good staff that picked up the slack football- and recruiting-wise. I owe a lot to those guys. And we had players who were determined and had great resiliency.
SC.com: After the sanctions, with the players and with the media, with statements like “We know why we’re in the situation we’re in,” you were upfront about the situation. Why was that important?
O’Brien: I want to make it clear that I had a lot of help on the staff. But I also had people outside of football who helped me find the right balance. Even though we wanted to separate the players and our staff from what had happened, you had to address it. There had to be some point in time where you were going to honor the victims. Yet you had to make sure you did the right things with the student-athletes and the academics and football.
Ultimately, we had to bring it back and say, “We acknowledge what happened here was horrendous.” I didn’t know anything about it, so I didn’t want to get into the legal part of it and figure out who was to blame. There was one horrible person to blame, but I didn’t want to get into it beyond that.
It was so important, because Penn State has such a strong and active and incredible alumni base. At that time, Penn State had over 600,000 alumni and we wanted to keep them happy. But we also had to be honest with them and tell them that we were going to see our way through this.
SC.com: Who were those people you relied on?
O’Brien: I definitely leaned on my wife, Colleen. She was awesome throughout the entire thing. I spoke a number of times with one of the leaders of PCAR (Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape).
I had breakfast with George Mitchell (former U.S. Senator and NCAA monitor) a number of times. That was helpful. He was very supportive. I come from a political family in Massachusetts. So I’d come home from the Nittany Lion Inn and call my dad and tell him I had breakfast with George Mitchell.
Dave Joyner and I would talk a lot about how to handle things. He was supportive of how I talked to the media about it. Same for Jeff Nelson (Penn State’s associate athletic director of strategic communications). People inside the football program like Spider Caldwell and Kirk Diehl were really good, too.
SC.com: What really stands out to this day from when you were trying to keep the team together?
O’Brien: It was right after the sanctions came out and guys were thinking about transferring. I remember (former Penn State football assistant coach and assistant athletic director) Franny Ganter was instrumental in inviting every football letterman to a night in Holuba Hall, with pizza and chicken wings. We had all these alumni come back and talk to the kids about what it meant to be a Penn State football player.
We only gave them three or four days advance notice. And I’m telling you, over 400 of them showed up. We had a ton of guys. I picked eight or 10 guys from different eras who spoke to the team about what it meant to be a part of Penn State. Then I spoke to the alumni. It was an unbelievable night. It seemed like every great player who ever went to Penn State was there.
One of the things that has been really cool for me has been staying in touch with those alumni — everybody from Matt Millen and Michael Robinson to John Cappelletti. I still get texts from him. That’s a great group of guys and it was a very special night.
SC.com: Looking back at it five years later, would you have handled anything differently?
O’Brien: First of all, I can’t believe it’s been five years. We brought in Mike Mauti in the other day to work out. We’re going to try to sign him and get him on our team. He told me, “You know, it’s been five years since that ‘12 season.” And I told him, “You got to be kidding me.”
I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. I do wish from a football perspective that we had started the season better (in 2012, when PSU lost 24-14 to Ohio University, then 17-16 at Virginia). Ohio and Virginia were games we really let slip away. The other teams won those games, so you have to give them credit. But in those games I wish I had done a better job of coaching. So, maybe, hindsight being 20/20 on those game plans.
But overall, it was a first-time experience for what we were going through. I do look back and wish we had won more games.
SC.com: Mid-summer, before the sanctions hit, I remember you having game plans ready for those games featuring Silas Redd (the PSU running back who ran for 1,241 yards in 2011, then transferred to USC after the sanctions were announced).
O’Brien: We did. Coming out of spring practice, I felt like we had a pretty good football team. I really did. Spring practice that year didn’t start out great because we were installing a new system. It didn’t always go well in the beginning, but as spring practice went on and I kind of simplified the system, you could tell we had some really good players. The running game was definitely going to be a big part of it. We felt we had an NFL-type running back in Silas Redd.
We had two separate plans just in case guys transferred, which Silas did. I don’t have any hard feelings toward Silas for doing that. He did what he thought was best for him. In the end, it allowed guys like Billy Belton and Zach Zwinak to play more. And they ended up playing pretty well for us.
SC.com: Five years later, do you think you were meant to be at Penn State when you were?
O’Brien: That’s a tough one for me to answer. What’s meant to be is meant to be. I can remember talking with Bill Belichick about taking a job (in December 2011). There were a couple of pro teams that were interested in me at that time, as well as Penn State.
Bill said, “You know, Penn State is an iconic program. I’ve been in pro football for 40 years and we’ve always thought highly of Penn State. That’s a tough job to turn down, even though something terrible has happened there. It’s a top 10 college football job. It’s a great job.”
I think in the end, whether I was meant to be or however you look at it, I know it was a good choice to go to Penn State. It really meant a lot to my career.
It was a very, very tough decision to leave. We loved the players there. Between my family and the opportunity to coach a pro football team, I felt that was the right decision at the time. Looking back at it, we definitely miss the place and we have great memories of Penn State.
SC.com: Penn State’s success in 2016. What are your emotions about that — surprised, happy?
O’Brien: Words can’t describe how happy I was. In the NFL on Saturdays, you meet and then you go have some dinner. College football is always on TV. And quite often, Penn State is playing. We have a bunch of guys here (at Houston) who were with me at Penn State. We’d always watch them play and would keep up to date with how they’re doing.
When they beat Ohio State, we were watching the game. It was really cool to see that. There were a lot of kids who were playing who we knew, who we had coached, who we had recruited. I was really, really happy for what they did last year.
James has done an unbelievable job there. He’s definitely been resilient. I don’t think that has been an easy job, especially at the time he took it. He’s done a great job. And they have some great players. I don’t want to put any pressure on James, but they should be really good this year.
That running back (Saquon Barkley). There are not many backs who have come out of college football the past 10 years who are like him. They have a really good quarterback (Trace McSorley). They have some really good players on defense, so they’ll be fun to watch.
SC.com: What is it about Barkley?
O’Brien: He’s built like a bowling ball. He’s a great player. It’s fun to watch him play.
He came to the Michigan game (in 2013) — the four-overtime game in Beaver Stadium. They brought him into the locker room and he came into my own little locker room. He shook my hand. I’ll never forget this. He said, “I can’t believe I’m meeting the head coach at Penn State.” And I said, “Well, I can’t believe I’m meeting Saquon Barkley.”
SC.com: What would you like your legacy to be as part of Penn State football history?
O’Brien: It’s really about the whole group of people we had there, from the coaching staff and the support staff and Spider and Kirk and the trainers — Timmy Bream — to, most importantly, the players.
I think the legacy for all of us is that hopefully we saw Penn State through the storm and served as a bridge — a pretty solid bridge — to the successes that are happening there now. That’s a national championship program. That’s what it is. And Penn State’s fans are unbelievably awesome.
Now they’re back to where they should be and it isn’t just about football. That’s what I learned at Penn State. They have great kids there who go to class, do it the right way, play great football and are involved in the community. It’s a special place.