Countdown to Blue-White / 30 Days: How Long Will the Bill O’Brien Honeymoon Last?
Who is the leader of Penn State?
For a large part of the last century, Joe Paterno was the easy answer to that question, but these days finding the answer can be a bit more daunting. Ostensibly the answer is President Rodney Erickson, although with a large percentage of the alumni-base vocally dissatisfied with his leadership, he doesn’t really fit the bill.
Cue Bill O’Brien.
The head football coach was hired during an emotional and fragile time for Penn State last January. Most fans had never heard of O’Brien before, and many were upset that the new head coach had no previous Penn State ties. With Tom Bradley the fan favorite to take over the head coaching duties permanently, hiring an NFL guy from New England seemed absurd to many, including legendary Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington.
“I will put my Butkus in storage. I will put my Alamo Bowl MVP trophy in storage,” Arrington said at the time. “Jerseys, anything Penn State, in storage. Wherever Tom Bradley goes, that’s the school I will start to put memorabilia up in my home. I’m done. I’m done with Penn State. If they’re done with us, I’m done with them…Penn State is a family and it is real and if they choose to get rid of Bradley and not hire a Penn State coach, then they’ve turned their backs on our entire family.”
Fourteen months later, and Bill O’Brien is the most beloved figure on Penn State’s campus.
Following a devastating 0-2 start, O’Brien was able to rally the team to a magical 8-2 record in the last 10 games and restore a tremendous amount of pride in our Nittany Valley. As President Erickson and the Board of Trustees hid behind a calculated and unpopular public relations script, O’Brien put Penn State back in the national spotlight in the best way possible. It was a PR dream come true, and the entire community stood behind the down-to-earth O’Brien in a time when it needed it the most.
It’s no secret, though, that the 2013 football campaign will likely be a tough one for Penn State. With a lack of experience at a number of key positions — most notably quarterback — another 8 win season seems like an unlikely scenario. The 2014 campaign could be even tougher, with the scholarship limit bound to catch up to the Nittany Lions eventually
One thing is for sure — O’Brien’s popularity is at an all-time high right now, especially after the medley of off-season awards he’s picked up over recent months. But how long will the honeymoon period last?
“I can’t stand the term ‘honeymoon phase, this is a difficult job, just like every Division I head coaching job. There are no honeymoons.” O’Brien said last year.
He may be right, but a few 6-6 or 5-7 (or worse) seasons in a row can be damaging for even the most popular coach. Luckily for O’Brien, the Penn State fanbase should be understanding of the tough times that lie ahead as the team tries to come out of the sanctioned years without too much longterm damage. And O’Brien seems to be finally settling in after his first year on the job.
“I’m definitely more comfortable. I understand the players better. I believe they understand us better,” O’Brien said at the start of spring practice. “I know people better; people that I work with on a daily basis, they know me better. Maybe they are starting to figure out my sense of humor, although, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder. So, I definitely feel more comfortable, but definitely looking forward to getting going and watching how much better we can get.”
Next season could be the toughest of the four sanctioned years, with a new quarterback and crop of loyal senior talent having graduated already. Perennial freshmen Adam Breneman and Christian Hackenberg are new to the system but should only get better with time. O’Brien knows he has his work cut out for him.
“Last season was a really good start to a new era. The 31 seniors did a great job but at the end of the day, we were 8-4,” O’Brien said. “We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of positions that need to get better and we have kids that are working hard to do it the way we want to do it and they understand that and I think they are looking forward to getting out there.”
The honeymoon period might be coming to an end, but assuming O’Brien stays at Penn State for most of his contract, he has a chance to solidify his place as the most visible leader of this university.
“This is one of the best academic institutions in the country, in the world, and I am very, very proud to be the head football coach here,” O’Brien said. ” I couldn’t be happier than being at Penn State. Could not be happier.”
This is the third in a 33-day series about the Penn State football program leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 20. We’ve put together a team of football writers who will examine a variety of topics and answer key questions about Bill O’Brien’s team. Click on the numbers for Day 33, Day 32, and Day 31.