Given all that Penn State was facing at this point 10 weeks ago—seemingly crippling NCAA sanctions for years to come, a first-year head coach with no college experience, an 0-2 start and a dwindling base of talent—the very notion of Penn State securing a winning record here in 2012 seemed at best implausible.
Yet here are the Nittany Lions at 7-4, one season-ending win against Wisconsin away from locking up sole possession of second place in the Leaders Division. That's a strong season—strong to quite strong.
The key to that success, without question, has been the steady leadership of head coach Bill O'Brien, whose players never faltered after their unparalleled early-season adversity and proved themselves capable of competing at the Big Ten level even with a talent drain that has already left the team under 70 scholarship players—even before sanctions will limit the team to 65 scholarship players for the next few years.
That has, quite understandably, engendered quite a bit of adulation for O'Brien in Happy Valley and among the Penn State fanbase as a whole. O'Brien has, at this point, proven to be the extraordinary coach the program needs going forward, and Penn State is prepared to keep him around long enough to reward him appropriately for the miracle job he's poised to undertake.
Thus, after Penn State got done whipping Indiana 45-22 on Saturday, David Jones of the Patriot-News asked O'Brien a simple, easy-to-answer question about his immediate future plans with this program. Jones expected a simple answer, a sigh of relief from the PSU faithful and for no drama to pervade the offseason.
Here's what ensued instead (via the Patriot-News):
Me: “I think a lot of fans want to know the answer to this question and that's why I'm asking it. Are you going to be back here next season?”
O'B: “You guys gave legs last week to a story that...there's no story there. Y'know, I'm focused on one game at a time. I'm focused on this football team. That's not something that I even think about. I think about that I'm the head football coach at Penn State. And I'm looking forward to getting this team ready for Wisconsin. I mean, we give legs to a story that's not even there.”
Me: “It's a yes or no question.”
O'B: “It might be for you. For me, it's Wisconsin. And this football team and this senior class. That's where I think the questions should be directed: Indiana. The senior class. Getting ready for Wisconsin.”
Me: “Well, that's gonna sound to the fans like you're noncommittal.”
O'B: “I'm the head football coach at Penn State. I love coaching here. And I can't wait to get back to work on Monday and get ready for Wisconsin.”
It's worth reiterating that O'Brien is in his first year as a head coach, so this is not a question he's used to fielding—especially when coaches are, well, coached to be noncommittal to specific questions from reporters. So we get it if O'Brien's reflexive response to the question is the generic "hey man, one game at a time" coach-speak.
That response is the wrong answer, though. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
If you're a Penn State fan and you think that was the right answer, start talking that way to your significant other as soon as he or she brings up the future. Tell that person you're just focused on tomorrow and that they shouldn't try to give legs to a non-story. Then let us know where you're sleeping that night, because it sure as hell isn't in that person's bed.
Bill O'Brien needs to take Jones' advice and answer that question with one word: yes. Period. Full stop. End of story.
Yes, as Jones points out later in the article, O'Brien has almost certainly been coached by his agent not to commit to future years of coaching before he has to. If Bill Belichick suddenly decides to retire from New England and tells the ownership he wants O'Brien to replace him, after all, O'Brien's going to feel a lot better about moving to Foxboro if he hadn't promised PSU fans he'd be back in 2013.
Moreover, when push comes to shove on commitment to his current employer (and team and fanbase), O'Brien's got to realize that his first deference should not be to his own agent—especially in a unique situation like this at Penn State.
A noncommittal answer in this specific situation doesn't just worry fans unnecessarily or give sports columnists offseason chatter fodder. Not in an offseason where Penn State players are allowed to transfer out of the program without penalty from the end of the season to the start of fall practice.
Let's say some backup 3-star recruit named Johnny Generic came down to Penn State and Random Big Ten University when he was in high school. He chose Penn State, and chose to stick around after last offseason. Ah, but this season, he's not in line for playing time at PSU, but Random Big Ten U could definitely use him. Think of how easy the pitch would be for the opposing coach.
"Look, Johnny. We respect your enduring commitment to Penn State. We think that's a character strength, and here at Random Big Ten U, we value character. But your coach won't even say if he's sticking around for next year. Johnny, I can tell you I'm going to be around here as long as you would be. Again, you're a kid who values commitment. You deserve to play for a coach who does too. You don't want to get Todd Graham-ed, do you? You don't deserve that.
"Also, we'll be bowl-eligible before you graduate. You ever been to Florida in the dead of winter? You'd love it. I know my players did. Call me."
And mind you, that's what coaches are going to be able to say to active players after the season. Imagine what they're already telling committed recruits, who can't sign until February.
How bad is O'Brien's response? He could even equivocate and do a far better job of answering the question than he did. Here's how he can end speculation for the offseason straight off the bat even while technically keeping his options open:
"I am the head coach of Penn State right now. I plan to be head coach of Penn State for the duration of my contract. I can't control who contacts my agent and I can't predict the future direction of my career, but I am committed to being here at Penn State this year, next year and beyond."
There. If "yes" doesn't suit O'Brien, he can say that instead and this issue would be o-v-e-r.
Instead, when he was put on the spot, O'Brien equivocated. And that will not fly.