On Bill O’Brien, Loyalty, and Vision

January 4, 2013 at 6:50 pm 8 comments

So Bill O’Brien is staying put. For what seemed like an eternity to those following along on Twitter but was ultimately about half a day, O’Brien on Thursday went from rumored candidate for a handful of NFL jobs, to the guy who had interviewed for one or two of them and was all but gone, to the guy who reconfirmed his commitment to Penn State before any offers were forthcoming. It all happened so fast—and in fact nothing much really happened at all—but the speculation alone was enough to send many Nittany Lion fans into a panic.

Was O’Brien ever likely to leave? I don’t think so. I don’t pretend to know what’s in another man’s mind and heart, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time around him, both on and off the record. Judging by his words—and more important, his actions—over the past year, leaving now simply didn’t add up.

For starters, there’s the emphasis on loyalty—on sticking together and not running away from a challenge—that defined the Penn State football program over the past year. A lot of that originated with the players, but O’Brien embraced it as well. He had to, of course, if he wanted to keep this team together, but no one who saw the coach’s emotional reaction after the season-ending win over Wisconsin can doubt how much this team meant to him.

According to reports, O’Brien held preliminary talks with teams—the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns—that had contacted his agent; he wasn’t sending out resumes. By all accounts, university administrators made it clear they wanted him to stay, and fairly quickly, conversations led to confirmation that O’Brien would be back to coach Penn State in 2013. The coach and his assistants are apparently getting more money to stay, and that obviously matters; but I’d argue that the “structural and personnel changes” might be the bigger issue.

This gets back to the balance between tradition and innovation that’s been central since O’Brien’s hiring. He’s been adamant how much he respects Penn State’s nearly unequaled tradition of winning games and graduating players; the difference is how he’s gone about the former of those goals. O’Brien has a sharp and creative mind for the game; it’s why Penn State hired him, and why NFL teams were interested. He has succeeded thus far because he has refused to settle, because he’s working constantly to find ways to maximize his program’s strengths. I think that’s what those “changes” are about. I don’t know how they’ll play out, but I imagine we’ll find out in the coming weeks and months, and I’m convinced that they’re changes O’Brien believes will further solidify the football program and help his team win games.

Until then, what do we know? That O’Brien is now compensated on the level of the nation’s best coaches, and that his vision for Penn State football is solidified. That brief flurry of rumors (and a few facts) served only to raise O’Brien’s already high profile among media and recruits, all while confirming that Penn State, despite those NCAA sanctions, is a place this coveted coach believes he can succeed.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. David Delozier  |  January 4, 2013 at 11:01 pm

    Pardon my cynicism (and sarcasim), Ryan, and I am as big a BOB fan as anyone, but I’m sure the students I know who won’t be back Spring semester due to lack of finances will be pleased to know that our coach “is now compensated on the level of the nation’s best coaches.” Academics > Athletics??

  • 2. SAM  |  January 5, 2013 at 12:43 am

    I read somewhere that his salary bump was through a generous donor’s contribution and the contribution was designated to fund O’Brien salary. I’m not sure if that person – who can spend his or her money any way he or she chooses – would have donated it to an academic program or to help with the general scholarship fund. Although the pay bump will bring more income tax to the Commonwealth. Penn Stater is this true? (The part about the donor contributing to the coach’s salary?)

  • 3. Richard  |  January 5, 2013 at 9:07 am

    man of his word? only after he interviewed and didn’t get another offer. great coach but can’t be rusted.

  • 4. Anthony Demangone  |  January 5, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Either BOB was interested in leaving, or he wanted people to think he was, possibly for more dollars. Either way, I’m disappointed. Perhaps this is the “new normal” from which we’ve been shielded for a while. But that doean’t mean I have to like it.

  • 5. Ryan Jones  |  January 5, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    David,

    Thanks for your note. I don’t think you should apologize for cynicism — especially not after the year we’ve had—and I appreciate your point. I’d argue that the money that is going to fund salary increases for Bill O’Brien and his staff is in no way connected to tuition costs for Penn State undergrads. Penn State has long prided itself on being able to operate its athletic department without taking a penny from the general student fund, making it one of the few universities in the country that’s able to operate such a large-scale and successful athletic program (both in terms of on-field success and academic progress) without costing students. Nittany Lion sports teams are funded by ticket sales, TV rights, merchandise licensing, and private donations. And to Sam’s point, it’s been reported that Terry Pegula, whose gift is responsible for the new ice hockey arena, also contributed a seven-figure sum to this increase in coaching salaries.

    Certainly there’s an important and ongoing conversation about the emphasis on athletics in higher education at institutions across the country, let alone the cost of higher education in general (as someone who paid out-of-state tuition at Penn State, it’s an issue with which I’m very familiar). All I know is that, based on graduation rates and win-loss records, Penn State has long been a national leader in balancing the two.

    Ryan

  • 6. Ryan Jones  |  January 5, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    And Richard, to your point: I don’t know Bill O’Brien well, so I can only go on what time I’ve spent around him, what’s been reported in the media, and what those who know him well have said. By all accounts, these teams contacted him, he agreed to relatively short preliminary interviews, and he removed himself from the process before any offers were forthcoming. A number of respected NFL reporters have said he was likely to get at least one NFL offer; certainly he and his agent knew this. As for his trustworthiness, I go by what I’ve heard and seen reported from current and former players, and particularly from new recruits and their parents: They overwhelmingly see O’Brien as a man of his word.

    Thanks for your note.

    Ryan

  • 7. Richard  |  January 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Hi Ryan, thanks for your reply and explanation. I still think it was very odd. For example, I heard Peter King, veteran guy at SI/NBC, say BOB agreed to stay only after not getting a pro offer.

    I often think of my freshman philosophy class, the professor assigned a logic text and stressed to us that one plus one will always equal two. Always.

  • 8. Susan Gifford, '80 MBA  |  January 7, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I have thought long and hard about publicly stating my feelings about Coach O’Brien’s “interviews” and “stay or go”. But based upon the above cynicism, let me add my two cents.
    I don’t think any of us will ever get the truth about whether Bill wanted an NFL job or just used this as leverage or if this whole swirl of rumors (see Richard’s comment about Peter King) is just a continuation of the media’s attempt to damage Penn State. But does it really matter?
    What matters, I believe, is that the NCAA sanctions were based, in large part, on Penn States “football culture”. Yet the culture for which we were sanctioned was one with no significant NCAA violations EVER, a coach without an agent who made (for a top-tier football coach) a very modest salary, and rabid alumni who did not interfer with the operation of the Athletic Department or its teams (unlike many top tier athletic programs).
    And what do we have now – at least based on public reports? A coach making $3.4 million and a booster paying part of that generous salary? And another booster/BOT member with significant monetary ties to our “acting” Athletic Director.
    I dfo not begrudge Bill O’Brien his salary – everyone knows JoPa was grossly underpaid, and I thank Terry Pegula for his gifts of hockey and money to improve coaching salaries. I’m not sure I’d thank Ira Lupert for anything.
    But are we on a slippery slope here?

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