So Long, Bill

Photo by Steve Manuel

Photo by Steve Manuel

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.

17 thoughts on “So Long, Bill

  1. So well said, Ryan.

  2. Another great one, Ryan! Gave us all a lot to think about and consider, as usual.

  3. Very thoughtful piece. Well said.

  4. Bill O’Brien isn’t from Pennsylvania and might not have ever visited Penn State before interviewing, and its obvious he doesn’t care about Penn State. I care equally as much about his decision to leave the job.

    • Ken,
      He gave Penn State 2 great years in an environment that nobody in their right mind would envy. How sad for you that you can’t appreciate what the man did for PSU.

  5. Great article, shared a lot of my opinions and backed them up with first hand accounts. Thank You! Fellow Alumni, Dylan #WeAre

  6. Good article, Ryan. BUT…..What promises did he make to the recruits from last year and this year e.g. did O’Brien promise Hack and all the others that he would coach them throughout their four years? Was he “up-front” with the young men and their families about his possible departure to the pros? If so, I wish Coach O’Brien only the best! However, if in any way, he deceived them, then his choice is unconscienable.

  7. A good summary; we could never have hoped to have found someone to come close to the tenure of Paterno. But given the fragility of the program and the implied “promises to the current players we certainly deserved a run longer than two seasons. Was it really a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for him?

    If the O’Brien record had been less impressive than 15 – 9, say 9-15, would the school have dumped him? I would hope not, but with the “follow the money” culture of the times, to which he apparently subscribed, I suspect that good old PSU would have found a way to unload him. It’s a sad testimony to the sport that we mistakenly thought did not apply our school and a what a lousy example for the young players.

    For the glory indeed – but still hoping sixty years out!

  8. I was concerned from the start that, despite his words, O’Brien was using the PSU appointment as a stepping stone to the pros. I guess I was right, but I also guess that in the hypercompetitive word in which we live that is par for the course.

    We will probably never find a person with the commitment to PSU that JoePa had. What happened to him was a replay of a classic Greek tragedy.

    • Amen to Bob’s second para. The BOT should be ashamed of themselves for unabashedly accepting the Freed report and all of the NCAA’s penalties.

    • Good posting; and I’d like to add my “two cents”. The tragedy that Penn State has gone through is possibly the final act in the NCAA and political left’s efforts to discredit Penn State and Joe Paterno. Much of the damage came from the idiots within Penn State who were so outraged at the Jerry Sandusky ‘morality play’ that they had to punish somebody, anybody. Of course it doesn’t matter that the university caved in and committed philosophical suicide so the left wing idiots could sooth their social consciences by making other people suffer. Then, of course, is the new NCAA precedent that they can change the outcomes of any games they wish, for any reason, including no actions on the part of any of the players. As a life member of the Alumni Association, I am totally disgusted with the whole thing, not just because of any crimes by Mr. Sandusky, but by the new sense of morality running rampant in our once great university..and once great country. We now elect presidents because it’s some minority’s turn, confirm non-lawyers to the Supreme Court, and ignore the fact that the average American is now so ignorant they have no idea what has happened through ignorance and apathy. This whole mess is merely a microcosm of what Jean Shepard coined in the 1950s… “CREEPING MEATBALLISM”. Bill O’Brien is doing what every American does today: Taking care of himself. I wish him success. He did a good job, which was exactly what it was…a job. It was Joepa’s life; but nobody cares about that kind of commitment anymore.

  9. What about Larry Johnson? He seems to be in for the long haul. Great recruiter and the players seem to be rooting for him to be Head Coach.

  10. I don’t think that any Penn Stater thought O’Brien would stay for 60 years BUT I do think that he owed us at least five years which would have gotten us through the sanctions. He came into the program fully aware that the thing the program needed the most was stability — stability for the players who’d been “gut punched” and stability for the students and the alumni who were reeling from the public beating that the football program and the entire university had been subjected to by the media and the NCAA. I contend that regardless of his win-loss record, O’Brien would not have been fired unless he was shown to be an incompetent at being a head coach. Losses generated by having not enough scholarship players would not have gotten him a pink slip. We all realized that an NFL head coaching job was something he wanted at some point, but I doubt that we recognized that he was basically leveraging his time at PSU to make it happen as soon as possible. The NFL opportunities were going to be there in five years. An average of five NFL coaches are fired each year — so the openings would have been there — plus, if he’d stayed for five years at PSU and took the program back to the top with a Big Ten title and possibly an national championship and perhaps having groomed a Heisman winner in Christian Hackenberg — well, he could have written his ticket to the NFL. Instead as soon as the 2012 season ended — and we all were finally able to exhale because life was beginning to be normal again at PSU and our players could feel proud of what they’d accomplished — O’Brien immediately wanted more money and a reduction in his buyout and was rumored to have interviewed with two NFL teams which once again created a feeling of instability around the program.
    I think his decision to leave after two years was the act of a selfish, self-centered man who frankly didn’t care about his players, their families, or our university and he certainly didn’t care about honoring his contract or any commitments he made to the guys he recruited. Plus, he went out with that sorry, whiney “off the record” interview with Dave Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot that once again got a lot of ugly media comments about Penn State and Penn Staters. It was classless of O’Brien to go out in the manner that he did.
    Hopefully the next coach will have class, integrity, and will honor his contract and will appreciate the fact that although the BOT has done everything in its power to erase Joe Paterno — we alumni will not sit idly by and allow that to happen. Hopefully the next coach will also realize that although we love and honor the memory of Joe, we also are ready to embrace and appreciate the next coach who comes in and carries on the tradition of really supporting the concept of the student-athlete and is a coach who is sincerely interested in being a college coach and a mentor to young men instead of using the university as just one more notch on his belt on the way to the NFL.

  11. Great summary and a nicely written perspective Ryan.

    Bill O’Brien may have been the right person at the right time. May…. At least at the time I thought so. In retrospect, I think that the student athlete senior class did much more than Bill O’Brien and his staff did to keep that program going. They were up front and out in front staying with the school, their fellow student athletes and the Penn State family. They re energized everyone and gave all a sense of hope and togetherness.

    I am not a multi-generational season ticket holder. My brother and I were born in Bellefonte while my Dad was in grad school in 1960 but did not go to Penn State. Our oldest son graduate 4 years ago and our youngest played in the Blue Band for 5 years. We have been to every home game for the past 6 years so we could see him enter the stadium and tailgate afterward.

    Penn State means so much more to us than football. Although it was nice to have the action between Tail Great, Pre Game, Half Time and Post Game Blue Band performances.

    Given all that the school has been through, I don’t think a prominent faculty member without patience is not what Penn State needs. Like you, I read and saw Bill O’Brien’s statements about the importance of his position, the impact on the students and that we were in this together for the long haul. I was impressed and was all in with him. (His rants and cursing at the students on the side lines were something brand new to to me in Beaver Stadium. But, could sort of look past those and attribute them to a committed and passionate coach.) Take a look back at his statements in the media, on the jumbo tron and you’ll see that he not only sold the recruits a bill of goods, he did it to you and me as well.

    At this point I don’t think he is the type of role model I would point anyone to. That is unless you are ok with someone who misleads people and leaves in the middle of the night without an explanation. Who knows, maybe part of the alma mater that he sung after each game actually sunk in. He may, if fact be ashamed by his actions and didn’t want to face his shame. One can only hope.

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