As the news that Bill O’Brien was leaving Penn State to become the head coach of the Houston Texans trickled out on New Year’s Eve, an interesting piece came out in the Harrisburg Patriot-News featuring an intense rant O’Brien had in an off-the-record conversation with Patriot-News columnist David Jones earlier in the month.
O’Brien spoke of his frustrations that “revolved around what he saw as a lack of leadership at Penn State and his desire to simply fulfill his job description as the football coach, not university figurehead” before Jones asked him about the “departure or dismissal” of long-time linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, a holdover from Joe Paterno’s staff.
Jones inferred to O’Brien that “Joe Paterno-era loyalists” were upset by Vanderlinden's departure and that "[Paterno people] might want some sort of explanation.”
That really riled O’Brien up.
“You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a ---- what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.
“For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.”
“I’m trying to field the most competitive football team I can with near-death penalty ----ing sanctions. Every time I say something like that and somebody prints it, it’s skewed as an excuse. And I’m not an excuse-maker. I’m trying to do the best I can for the kids in that program. That’s all I care about is the kids in that program. As long as I’m the head football coach here.”
Somewhere during that rant, O’Brien dropped an even bigger bombshell.
“That’s why, in probably about a month, they’re gonna be ----ing looking for a new coach.”
Jones did what reporters do. He let O’Brien continue to vent, and when O’Brien finally calmed down, Jones asked O’Brien if he was actually leaving, to which O’Brien replied, “I’m not leaving.”
O’Brien may not have been planning to leave at that time, but when the Texans came calling, it offered O’Brien refuge from the inner-politics of a continually turbulent time at Penn State, and ultimately, he couldn’t turn down that offer. Since he first was hired by Penn State, O’Brien did not make it a secret that the NFL was his ultimate destination – it was just a matter of when.
Jones summed it up perfectly when he wrote that O’Brien “adores the pro game, the purity of it, without the university politics and pretense of the college version.”
I covered O’Brien’s first year with the Nittany Lions when I was a senior at Penn State, and I saw first-hand the kind of guy he is. He is a straightforward, no-BS kind of guy. When he was hired, he had no clue his newly-inherited program would be decimated by NCAA sanctions, yet he and his players triumphed through it all and remarkably won eight games that year and seven games the next year. That says a lot.
Jones’ piece ultimately displayed that O’Brien wants to simply be a football coach. Nothing more. Nothing less. In the NFL there are no recruiting calls or university politics to adhere to – just football.
So now Penn State’s search for its new head coach is already underway, and athletic director Dave Joyner told the media Thursday morning that the school expects the search to complete in “a matter of days rather than a matter of weeks.”
The search that ultimately yielded O’Brien took 40 days, but in order to salvage a solid recruiting class, moving quickly is a must.
Names like James Franklin, Greg Schiano and Al Golden have floated around as potential candidates. For now, long-time assistant Larry Johnson Sr. -- the only coach remaining from Paterno’s staff who was also retained by O’Brien – has been named interim coach as the process plays out over the next few weeks.
Joyner and Penn State wished O’Brien well in a press release, but the Penn State fan base’s reaction to O’Brien’s departure has been mixed. They're thankful for being a fantastic representative and leader for the school on and off the field, but disappointed that a man who preached commitment to his players ultimately bolted after just two years.
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