In 2012, Bill O’Brien led the Penn State Nittany Lions football program out from the shadows of the Jerry Sandusky scandal to a surprising 8-4 season.
This success, coming after harsh NCAA sanctions and the loss of several key players, has led to O’Brien being considered a top candidate for several NFL jobs (via NFL.com).
Yet, while O’Brien still faces a long and difficult road ahead of him to fully revive the Penn State program, it would be in his best interest to stay there. It may not be the easiest job, but its rewards transcend far beyond the football field. Rewards that even the grandiose NFL can’t offer.
The opportunity that O’Brien has at Penn State is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Few people in the whole world are blessed with such an opportunity to do what they love and positively impact hundreds of thousands of others.
As we all know, the Jerry Sandusky atrocity thrust a proud Penn State football program into the dark clenches of shame and outrage. No matter what anyone says, the glory days of Joe Paterno will forever be dampened by this tragedy.
If a recruiting scandal bruises a program, the Jerry Sandusky scandal was akin to Penn State football getting stabbed right through the chest. Furthermore, the NCAA twisted this metaphorical knife when they released their sanctions on the school.
As horrific as the Sandusky scandal was, the NCAA punished the entire program for the crimes of a select group. Going into the 2012 season, the innocent players, fans and alumni, who had nothing to do with the scandal, faced an uphill battle to bring the program back from despair.
To lead this battle was Bill O’Brien, a candidate who several thought shouldn't have received the job in the first place. But O’Brien proved throughout the year he was the right man for the task, propelling Penn State past all expectations with great leadership as well as outstanding coaching.
He led the program through its darkest days and now has it staring ahead at a bright future.
What O’Brien has begun at Penn State is a process that will allow the entire Penn State community to once again take pride in its football program. It is a process that will remove Penn State from the negative stigma associated with the Sandusky scandal and into a new era of producing quality student-athletes and winning football games.
And if O’Brien can complete this process, he will go down in history as a legend. He would have pulled off a truly unique comeback that would separate him from every other football coach ever to walk the sidelines.
Legendary status like this simply can’t be achieved in the NFL. The NFL is a business, and as much as fans identify with their favorite team, it doesn’t compare to the collegiate level. They might have watched their favorite NFL team since childhood, but they didn’t spend four years of their life actually being a part of it all.
I can’t even imagine the pain felt by the Penn State faithful last winter as the scandal continued to unfold. Just like I can’t even imagine the joy they’ll feel if their team returns to prominence on the national stage.
Bill O’Brien can give the thousands of Penn State football fans this joy by just doing what he does best—coach football.
I also understand that life isn’t all flowers and roses, though. There are practical reasons as to why O’Brien might be tempted by the NFL.
The first reason is that the NFL is a higher level of football.
My counter to this claim is the NFL isn’t going anywhere, and O’Brien is only 43 years old. Ten years from now after he has fully revived the Penn State program, the NFL will be there if he still has ambitions at that level.
Second, an NFL team might offer him an extremely lucrative contract.
To this, I argue that his position at Penn State is far more stable than anything the NFL can offer. O’Brien’s current contract pays him $2.3 million or greater each year through 2020. The average NFL tenure is now just 3.2 seasons.
Given the situation Penn State is currently in, and O’Brien’s track record, there is no reason to believe Penn State would dismiss him before his contract is up, even if the team has a rough season along the way.
This leads to the last practical reason that could compel O’Brien to leave. He might not want to deal with the challenges that staying at Penn State presents.
Undoubtedly, rebuilding the Penn State football program to national competitiveness is going to be a difficult task. But as described earlier, by embracing these difficulties and overcoming them, O’Brien has a chance to do something extraordinary.
Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, all signs show O’Brien is up to the challenge. The NCAA sanctions are merely a bump in the road, not a roadblock.
In addition to winning eight games in 2012, Penn State’s 2013 recruiting class is ranked 24th in the nation, according to ESPN.com. This figure is especially impressive due to their loss of scholarships and lack of bowl eligibility for another three seasons.
If O’Brien is recruiting this well now, think about how well he will recruit with more scholarships to offer and the promise of bowl games at his disposal.
The success of other programs suffering through similar NCAA sanctions (granted for other reasons) places more optimism on the Nittany Lions' situation.
If Ohio State and USC can compete and build strong teams without bowl eligibility and reduced scholarships, why can’t Penn State?
While the people involved in the Sandusky scandal will and should always be remembered with contempt (some more than others), O’Brien can lead the charge in showing the nation that Penn State football is more than that.
Rather than be a symbol of atrocity, Penn State football can be a symbol of resilience.
In November, O’Brien publicly said he plans on coaching Penn State next season. Let’s hope he doesn’t change his mind.