Bill O’Brien: The (Blue and) White Knight of Penn State Football
It all started with a headline: “Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football staffer, subject of grand jury investigation.”
You never would have thought that those 12 words would forever alter the course of Penn State’s future, leading to a roller coaster of national media scrutiny, an emotional trial, and the rebirth of one of America’s most storied college football programs.
When the sanctions were first announced, experts like ESPN’s Darren Rovell wrote off Penn State football for the rest of time with statements like this now infamous tweet:
For Penn State fans, Saturday might become just another day of the week after today.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) July 23, 2012
We are now three seasons removed from the events that started with those 12 words, and one thing’s for sure: Saturday has not become “just another day of the week” for Penn State fans. On the last Saturday of 2014, the Nittany Lions played an absolute classic of a bowl game, edging Boston College in overtime by just one point on a kick by a player that would have suffered a career-ending benching in an alternate universe.
With the sanctions officially a thing of the past and a bowl victory in the record books to prove it, you can’t easily pinpoint just how the Nittany Lions were able to defy the odds and rebound from what should have been a debilitating and crippling blow to a college football team.
As I write this, it’s been 24 hours since I exited Yankee Stadium and had a chance to sit down, relax, and reflect on what the Pinstripe Bowl meant for Penn State. And the more I looked back on the last few years, the more I couldn’t help but recognize Bill O’Brien as the savior of Penn State football, our own knight in shining armor who rode into to town for a couple years and cemented an unforgettable legacy in that short time.
When the NCAA announced that Penn State players could transfer without redshirting for a season as regulations, it was open season for other teams to poach them. With that in mind, a group that included Michael Mauti, Mike Zordich, Craig Fitzgerald, and O’Brien started a tedious but necessary process of re-recruiting the entire team, one player at a time.
A head coach was tasked with convincing a group of players that — for the most part — he didn’t bring to State College in the first place, to stick around in spite of the guarantee that the coming seasons would be an absolute grind, a battle to remain relevant in the world of college football without postseason play, without enough scholarships, and with a massive target on the entire university’s back.
Was Penn State just a stepping stone in O’Brien’s career as he worked towards a head coaching job in the NFL? Probably. But does that matter? In two years, O’Brien topped every imaginable expectation, recruiting highly rated players like Christian Hackenberg to build for the future while fielding a competitive team on a weekly basis. Perhaps he knew that a lifelong career at Penn State wasn’t in the cards, but O’Brien did all he could to ensure that the next coach at the helm would be in good shape.
James Franklin’s first year in charge of the Nittany Lions wasn’t the prettiest season in school history. A 6-6 record with a mid-level bowl win isn’t anything to write home about, but with one of the nation’s youngest teams and a few years of limitations in recruiting because of scholarship sanctions, the brunt of the NCAA’s damage to Penn State came in 2014. Franklin too topped all imaginable expectations, leading his team to a bowl win, something that quite literally seemed impossible when the season began.
Without O’Brien’s help, that overtime win at Yankee Stadium may have never happened. In a different world, Penn State football would be a thing of the past, done with a two or three-win 2014 season, an afterthought in the college football landscape after half the team transferred to other programs with a national championship in mind. In that world, Darren Rovell was right and Saturday became “just another day of the week” for Penn State fans as the program faded into darkness.
Twelve simple words in November of 2011 sparked a series of events that could have ended in the demise of Penn State football. We have Bill O’Brien to thank for ensuring that would never happen.