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The Road Ahead for Bill O’Brien and Penn State Football

by on December 01, 2013 11:20 PM

Bright and early Sunday morning, Bill O’Brien was in his second-floor office, which overlooks Penn State’s football practice fields from the southeast corner of the Lasch Building.

Penn State's head football coach knows it will be only too soon that he’ll be back out there. It's about 100 days 'til the official start of spring practice, give or take a day or three.

By mid-Sunday, O’Brien was joined by a good portion of his veteran staff. The coaches and administrators’ parking lot was at a mid-season 95% occupancy rate – about two dozen cars and SUVs strong.

The massive weight and conditioning room that anchors the north corner of Lasch was fired up, lights ablaze and music blaring, although it will be a week until the underclassmen resume their workouts.

The University Park campus was still empty, awaiting the returning throng of 45,000 students, who begin the final two weeks of fall semester classes on Monday. So when newly-shorn and newly-former Nittany Lions Adam Gress and Ty Howle strolled along Beaver Avenue’s sidewalks, barely anyone noticed. Hard not to, though, given that Gress was in shorts and the pair stand a combined 150 inches tall and weigh 613 pounds.

Penn State’s 2013 season – with its OT wins over Michigan and Illinois, and a 31-24 upset of Wisconsin in Madison on Saturday – was clearly over. Penn State was in every game, save for a whitewash at Ohio State. Three-point losses to Central Florida and Nebraska, the second in overtime. (Combined, UCF and the Huskers are 18-5.) Down by only four to Indiana after three quarters, 0-0 vs. Minnesota in the second half.

After the Nittany Lions’ win over Wisconsin, O’Brien pronounced the program in good shape. He’s right. These are some of the tale-tell signs over the past two seasons: 8-1 in games after a loss; 6-3 in the month of November; 3-1 in overtime games; 3-2 against Top 25 teams; and Beaver Stadium attendance ranked No. 5 in the nation among the 628 colleges playing football under the auspices of the NCAA.

Even in losing, the Nittany Lions have been quite close the past two years. Seven of their nine losses have been by an average of 5.4 points – margins of 1, 2, 3, 3, 9, 10 and 10 points. Good coaching no doubt kept those games tight; maybe even better coaching once or twice would have resulted in another win or three -- if we are to take O'Brien at his word, given that the second-year head coach vigorously pointed the finger at himself every time the Lions lost.


Aside, perhaps, from the revenue influx in excess of the $100 million necessary to the run Penn State athletics, the most important equation for determining Penn State’s success is this: 8-4 plus 7-5 equals 15-9. That’s a winning percentage of .625, solid by any standard. Remarkable in Penn State’s Sanction Error Era. And pretty damn good no matter what transition time you are talking about in the 127 years of Penn State football.

Rip Engle went 10-7-1 (.583) his first two years at Penn State, Joe Paterno was 13-7-1 (.643) in his first two seasons as head coach – and he had already been at Penn State for 16 years. Bob Higgins, the patriarch of the Suhey family, was 5-10-2 (.294). Pop Golden was 9-9-1 (.500). The transition from Paterno the Coach to Paterno the CEO, from 2000-04, resulted in a 26-33 mark (.441).

Conversely, there was Dick Harlow, who was 15-4 (.789). And while Hugo Bezdek’s team went 1-2-1 in 1918, he rallied them to a 7-1 record the next season, to go 8-3-1 overall (.666).

So transitionally speaking, OB has done better than OK. Much better. But O’Brien is not one to rest on his seven-win laurels. Those five losses won’t allow it. Thus, he was in his office before 9 on Sunday morning, ahead of almost everyone else.

And ahead of much of the Big Ten Conference as well. Seven Big Ten teams are headed for bowls, four plus Penn State are not: Purdue (1-11), Illinois (4-8), Northwestern (5-7) and Indiana (5-7). Like that quartet, Penn State will have extra time to hit the recruiting trail. Like those four, Penn State will miss out on the extra month of bowl practice that is essential to developing a squad for the next season and beyond.




For now, first and foremost for Penn State is recruiting, especially since it has five extra scholarships – to go with an enhanced roster of 75 scholarshipped athletes -- to give in February 2014. According to Ryan Snyder, a recruiting analyst covering both Penn State and Maryland, Penn State has 16 verbal commitments in its Class of 2014 right now. “And,” Snyder says, “they can take somewhere around 23, but may save a couple for next year.” 


Recruiting is Job One. But here’s a look at some other landmarks and dates for the Nittany Lions and their head coach as they start preparing for the 2014 season. 

Returning players resume their lift schedule – Monday, Dec. 10.

Recruiting period – Just as their players will be cramming for finals, so will the Penn State assistant coaches be working the classrooms and their cells overtime for final decisions from high school senior recruits. New NCAA rules passed in October stipulate that no in-person recruiting can take place from Sunday, Dec. 16 through Wednesday, Jan. 15.

End of the NFL regular season – Sunday, Dec. 29; there are no games that Sunday night or Monday night. Certainly, some NFL teams will be looking for a new head coach by then, if not sooner. Last offseason, O’Brien met with both the Cleveland Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles. O’Brien has given zero indication that he is once again interested in exploring his NFL options, but he is sure to be a popular candidate, nonetheless – given PSU’s second winning season under fire and big winning performances in clutch situations on the national stage against traditional powerhouses Michigan and Wisconsin.

A quarter of the NFL season still remains, so it’s hard to tell which teams will be searching for a new head coach. However, these are among the likeliest right now: Houston, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Tennessee, the New York Jets, the New York Giants and Washington. The last three, plus Pittsburgh if it totally slides, are the best fits for O’Brien, because of geography, O’Brien hard-nosed's style and big-city mentality, team traditions, his media skills and, with the Giants and Steelers, ownership stability (a key element missing at Penn State).

(College coaches have been a mixed bag for the NFL recently: O’Brien pal Doug Marrone, Buffalo, is 4-8; Chip Kelly, Eagles, 7-5; Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay, 10-18; and Jim Harbaugh, 49ers, 32-11-1. Pete Carroll, after a 33-31 stint in the NFL and nine seasons of rehabbing his skills at USC, is 35-24 at Seattle.)

Declare for the NFL Draft – Underclassman with eligibility (wide receiver Allen Robinson and offensive tackle Garry Gilliam fit this bill) have until mid-December to submit paperwork to the NFL Draft advisory committee, comprised of NFL GMs, personnel directors and scouting combine directors. The panel polls four NFL teams and then tells prospects if they are likely to be taken in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd or later rounds – or not all. Prospects have until Jan. 15 to inform the NFL if they want to go pro and then have until midnight Jan. 18 to change their minds, one way or the other. After that, their decision is binding. The 2014 NFL Draft will be held May 8-10, two weeks later than usual. Gilliam has said there is 10% chance he will return to Penn State for a sixth season. Robinson has not commented.

Mid-year Junior College Transfer Letter of Intent – Wednesday, Dec. 18, through Wednesday, Jan. 15. This pertains to Penn State verbal commitment Tarow Barney, a defensive end who played junior college football at NW Mississippi Community College. He’s slated to graduate this month.

Contractual Payouts – Per his contract with Penn State, O’Brien is due $350,000 as part of the school’s Nike deal, plus $1 million for his participation in various broadcast responsibilities. He is slated to get 50% of each – for a total of $675,000 – on Dec. 31. He collects the remainder on June 30, 2014, if he is employed at Penn State at that time. He is also eligible to receive up to $200,000 in merit bonuses, based on how the Lions would have performed in postseason had there not been any sanctions. That money, however, is to be paid contractually on June 30, 2014.

2014 Spring Semester begins – Monday, Jan. 13. This is key because some incoming player(s) who graduated from high school will begin in the spring for myriad reasons, some perhaps because of the scholarship count.

National Letter of Intent – Tuesday, Feb. 5 through Monday, April 1. This is when high school seniors can put into writing their intent to attend PSU.

Start of 2014 spring drills – Teams are permitted 15 bona fide practices in the spring. In 2013, when the Blue-White Game was on April 20, Penn State started practice on Monday, March 18. In 2014, the spring scrimmage will be held on April 12, in conjunction with the closing of Penn State’s latest fund-raising campaign. So look for a start date of around Monday, March 10. 

2014 Blue-White Game – Saturday, April 12. 

2014 Summer workouts – New NCAA rules allow for increased contact between players and coaches over the summer, something that has been on O'Brien's list since he came to PSU. Adopted by the NCAA on Oct. 30, 2013, the regulations “allow football student-athletes to participate in preparations for the season during an eight-week period each summer. Those weeks can include eight hours per week of required weight training and conditioning. Up to two of the eight hours can consist of film review. Student-athletes who participate in the summer activities must be enrolled in summer school or meet specific academic benchmarks.”

2014 Fall drills begin – Teams are permitted 29 preseason practice sessions. In 2013, when Penn State opened its season on Aug. 31 against Syracuse, O’Brien started drills on Monday, Aug. 5. Look for a start date a few days earlier than that next year, given that the Lions’ 2014 opener is a day earlier and also overseas – likely necessitating one or two travel days without practice.

2014 season opener – That would be the Croke Park Classic in Dublin, Ireland, featuring Penn State against Central Florida. It won’t be easy. UCF, coached by former O’Brien mentor George O’Leary, beat Penn State 34-31 in September. UCF is 10-1 in 2013, its only loss 28-25 to No. 8 South Carolina.


Bowl ban lifted – Don’t be surprised if it’s done in the long offseason. The Big Ten had only seven bowl-eligible teams, the NCAA needs any good PR it can get and Penn State’s compliance has been near-perfect. 

Matt Lehman’s extra year – Will the tight end, injured in the season-opener against Syracuse, be awarded an extra year of eligibility? O’Brien has hinted that it is unlikely.

New president hired/takes office -- Penn State had hoped to announce its new president by November. That didn’t go well. At all. Now, it’s back to the drawing board. (Time to get the committee that hired O'Brien back together? Only half-kidding.) Current president Rod Erickson is resolute he will retire no later than June 30, 2014.

Athletic director decision – Ostensibly, the new president – whomever he/she is, whenever he/she is hired, whenever he/she starts – will decide on the fate of athletic director Dave Joyner. The new prez has the opportunity to hire someone new, perhaps someone not with ties to the Board of Trustees or Penn State, or someone who possesses a law/marketing background or has profitably run a big-time athletic program. As it stands now, O’Brien could very well have two new bosses at this time next year.

Assistant football coaches – There are no indications this will happen, but there is always the possibility that one or more of the football assistants could leave or retire. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof left last off-season. The oldest assistant is 63-year-old offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, who came out of retirement to join O’Brien’s staff.

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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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