Penn State Football: O'Brien And Meyer Beginning A New Chapter In The Ohio State-Penn State Rivalry
In another world Bill O'Brien may have never made it to Happy Valley.
Just above the heads of the gathered media inside the Beaver Stadium press box, Urban Meyer sat tucked away in an open-air booth. Any ambitious reporter could have made the walk up the flight of stairs to talk to him, but they would have been turned away as their hand rose to rap their knuckles across the peeling white paint on the broadcast booth door.
The date was October 8, 2011 and rumors and reports were swirling that the former Florida Gators' head coach was interested in making his return to college football and coaching in Happy Valley. Internet whispers often snowball into something greater than they actually are, but for whatever reason, be it his obligations to ESPN that day or the legitimacy of those rumors, Meyer was off limits.
It has never been a secret that Meyer admired what Penn State stood for and still stands for, but the ensuing Jerry Sandusky scandal extinguished any truth to the rumors that he had been handpicked to follow in Paterno's footsteps and would do so.
Meyer -- arguably the second best coach in college football-- was not going to return from his short retirement to do anything other than compete for national titles. As Bill O'Brien has learned all too well, the head coaching job at Penn State has been far more than just football.
Realistically, O'Brien has done as good of a job as Meyer ever would have done given the situation. The Buckeyes have yet to lose a game under Meyer, but the machine that is Ohio State football was created for the likes of Meyer to control and drive. Penn State could have that same level of success, but those plans are currently on hold through no fault of O'Brien's.
In the two years that have passed since that October Saturday, Meyer hasn't lost any respect for what Penn State or Bill O'Brien stands for.
"I hate to speculate what is was like to be there, because I wasn't there (Dealing with the scandal fallout)," Meyer said on Monday. "I would say I've had some dealings with Coach O'Brien over the last year and a half. I think he's a first class guy. He represents a great school."
"I do know a lot about Penn State and it doesn't surprise me that Penn State is doing well. I think the circumstances, once again, I don't want to speculate, because none of us are there, but a lot of people are surprised, I don't act surprised. They've got a quality coach and it's a very quality school. And it overcomes a lot of adversity."
O'Brien has yet to speak to reporters this week, his time will come Tuesday afternoon, but the second-year head coach will probably respond with equal parts honesty and respectful platitudes, or at least as much praise as O'Brien generally heaps on any single individual.
But even in the midst of all the respectful comments and polite conversation there is a very real arms race brewing.
Under sanctions and under a bowl ban Penn State nabbed one of the nation's top tight ends in Mike Gesicki. A tight end that Meyer had --according to many recruiting outlets-- all but signed on the dotted line. The commitment was as much a victory for Penn State as it was a shot across the bow to Ohio State. That O'Brien is here and Penn State isn't going anywhere.
It may be unfair to make sweeping assessments of an entire conference, but for the most part, the coaching fraternity in the Big Ten has become somewhat stagnant in terms of rising star power. Mark Dantonio has nothing to prove, nor does Kirk Ferentz, both whom have stood the test of time and in the case of Ferentz, behind a massive contract. Pat Fitzgerald has all the qualities, but has yet to get Northwestern over the hump. As for Michigan's Brady Hoke, his ability to win isn't questioned, but his Fred Flintstone like persona may become a bit of a handicap in the star power department.
In large part nothing has changed in the Big Ten. The status quo is fairly well secure.
That is what makes the new era of the Penn State-Ohio State rivalry so interesting. When Meyer came to Ohio State there was little doubt who the alpha male was within in the conference, and rightfully so. But while he may never say it, or even necessarily think it outright, O'Brien is challenging. Some of it is his nature, although nobody has seen it, odds are O'Brien isn't one to back down from a fight, even more so if he's fighting for his own.
The Jim Tressel and Joe Paterno era, at least in the later years, was a dogfight for conference relevancy. Penn State in the eyes of its fans was proving to the top dog that the Nittany Lions were right there with them. Ohio State would fend off the claims as best the program could, posting a 15-13 record against Penn State all-time.
But now, even if the foundation is still in the making, Penn State is being led by a coach who doesn't seem all that interested in anything but who he has in his locker room, and what he can do within the rules to win and to win a lot. If that means beating Ohio State on the recruiting trail and standing up to Meyer's iron grasp on the conference, then so be it.
Some of Penn State's best rivalries have come out of a feeling of mutual respect. Alabama and Nebraska both have built a unique relationship with Penn State over the decades. Penn State's rivalry with Ohio State on the other hand has been half mandatory thanks to Big Ten standings and half inferiority complex on the side of Penn State.
But as both Meyer and O'Brien continue their careers it will be interesting to see how a still handicapped yet reinvigorated Penn State program is able to match up against the mighty Buckeyes. While Meyer may have respected Paterno for all that he stood for, he may have to respect O'Brien even more, because between his coach of the year award and his steady advancement on the recruiting trail, O'Brien is telling Meyer to watch the throne.
This week the story might be different. Meyer has his team playing at a high level and Penn State is about to get its biggest the test of the season. In the reasonable likelihood Penn State loses on Saturday both the program and O'Brien will learn from it and store it away for next year.
And if the gap continues to close, even slowly, Penn State and Ohio State might reach a level in the rivalry worthy of the hype associated with this match-up for so many years.