On Bill O’Brien, Loyalty, and Vision
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