Penn State Football: Bill O’Brien Intends to End Career in State College
Bill O’Brien is on his sixth coaching stop in 20 years. It’s also his first head coaching opportunity.
Before being hired at Penn State on Jan. 6, the high point came serving as the offensive chieftain for one of the most successful coaches in all of football and one of the most respected franchises in the NFL.
But at 42, O’Brien feels he has reached the summit. Ask him after four months on the job, he’ll be clear: He wants to stay at Penn State for the remainder of his career.
“I want this to be my last stop,” O’Brien told a pair of reporters in Washington D.C. last week during the Coaches Caravan. “It’s a great place, and I love being here. And we haven’t played a game yet, and I understand that. It’s the type of place I’ve pictured myself being a head coach.”
OK, OK. What if the NFL comes calling? O’Brien’s agent, Joe Linta, told the Boston Herald on New Year’s Day, “Everybody’s dream, like his, is to be an NFL coach.” That day, Linta went on to say any imminent deal with Penn State is off base. Naturally, O’Brien was hired five days later.
Linta could not be reached for comment to see if his client would still be interested in an NFL gig.
O’Brien, though, seems set for now.
“I'm the type of guy that when I make a commitment, especially one like this, I'd like to see it through, and seeing it through means this is your last stop," he said. "I'm not a genie, I don't predict the future, but I do think that this is a place where you can have a great impact and do all of the things you want to do, personally, for myself and my family."
O’Brien knew the risks involved in taking the job. The football program and university were under intense scrutiny in wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The relationship between Penn State and Joe Paterno was fractured at the time and up through his death on Jan. 22. There are investigators crawling around campus like cockroaches looking into the missteps of a previous regime. Whatever they find, fair or not, will spill onto the lap of O’Brien.
Yet he still sought Penn State. If he needed reassurance, he found it from his old boss, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
"I'll never forget his reaction," O'Brien said last month at a regional sports editors meeting. "He considered it a jewel of college football, if not the jewel, and he said I'd be crazy not to take it. For me, there was no handwringing over it."
O’Brien gets it.
Win, and he stays.
Lose, and . . . he understands.
He signed a five-year contract worth about $2.3 million. At the end of the fourth year, Penn State will review O’Brien’s performance and both sides can come to terms on an additional one, two or three-year extension. Penn State can also opt not to renew his contract.
And consider: Penn State President Rodney Erickson announced in January his intention to retire in June 2014. A new president could lead to more sweeping changes in administration, including the athletic director, who, at last count, is in charge of running an athletic department that generated $116 million in revenue in 2010-11. Those would be two influential university officials with no connection to the O’Brien hire deciding his future.
In a post-Paterno era, this is a business where job performance matters. O’Brien is asked about helping Penn State heal from the Sandusky scandal. He is asked about being a fundraiser for the university. He shakes hands, he signs autographs, he smiles for photographs and spreads the good word of his program across the East.
Some might call it part of the job, life as a head coach in a BCS conference for a program that netted a $53 million profit last season.
But tailing O’Brien for five straight stops on the Coaches Caravan, it’s clear he wants to strip off the coat and tie, throw the whistle around his neck and instruct.
"I have two mandates," he said in Baltimore. "The first mandate is to make sure our guys are going to class and behaving properly off the field. The second mandate is that we . . . try the best we can to win every football game we play.
"I think when we start playing football and training camp and obviously when the games start, I'm sure that will help move everything forward. No one's come to me and said, 'Hey, take your time, it's gonna be OK no matter what happens.' I understand I have to win football games and graduate players. So that's really all I think about."
Do so, and shifting sands at a university in limbo won’t matter.
Do so, especially amid shifting sands at a university in limbo, and rest easy knowing home is sure.