Well, it’s official. Bill O’Brien is gone, not quite two years to the day since he first stepped on campus. The 15th head football coach in Penn State history leaves with a two-year record of 15-9, but of course his tenure can never be judged by those numbers alone.
What I know first-hand of O’Brien, I observed in a couple of one-on-one interviews in his Lasch Building office; while coaching his youngest son, Michael, in a U8 soccer league alongside my own son not long after the O’Briens arrived in Happy Valley; and during long stretches on the bus during the Coaches Caravan tours he led the last two springs. In all of that, my impressions were pretty consistent: He’s down-to-earth, smart and funny, a guy who loves nothing more than to bust your chops. He likes to tell a good story, and he’s got a lot of them. He’s intensely focused. He works his tail off, motivated by his family and a fierce competitive drive. I think he’s a good man and a good coach, and I wish him well.
There’s an O’Brien personality trait that didn’t occur to me until a few months ago, when my friend Dave — a fellow alum and second-generation Beaver Stadium season ticket holder — made what I thought was a great point: That one of O’Brien’s defining characteristics might be impatience. In many ways, it’s not a bad trait for someone in such a competitive field. It helps explain some of his aggressive play calling, for starters, and also helps us understand why Penn State was his sixth stop in 20 years. He has big goals, and he wants to reach them now. Certainly, that seems to have something to do with why he’s gone.
There seem to be other reasons, both reported and implied. A guy who loves the craft of coaching — developing players, devising strategy — O’Brien didn’t love a lot of the responsibilities that came with being the head coach of a major Division I program. But he did them without publicly complaining, and from recruiting to meeting alumni, he generally did them well.
As for other issues, I can only say that O’Brien was indeed impatient — in that he had no patience for anyone who he felt created an unnecessary distraction to him or his team. Certainly that sometimes included people who believed they were working in the best interests of the Penn State community. How you interpret his words on that subject is up to you.
What is clear is that O’Brien always had his heart set on a return to the NFL, this time as a head coach. That was never a secret. I would hope that every Penn Stater can wish him well in achieving that dream, even if some have misgivings about the particulars of his departure. How long would he have had to stay at Penn State before we would’ve been content to see him go? How could he have handled things differently as he prepared to leave? There are plenty of opinions on this, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of his current players (and many recruits) are on record saying they understand his decision and and are rooting for him to succeed.
A few things I think are inarguable: Given the unprecedented circumstances he inherited, he did about as well anyone could have — and better than nearly any of us dared imagine two years ago. He also worked up until the final days of the job in a way that implied he might well be back — a no-brainer if he planned to return, but (more likely), a sign of utter professionalism if he thought he was likely gone.
The one thing I thought might keep him here longer was the same turbo-charged competitive drive that ultimately took him to the pros. There’s no bigger prize for Bill O’Brien than winning a Super Bowl, but I honestly thought that the chance to compete against Urban Meyer on a level playing field, to lift a Penn State program many had left for dead just 18 months ago back into the national championship chase, might be just as big a brass ring. I thought the size of that challenge might be enough to keep him around. In that, I was wrong.
Regardless, whatever heights Penn State football reaches in the coming years, O’Brien helped rebuild the foundation. The shame is that he won’t be here to savor it. He won’t be on the plane to Dublin this August. He won’t be the man to lead the Lions back to a bowl game. He will never again be on the sidelines for a big win in front of 100,000 whited-out fans in a rocking Beaver Stadium. Whatever he gains, that’s his loss.