O'Brien was never likely to make enough people in State College happy to stay for long.
It took Joe Paterno decades to build Penn State football into a national powerhouse. It took a terrible scandal a couple of years to deconstruct what Paterno had built.
Nobody thought Bill O'Brien would spend decades coaching the Nittany Lions. That said, even the most jaded and world-weary observers probably thought he'd stay long enough to see the rising sophomores he inherited graduate.
He didn't. And the circumstances surrounding O'Brien's departure are almost certainly more troubling to Penn State's legion of followers than the fact that he is actually gone.
For starters, look where O'Brien is going, per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
Yes, O'Brien got a National Football League job. Just about.
The Houston Texans just finished a 2-14 season following two straight AFC South titles. Sure, the overall No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft is a real asset.
But most 2-14 teams are not one player or even one healthy draft away from playoff contention. Plus, Matt Schaub's implosion means Houston probably has to take a quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater?) at No. 1.
Those are the circumstances O'Brien looked at and affirmatively preferred to staying in Happy Valley for even one more season. Based on recent reporting from David Jones of the Patriot-News, it is pretty hard to blame O'Brien.
Jones published the following quote from O'Brien only after the coach revealed that he was leaving Penn State, out of respect to O'Brien and because, well, it would have triggered shock waves in State College and beyond:
You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a ---- what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to Coach Paterno. Everything in my power. For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.
Yeah, that does not sound like a happy employee. O'Brien went on: "I’m trying to field the most competitive football team I can with near-death penalty ----ing sanctions. Every time I say something like that and somebody prints it, it’s skewed as an excuse. And I’m not an excuse-maker."
So, to recap: O'Brien came to Penn State at the school's lowest point—not the football program's nadir, mind you, the lowest point in the history of the university—and did whatever the NCAA would permit him to do (after they took scholarships and bowl bids away) to keep Penn State competitive.
In gratitude, at least some portion of Penn State's football backers did not think O'Brien was doing enough, or doing it the right way.
That was Jones' own read of it in his column: "As perfect as Bill O’Brien was to lead Penn State’s football program at the time of his arrival, it’s now clear to me that it’s time for him to move on."
Should Penn State have tried harder to retain Bill O'Brien?
Cilches are a pox, but in this case there really is no other way to get this point across: Hey, Penn State, be careful what you wish for.
Because O'Brien's departure is the last shovel of dirt on the coffin that holds the Grand Experiment.
Bill O'Brien left Penn State for a nondescript NFL job. O'Brien is now likely to be replaced by some relatively anonymous guy, and then in a few years that guy will leave and some other guy will come, and so on until college football ceases to be.
As long as O'Brien was head coach at Penn State, there was still a story to be told—the story of the man painstakingly rebuilding Penn State's football program brick by stubborn brick.
That story is over now. With the end of that story comes the new world order in State College where Penn State football is just another veneer-less program trying to win enough games to sneak into a bowl game.
So they are still Penn State. But they are not special.