Bill O’Brien, who previously served as the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, become a head coach for the first time ever on January 7, when he was hired to lead the Penn State University football program.
The job O’Brien now holds would be a daunting position for even the most experienced of coaches, but will certainly be an incredible test for a first-time head coach. He has the most difficult coaching job not only in college football, but in all of football, and what lies ahead for O’Brien in State College, Penn. could possibly rank as the most difficult coaching job in sports history.
The Penn State Nittany Lions have long been known as a national powerhouse in college football. They have won two national championships and have had seven perfect seasons. However, as a result of the NCAA sanctions that they received on Monday, their days of being a college football power could be over forever.
For the university’s enabling and cover-up of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children, the NCAA punished Penn State with a four-year bowl ban, the loss of 10 new scholarships per each of the next four years (and 20 total scholarships over each of the next four years), a $60 million fine and the vacation of all Penn State victories between 1998-2011, as announced by the NCAA in a press conference on Monday.
The Big Ten levied additional penalties against Penn State, banning them from the Big Ten Championship game for each of the next four years and retracting their share of conference bowl revenues over the next four seasons.
These penalties are severe and crippling to Penn State football. As a result of the four-year postseason ban, all players are free to transfer from Penn State, if they wish to do so, to any other school without sitting out a season. Additionally, the team’s recruiting efforts will be seriously hindered as a result of the situation that incoming players would now enter into.
No one, however, should be surprised by the severity of the sanctions, so O’Brien knew the situation he was getting himself into. The NCAA had to take serious action to ensure the end of the dangerous, criminal culture that had infiltrated one of its major schools’ college football program.
In this case, the NCAA came down exactly how they needed to. They may not have given Penn State the “death penalty,” but these sanctions are about as bad as they could be otherwise.
As a result of outgoing transfers and a steep decline of incoming recruits, Penn State will likely fall from powerhouse status to being a perennial losing team, and it could take anywhere from 10-20 years for the Nittany Lions’ program to recover.
That leaves O’Brien in the unenviable spot of managing a program in disarray, a program that will require many years of rebuilding — a rebuilding effort that is likely to extend beyond his years coaching the Nittany Lions. O’Brien knew what he was getting himself into, but having never been a head coach before, will he realize how incredible the challenges that lie ahead for him will be as he enters his first season with Penn State?
Although O’Brien accepted the position months after the Sandusky scandal had started to dominate national headlines, it is easy to understand why he would accept the position. The opportunity to become the head coach of an historic college football powerhouse would certainly be hard to turn down for a man who has never been a head coach before.
Additionally, O’Brien’s contract entitles him to $2.3 million annually, which is almost certainly a massive raise from his job with the Patriots (the Patriots never publicly disclosed O’Brien’s contract details during his time with the organization).
Money, however, may not be enough to make O’Brien happy in the long run that he accepted the Penn State job.
With the Patriots, O’Brien may have had the easiest coordinator position in the entire NFL, where he was basically continuing the work of previous offensive coordinators Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels, an offensive system that was already well-known by its leader, future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
Now, O’Brien has the toughest job in all of college football.
O’Brien has to find a way to convince as many of his current players as he can to stay at Penn State, even though they will never be eligible to play in a bowl game if they stay (with the exception of an incoming freshman who is redshirted for the 2012 season).
O’Brien must also convince potential recruits, most of whom are likely turned off by the scandal that happened within the program and the sanctions that will affect them the next four years, to come to Penn State even though they will be ineligible to play in a bowl game until the 2016 season. And that's a feat they may be unable to earn anyway as they continue to recover from the sanctions’ effects.
While former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno’s legacy has been tarnished by his role in covering up Sandusky’s actions, the late Paterno still has a loyal following among Penn State football fans, and the longer it takes Penn State to return to their winning ways, the more pressure and disdain O’Brien will feel from the community.
O’Brien said in a statement (via NFL.com) Monday that he is “committed for the long term to Penn State,” but while he will likely work as hard as he can to restore and revive Penn State football, the team’s fans may not remain as committed to him as he is to the program.
If O’Brien manages to keep Penn State afloat and winning football games over the next four seasons, and rebuilds them into a powerhouse after the sanctions have taken their course, he will prove himself as a tremendous head coach, and become a legend forever not only at Penn State, but in all of college football history.
Unfortunately for O’Brien, the odds are stacked against him in his effort to rebuild Penn State into a championship-contending program before his tenure comes to an end.
The effects of the scandal and sanctions are not temporary, but permanent to Penn State football, and it is quite possible that the program will never return to championship-contending status. Even if it does eventually, it is likely that O’Brien will have moved on from State College before that happens.
I would project that if most football head coaches were given the choice between being the offensive coordinator of the Patriots, where they could work alongside legendary head coach Bill Belichick while coaching Tom Brady and have a strong possibility to win a Super Bowl in 2012, versus taking the helm of a damaged Penn State football program about to enter its first of our four years under heavy NCAA sanctions, a significant majority would choose the Patriots’ job.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.
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