I remember Bill O’Brien at his first Big Ten media day, absorbing all punches like a seasoned vet who had been put through the meat grinder before. He had the delivery and presence of an experienced head coach who had been at it for much longer than a few months.
Despite having zero games at Penn State under his belt at the time, O’Brien looked like the savior. He sounded like the savior. Heck, he was the savior.
But it’s never that easy or defined, and nothing in the bizarre yearly ritual that is the coaching carousel is ever written in stone. It’s about leverage and the next opportunity, which is both frustrating and assumed.
And while college football will dearly miss O’Brien, this was too good of an opportunity to pass up for the soon-to-be former savior of Penn State.
As first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter, O’Brien will leave Happy Valley after coaching the Nittany Lions for two seasons.
He will inherit an incredible amount of talent, the No. 1 pick in upcoming NFL draft and a few more numbers on his paycheck. He will leave behind a program that has brilliantly navigated some of the most significant NCAA sanctions ever handed out, largely because of his influence.
After a rocky start in his first season, O’Brien led Penn State to an 8-4 record. This year, PSU finished with a record of 7-5. While the season had its ups and downs, it closed with a bang. The Nittany Lions' upset victory over Wisconsin in the final week as more than a three-touchdown underdog served as one of this season's biggest surprises.
More impossible than the wins, or turning former Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin into an NFL starter—which is truly unbelievable if you watched him before the 2012 season—is the fact that O’Brien was able to recruit at a time when many thought it would be impossible.
He kept the program together in large part because of the talent he landed at Penn State, headlined by blue-chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
One of the top quarterbacks in the class of 2013, Hackenberg stayed committed to the program throughout the Jerry Sandusky saga. When he arrived on campus, and as he developed throughout his freshman season, he showed the promise and potential that many hoped he would bring.
Beyond simply landing one great player, O’Brien will leave the school with the No. 17 recruiting class in the country in 2014, according to 247Sports. This, of course, will likely change and change quickly.
Things were going incredibly well despite the scholarship limitations and two more seasons of being banned from bowl games.
Back in September, the NCAA reduced the penalties against Penn State, giving the program some scholarships lost in the original ruling. There’s reason to believe that the NCAA could again reduce the punishment before it’s all said and done.
Such potential future rulings will come on another head coach's watch, however. O’Brien will take his talents back to the NFL, seizing an opening that coaches would have lined up for.
While the Houston Texans struggled mightily in 2013, there is talent on this team. It didn't mesh in 2013, and injuries certainly didn't help, but there is plenty of reason to believe this team could have a Kansas City Chiefs-like resurrection sooner than later.
There is also the prospect of landing the quarterback of the future with the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. Perhaps O’Brien will take Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, or maybe Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel will move shop down the road a ways.
Regardless of how this evaluation process plays out, it’s a wonderful opportunity for both the Texans and its new head coach. O’Brien is one of the great quarterback gurus in the country, and while nothing is a given at his new stop, he’ll likely have the chance to work with a gifted player.
The move makes sense. You don't have to like it, but you can understand it.
It's a decision that just about any other coach would've made if they were put in this position. It never felt like O’Brien was at Penn State for the long haul. That much became apparent last year when he flirted with NFL openings after one season and picked up a nice raise in the process.
Of course, the term “loyalty” will be discussed over the coming days and weeks, or, more specifically, a lack thereof. Despite his commitment to the school, O’Brien has decommitted at a volatile time. And while it’s not a part of the business that anyone enjoys, it is a business.
O’Brien was able to capitalize on his perceived star power after only 15 wins. If he had stayed at Penn State longer, perhaps his star would have grown. Or, after the roster limitations and depth concerns kicked in a little further, perhaps his reputation would have taken a hit with average seasons.
We’ll never know.
What we do know is O’Brien has climbed an impossible ladder in record time, and he has the rare luxury of landing in an NFL spot with a solid foundation already in place. Although Andy Reid might disagree, it’s almost unheard of.
With all that being said, it’s an enormous loss for Penn State and a loss for college football. O’Brien’s departure highlights how shock value in these coaching changes is now gone. It’s happened before, and it will certainly happen again.
Leaving the Nittany Lions, given everything they’ve endured, makes this particular situation more complicated and difficult.
Loyalty is a word built for press conferences. The business typically does the talking.