by John Furgele
He came to Happy Valley because it was sad. His goal, to restore the happy back in the valley in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, a scandal that rocked the college town that is State College, Pennsylvania. And, for two years, it was working. Bill O’ Brien was doing the job and doing it better than expected. He went 8-4 and 7-5 in two seasons in what were at the very least, trying circumstances. Some thought the sanctions were too severe; others not severe enough.
In many ways, Bill O’ Brien reminds me a bit of Jack Lengyl, the man who came to Marshall University in 1971 to coach the Thundering Herd after the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 members of the university, 37 of those football players. Both Marshall and Penn State were in pain, albeit different kinds of pain. At Marshall, the pain was caused by an act they couldn’t control; at Penn State, it was the deliberate acts of one man and a lack of responsibility by other men.
O’Brien had the look of a college football coach. He was tough, grizzled, enthusiastic and he was infectious to those who knew him. He has a son that is autistic and cannot speak, but he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He is driven, determined and eager, all qualities you would want in your football coach at the collegiate level. The bad news for those in Happy Valley was almost immediately after arriving in central Pennsylvania, he was being wooed by the NFL. A long time and successful NFL assistant, O’ Brien’s dream was to be a head coach in the NFL. He never said so, but in his eyes, he likely felt that they only way to be an NFL head coach was to be a head coach at some level. Marc Trestman went north to Montreal of the CFL and that worked to get him the job as the head coach of the Chicago Bears. O’Brien went to Penn State, won 15 games in two seasons under extremely limiting conditions and that was good enough to get him the Houston Texans job.
Now, he is gone, and as they say, everybody can be replaced. Bear Bryant wasn’t the last Alabama coach to win a national title, and there was one (Gene Stallings) who won one before Nick Saban won three. Nobody can fault O’Brien for having a dream. Some will of course, viewing him as a hypocrite for repeatedly saying he wanted to stay at Penn State while interviewing for NFL jobs on the side. As much as O’Brien wanted to stay at Penn State, he was in demand and ultimately, couldn’t resist the lure of being a head coach in the NFL. Sure, he could have said no thanks and stayed, but if you always say no, they (the NFL and other colleges) will stop calling and someday when the school no longer wants you—and that day always comes—the other people won’t want you either.
If you were an off-Broadway actor and had the opportunity to act on Broadway, you would take it. If you were a top notch lawyer at ABC firm and DEF firm wanted to hire you away and make you a partner, you would take it. If you were Robinson Cano and the Seattle Mariners offered you $70 million more than the New York Yankees, you would take it. For O’Brien, it wasn’t all about the money, and even though he’ll make more with the Texans, he wanted the opportunity to be just one of 32 head coaches in the NFL.
As a fan of college football it is a sad day. I believed that O’Brien is a dynamic enough personality to win and win big in college football. He would have excelled at Penn State and down the road, could have stayed there or moved on to Texas, Alabama or another elite program in the nation. But, there was the draw, the pull, the lure of the NFL that was too much to resist. Yes, there are those who say that he left with unfinished business, but he did restore some luster and some pride at Penn State. Most thought the Lions would be lucky to win eight games in two years; O’Brien nearly doubled that. To say he failed would be a gross understatement. He could have done better had he stayed at State College, but when you’re coveted, revered and wanted; sometimes you have to take the opportunity.
O’Brien will be introduced soon as the Texans head coach. He’ll say all the right things and he’ll say that leaving Penn State was perhaps the toughest thing he’s ever done. Everybody says that when they leave one job for another, but when O’Brien says it, I’ll believe him. It was a tough decision, and I hope he says that it was because that’s the kind of guy he is.
Two years ago nobody wanted the Penn State job, but O’Brien took it and two years later, there will be plenty of applicants and candidates. They can thank O’Brien for that.