Interest from NFL franchises in making Bill O'Brien their head coach isn't new. He was a highly regarded assistant to Bill Belichick in New England, authoritative and creative. He was a guy whose opportunity appeared to be just a matter of time and circumstance.
Yet if there was a moment when O'Brien became one of the hottest coaching candidate as the NFL's Black Monday approaches, executives across the league point to the month of November in the play of two quarterbacks – Penn State signal-callers past and present.
Freshman Christian Hackenberg, under O'Brien's direct tutelage, continued to make strides as an elite player, a developing talent, not just a raw heralded recruit. He helped lead the Nittany Lions to a 7-5 record despite a lack of skill players around him. That included a four-TD performance in a season-finale victory over heavily favored Wisconsin.
Meanwhile injuries in Oakland sent Matt McGloin, Penn State's starter last year, into action for the Raiders. McGloin is considered lightly talented, a one-time walk-on who soared under O'Brien in 2012, throwing 24 TDs against just five picks and leading PSU to an 8-4 record amidst the wild off-field tumult of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Doubts about natural ability remained though. Despite O'Brien's pleading to his former peers, McGloin went undrafted and wasn't even invited to the NFL combine.
Yet here he was proving to be a capable NFL QB – not a sure-fire star in waiting, but at the very least a good backup. That's a lot more than anyone predicted. His best performance was a three-touchdown effort against Houston, perhaps not coincidentally the franchise that may be on the verge of naming O'Brien its next coach.
"Bill had a reputation as a quarterback guy in New England, but he was working with Tom Brady," said one NFL exec whose team is unlikely to have a job opening. "How much of it was just Brady being Brady? Or Belichick? The play of McGloin, and the kid at Penn State, was different."
The obvious headline on O'Brien is that he is a forceful leader who took over a reeling Penn State program, got sucker-punched with NCAA sanctions of nearly unprecedented severity and still held everything together.
And it's true, of course. NFL teams, however, aren't planning on anyone dealing with such scandal. Developing talent while managing a massive organization requires far more convertible skills. If Houston doesn't work out, a number of franchises are expected to inquire about O'Brien. He's the hot name this year.
O'Brien's greatest move in State College may have been his ability to convey a level of seriousness, class, grace and professionalism that was sorely needed. He pushed the program forward from an ugly past while essentially ignoring the continued criminal trials, civil suits and warring factions over – mostly – the legacy of Joe Paterno.
If there is any lesson that came out of the Sandusky scandal and the firing of Paterno, it's that football, no matter how much it is overvalued by some, does not control a major university.
Penn State was always bigger than its football program and always will be. Saying Joe Paterno was the school is a cute concept, but no matter what happened to him, his reputation or his statue, no matter how many of his passionate acolytes stopped attending games, over on campus, classes continued, degrees were earned and memories were made.
Penn State was still Penn State, a world-class institution of higher learning.
O'Brien was the perfect complement to that, staying above the politics while delivering a program everyone could respect, appreciate and enjoy. He helped showcase the best of the Penn State football culture. He did so without apology or hesitation.
If he leaves for the NFL, his legacy in State College will be his ability to help the school navigate a desperately fragile situation.
There will be, undoubtedly, bitter feelings left behind since Penn State fans were spoiled by Paterno, the ultimate in coaching loyalty.
From outside Happy Valley though, this isn't that difficult of a decision. O'Brien is 44, in the prime of his career, and to choose to stay is to attempt to compete with one hand tied behind his back. The NCAA has lightened (and will likely continue to lighten) the sanctions, but this will be the third consecutive small, if not depleted, recruiting class for Penn State.
O'Brien's first class, in 2012, featured just 19 signees and ranked 51st nationally, mostly due to the fact he was recruiting while trying to help the Patriots win the Super Bowl. It seemed like a one-time thing. Then the sanctions hit and this year's group was small (17 players) and ranked No. 43 nationally by rivals.com. The 2014 group is still limited to about 20 players.
Depth issues will hamper the program for years, especially as those groups become upper-classmen. It's tough.
O'Brien, like any good coach, believes in himself and his ability to craft a winner. There's little doubt he and his family love Penn State. Still, like any coach, he'd prefer a fair shot.
And now the job interest is coming from Houston, where there is recent success, the No. 1 overall draft pick in hand and a classy, stable owner. Or maybe, say, Detroit, where a loaded roster and a foundering QB of great natural talent await. Or it could be the New York Giants, and all its great stability and tradition.
These aren't bad jobs in rough, rebuilding situations. At worst, the NFL doesn't work out and he returns to the college ranks as a coveted choice for any number of elite programs.
Either way, as the NFL coaching carousel cranks up, Bill O'Brien has earned his shot at a great opportunity.
Not just for what he did off the field at Penn State as for what he did on it, the parallel late-season play of Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg as the most glowing of examples.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Penn State
- Bill Belichick
- Christian Hackenberg