The inevitable became official deep into the New Year’s Eve parties in Pennsylvania. Bill O’Brien, about the only positive thing for Penn State to come out of Jerry Sandusky scandal, was leaving for the NFL.
O’Brien agreed to become the head coach of the Houston Texans on Tuesday and it says plenty about O’Brien that he somehow managed to turn an almost unimaginable quagmire into a professional steppingstone.
The Texans get not only a coach with a reputation for brilliant work with quarterbacks and years of tutelage as an assistant to Bill Belichick. They landed a proven leader. It isn’t just the 15-9 record over the least two years. It’s not even the way he lifted Nittany Lion football above the ugly headlines, the legal proceedings and the infighting among various sects over the legacy of Joe Paterno.
It is clear, maybe most obviously, in the offerings of thanks and respect offered up on social media Tuesday by his players, the very guys who believed in O’Brien and, in turn, themselves, when few outside Happy Valley did.
“I want to congratulate Coach O'Brien and his family,” tight end Jesse James tweeted. “I couldn't thank Bill anymore for the great two years he gave me.”
“Good luck to Coach O'Brien and his family,” center Ty Howle tweeted. “Made a tremendous impact on my life and many others during his time at Penn State.”
“I'll love Coach O’Brien forever,” guard Miles Dieffenbach tweeted. “He will always be a part of Penn State. One of the greatest men I've ever known.”
No, the reactions weren’t unanimous. Yes, there were – and will remain – some hard feelings within the program. These deals are never easy. Ever.
Yet, from the players that knew O’Brien best, there were few questions about loyalty. That was left more to fans, who, perhaps spoiled by the 61 years of Paterno in State College, now must come to terms with the modern reality that everyone is always looking out for what’s next.
The players know what O’Brien did for Penn State and while they undoubtedly wish he could’ve kept doing it, the service offered was significant.
He was a fresh face from the outside, a 41-year-old from Boston, arriving with no ties to Sandusky or Paterno or pretty much anything.
He was a powerful, no-nonsense presence. O’Brien asked his players to pledge loyalty to each other, to the school they chose, to their very real understanding that the Penn State football culture was richer and deeper than anything Jerry Sandusky had done.
And then he delivered on it, giving the team, the school, the community, and the nation a product that was positive, that was easy to like, that simply went about its business without making excuses. He gave them the platform to excel.
The scars from Sandusky were deep and they continue to be cut as criminal trials still loom, and civil suits continue and incessant arguing over JoePa’s role carries on.
Yet what O’Brien and his players proved over the last two years is that the football program in particular – and the university in general – are bigger than any one man, even a man with as big a legend as Paterno, even a man who caused the level of destruction as Sandusky.
The narrative is that this was Joe Paterno State, that it was a football coach who turned some cow school into a world class university. It’s a nice story but not true. Paterno helped, sure, but the school was always vastly more than football. Penn State is a collective work.
And no matter how bad things got, classes continued, degrees were earned, life moved on, friendships were formed, parties held. Penn State kept being Penn State. Mistakes were made by the few. The school, this school, is about the many.
Bill O’Brien’s job, he smartly realized, wasn’t to worry about the past. It was just to continue to push toward a positive future, corralling all that Penn State was, is and will be. Yes, the loyalty angle ran deep here because of the duress, but his recruiting push was also long on what the school would always offer – a great education, a wonderful community, a big-time game day setting, a tremendous student body and the chance to be around the best kind of teammates.
Why leave, he argued to the current roster. Why not come, he sold to the high school prospects. So many listened.
The bitterness for O’Brien will continue, of course. Some fans will never forgive him. Yet if there was going to be a bridge coach from Paterno, across the deepest and darkest days of the Sandusky trial and NCAA sanctions, then this was the best possible choice.
Penn State can seek a better coach than it would’ve gotten otherwise. There are still challenges – a depleted roster that will deal with depth issues for years, a still-tarnished reputation in some quarters, a chaotic campus leadership full of interim figureheads.
Yet there is interest in the job. O’Brien showed this isn’t a wasteland, that there is so much positive to still work with, so much potential to be tapped.
Maybe Penn State winds up with Greg Schiano, who built up Rutgers before a doomed two seasons in the NFL. Or maybe they can lure in James Franklin, the Pennsylvania native who has done wonders at Vanderbilt. Or maybe it’s someone else.
That decision will come soon enough. Right now, O’Brien is gone, off to chase his dream in the NFL. Whether it was too soon or not, whether you side with the testimonials from his players or the curses from fans dealing with an extra level of hangover, his impact across some desperate moments the last couple years is undeniable.
And today is a new day, the first new day of a new year for old Penn State.