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Penn State Football: After 18 Games, Bill O’Brien’s Record Start

by on October 18, 2013 2:02 AM

“You are,” Hall of Famer Bill Parcells -- who lost 45.1% of his games as a head football coach – once said, “what your record says you are.”

So, who is Bill O’Brien, head coach of the Penn State football team?

The short answer is 12-6.

The Headline of the Day answer is 1-0 vs. Ohio State in signing top-ranked high school tight end recruits, as in Mike (You're Why Urban Is So) Gesicki.

The long answer, as we’ll find out below, is as much about words and deeds and situations as it is numbers.

Some key indicators of an excellent football coach are his ability to: ward off outside distractions, wear many hats, hold a lead, come back after trailing at halftime, use a off-week to his advantage, win meaningful games like Homecoming, assuage any doubt about departing, bounce back from a loss, beat teams you are supposed to and defeat ranked teams.

And, oh yeah, in select cases there’s also: re-recruit recruits and roster players, hold together a splintered alumni base, and work for one boss who has announced his retirement and another who has mostly worn an interim tag at doing a job he’s never done before.

So, let’s Face(book) it, any coach’s relationship status in the aforementioned paragraph would have to be, “It’s complicated.”

Still, though, you gotta win. And 12-6 is winning – to the tune of the fourth-best 18-game start among Penn State’s 15 all-time head coaches.

The top three: Bill Hollenback, with three of PSU’s 21 College Football Hall of Famers -- Dexter Very, Pete Mauthe and Shorty Miller -- was 17-1; George Hoskins, with a combined 130-0 dismantling of Gettysburg and Lafayette, was 15-2-1; and Dick Harlow, with a 71-0 trouncing of Villanova, was 15-3. Joe Paterno started 11-7, then went on just a bit of a tear, winning 86 of his next 100 games.

With that said, what better time than now, at halftime of the 2013 season, to look at O’Brien’s record in Year 2 of his reign. It’s a convenient break, this second of a very unusual bye-week exacta, to take at look at where the 2012 national coach of the year is outstanding in his field where it ultimately counts most. On the field.

(Penn State’s most recent two-bye week slate was in 2001, when 9/11 moved a rare Thursday night at Virginia – originally scheduled 12 days after the season-opener and nine days after game 3 – to the end of the season.)

It’s been challenging, at times, to assess O’Brien’s record, since so much of what's happened was off the field. And even on-the-field stuff has manifested itself as something larger than football-playing life. Witness names on jerseys, Michael Mauti’s injury turned into a helmeted 42, and loss-defying comebacks against Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan that were larger than life. Those three wins alone are a pretty impressive Big Ten trio to hang a big win on.

O’Brien’s national awards were as much for what he did for Penn State, especially given that he was working with the situation at Penn State. Here’s the irony: The Brown grad came to Penn State to follow the previous grad on the field. What OB likes best, and some days has done least (although this trend is quickly diminishing), is coach football. Thus, it has not always been easy – or at times even fair, for that matter – to judge poor third-and-long results or criticize a poor performance, top to bottom.

But the last 24 days, since the NCAA reduced its scholarships sanctions against PSU, have turned fans and national commentators’ attention more sharply to the Penn State playing field. Since then, some results: NCAA -- Gleeful W. Indiana -- Hoos-your worst L? Michigan -- Historical and hysterical W.

O’Brien is on his second 4-2 start. Solid, but no cigar. Admittedly, the Nittany Lions coulda shoulda won three of those games…maybe all four. Sans sanctions, most likely. O’Brien’s OTJ training, plus the fact that he has to wear multiple balding-covering ball hats, have surely had an impact, although he would never say it. Even with a  steady and heavily veteran assistant staff, being HC and OC ain’t easy. Being #theleader of #oneteam has to take a toll.

But, hey, Indiana showed everybody. The honeymoon is over.

Bloggers bashed Bill after Indy scored 23 points in the final quarter for its first-ever victory lane appearance against PSU. One of my out-of-town email correspondents, a grad of Hershey Med Center, said with surgical precision of the blow-out in Bloomington: “It was a fiasco.”

The doctor was in, however, after the fiesta that was the WhiteOut and the win over Michigan.

The victory over the Wolverines put Penn State at the same place at the same time as last year. Ah, but with different tacks. The 2012 season was one of building the dykes, hunkering down with a small band of hearty sailors, and gallantly riding out the storm. The 2013 season is one of youth and looking ahead and not behind.

A 4-2 start is pretty common in these Penn State parts. Since 2000, there have been five 4-2 starts, followed by 2-4 (four), 6-0 (two), 5-1 (two) and 3-3 (one). In every case, a 4-2 start has landed PSU with a four-loss season (three times 9-4, one 8-4). That’s believable this year as well.

The Nittany Lions head into the Horseshoe for their first glimpse at Urban Renewal on its homefield, with Meyer now 18-0 with the Buckeyes and 0-11 in making friends with the head coaches and fans of the other Big Ten teams.

Kirk Ferentz, the long-time Iowa coach with Pennsylvania roots and Midwestern sensibilities, listened to his mother on Thursday when he was asked about Meyer. Ferentz spoke, but he really didn't say anything at all.

Count on O’Brien to give Meyer his due throughout next week. Among the many reasons is that his mother Anne -- born a Murphy, married to an O’Brien and a Brown grad herself -- is given to phoning her youngest of three sons and giving him an earful when he fails to run an Emily Post, be it railing on Tom Brady or fighting with his post-game language. She wouldn’t take kindly to Billy taking a Buckeye in vein.

Ohio State will be the favorite for next Saturday’s 8 p.m. Big Ten battle. But that’s then and this is now, as we look at O’Brien’s record today – and, in some ways, a record start -- through his first dozen-and-a-half games as the Nittany Lions’ head coach.


Here is a selection of O’Brien’s records as head coach:

Games after a loss: 5-1 (83.3%). It’s no easy task. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, it’s been 41-28 (59.4%) after a loss, with contests following bowl games and season-ending games with no succeeding bowl games not included. Since 2000, Penn State has been 28-19 in (59.5%) in games after a loss.

Homecoming games against unbeaten, ranked opponents: 2-0. In 2012, the Nittany Lions beat No. 24 Northwestern, 39-28. In 2013, they beat No. 18 Michigan, 43-40, in quadruple overtime. Beating teams that are unbeaten is good. So is beating ranked teams. And alumni love beating teams on Homecoming.

Games after bye weeks: 2-1.

Games leading at halftime: 6-3, 2012; 4-0, 2013.

Games tied at halftime: 0-1, Ohio State, 2012. (At Beaver Stadium last Oct. 27, Ohio State led 28-10 after three quarters and won, 35-23.)

Games trailing at halftime: 2-0, 2012; 0-2, 2013.

Seasons in which 12 true freshmen have played, including a kick holder who wasn’t on the team a month ago: 4-2, 2013.

Games where six of the 11 guys on the kickoff team were playing there for the first time: 1-0, vs. Michigan, 2013.

Games against Indiana: 1-1.

Games after the biggest scandal in college sports history: 12-6.


Related Stories:

Penn State Football: Nittany Lion Land Top Tight End Mike Gesicki

Throwing It Deep: A Look Back at Some of Penn State Football’s Best Catches

Penn State Football: Hackenberg Is On To The Next One

What's it Like to March With the Blue Band to Beaver Stadium?

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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October 17, 2013 7:29 PM
by Onward State Staff
Penn State Football: Nittany Lion Land Top Tight End Mike Gesicki
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