Christian Hackenberg Signing with Penn State Is Testament to Bill O'Brien

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2013

Nov 17, 2012; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien leads his team on to the field prior to the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Beaver Stadium.  Penn State defeated Indiana 45-22.  Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien had the opportunity to walk out of Beaver Stadium and into the comforting arms of the Cleveland Browns.

He ultimately decided to honor his commitment to Penn State.

Five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg had Alabama, Miami and Florida all knocking down his door trying to get him to change his commitment. The speculation ended once and for all when the Fork Union, Va., signal-caller signed his national letter of intent on Wednesday (picture via Joe Hermitt of The Patriot-News).

The similarities between Hackenberg and O'Brien's situation are jarring.

An offensive assistant for the New England Patriots from 2007-2011, many viewed O'Brien's time at Penn State as a proving ground for a future NFL job. He has the ultimate resume for the modern NFL—time spent under Bill Belichick, working with one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived in Tom Brady.

O'Brien is tailor-made for Sundays, and his first season in Happy Valley proved he could thrive as a head coach. Facing arguably the most untenable situation in NCAA history in the wake of sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record despite starting 0-2. He was named the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year for his efforts, and he is largely seen as the driving force behind keeping the Penn State program afloat.

Hackenberg is one of the best quarterbacks in the class of 2013, according to just about every major publication on the planet. A 6'4" pocket-style thrower with a howitzer for an arm, Hackenberg eviscerated the competition while playing at Fork Union Military Academy. He threw for 2,144 yards and 24 touchdowns and was named as a participant in the Under Armour All-American Game and was an ESPN Rise Elite 11 quarterback. 

Based on the resumes of O'Brien and Hackenberg, one couldn't really blame either if they had decided to renege on their commitment to Happy Valley. Penn State won't be eligible to play in a bowl for another three seasons, a fact that renders the team's yearly record mostly meaningless. Just ask the nation's only undefeated FBS program, the Ohio State Buckeyes, how it feels to have a great season get mostly ignored due to bowl ineligibility.

Assuming he doesn't redshirt, Penn State will be bowl-eligible only in Hackenberg's senior season. If his trajectory goes the way many have projected, Hackenberg may leave school early and never know the glories of playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (I kid). 

He wouldn't have had that problem at any of the other schools that made his final list. Alabama is a perennial powerhouse that may win every national championship until Nick Saban's retirement at this point. Florida was a quarterback away from being a true contender last season. And Miami? Well, it's a program with a rich tradition and the city is a really, really fun place for a college-age star athlete. 

Meanwhile, places like Cleveland may not be calling O'Brien off the hook for much longer. Sure, an 8-4 season looks fantastic considering the circumstances, but what about two or three of them? Even in this ugly situation, O'Brien is a couple mediocre seasons away from devolving as the hottest name in college football to a forgotten man. 

All of those factors taken into consideration, and they both stayed.

Though Hackenberg certainly deserves some credit for being a man of his word, his commitment is a testament to the man who will be coaching him. Ever since taking over as head coach, O'Brien has preached the concept of "one team." He preached the concept of loyalty, togetherness and fighting beyond all odds to one of the least-talented Penn State teams in recent memory.

Had O'Brien reneged on his commitment, would Hackenberg have followed suit? It's very possible. The young quarterback has made it very clear that O'Brien and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher were highly influential in him committing to Penn State.

"My parents felt comfortable handing me over to them for four years," Hackenberg said (per ESPN). "I really felt a connection with those guys and felt a comfort level with them that I had nowhere else."

That connection with young players is part of the reason O'Brien stuck around. According to ESPN, he wasn't going to "cut and run." Neither was Hackenberg.

But both men have to know that their journey won't be easy. So as Hackenberg and O'Brien stare at the abyss and try rebuild what was once one of the proudest programs in the country, at least they can take solace in knowing they decided to make this venture together.

Penn State will continue to preach O'Brien's "one team" concept. But it may have the loyalty of one quarterback and one coach to thank for keeping the Nittany Lions from caving in on themselves once again.