Penn State Football: O'Brien Isn't As Bulletproof As Before, And That Means It's Back To Football For Happy Valley
Each time a Penn State fan thanks Bill O'Brien for his service and efforts during the most trying time in Penn State's history at his weekly radio show, there is a small and almost unnoticeable twitch that ripples across the face of the now 44-year-old head coach.
It isn't that O'Brien doesn't appreciate being appreciated, because he does, rather he just doesn't like talking about himself, something he frequently admits. The conquering warrior and savior of Penn State is likely a title he never intended to hold and one that he doesn't much enjoy wearing in public.
For all the good that O'Brien has done for Penn State and in many ways the greater State College community, he never came to Happy Valley riding on a white horse brandishing a sword. He came to coach, his love for coaching perhaps the only thing that has stayed constant over two years of ever changing events.
At times coaching has required him to take up knightly arms and defend concepts and ideals greater than his football program. However, those seated at his round table are more concerned about recruiting and next week's opponent than the greater defense of a university. O'Brien's dedication to Penn State at-large isn't in question, but his primary motivation is to succeed between the lines on a 122 yard by 53.3 yard rectangle each Saturday.
“I’m not the unity coach. I’m not the coach of unity,” O’Brien told a crowd during his summer's coaching caravan tour. “I’m the football coach. It is my job to do the best job I can for the football program as long as I am the head coach here. I’m not the unity coach.”
“I just want to do the best job I can for the players we coach, for the university I work for and for the history and the tradition of the program.” he added.
When Penn State lost on Saturday 63-14 --the largest margin of defeat since the 1880s-- small pockets of anger and frustration bubbled to the surface from within the fan base. Some aimed their frustration toward the NCAA and the limitations put on the program. Others aimed their anger at O'Brien and a coaching staff that has allowed teams to score 40 or more points in three straight games. Prior to 2013, that had never happened two games in a row let alone three consecutive in the history of the program.
In reality, the loss came about thanks to a formula of factors blended together on the field that ultimately laid the blame at the feet of both the NCAA and O'Brien. The cruel alchemy of sports. Broken down into its most basic parts: Ohio State is simply an elite team, Penn State simply isn't.
Rationally, there was no real reason to expect Penn State to win on Saturday. Even so, how Penn State went about losing was most alarming to fans. A 60 minute game lasted roughly 10 minutes as Ohio State marched down the field with ease. It wasn't that Penn State lost that upset fans, it was the fact that Penn State looked so bad doing it. Much of that was Ohio State, but a measurable portion was the fault Penn State's coaches and players. For as many hurdles as Penn State has to overcome, Saturday's performance was an unexpected showing.
In the hours and now days following the game, message boards have nitpicked and questioned every little aspect of this season as Penn State just one made Michigan field goal away from having lost its third straight contest. Is the strength program working? Is defensive coordinator John Butler on the hot seat? Is O'Brien built for college football? Reasonable explanations can be found, but the knee-jerking continues at a faster tempo than it did 365 days ago. The internet may not be the best place to capture intelligent conversation and popular and widely held opinion, but the change is still evident as your scroll pages of message board threads.
Across the street from Beaver Stadium, men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers once said that emails and critical statements were a sign that people cared. That if the people were mad enough to email you it meant they wanted you to succeed and they cared.
In many ways, for O'Brien that same frustration fans have felt -- even in some small part following the Michigan upset -- means that it's back to football. Scandal has for now taken a backseat to something normal and football has slowly brought locally divided groups back together. A great cultural band-aid for a town still trying to figure out what went wrong, and what made it so special in the first place.
As a result, the criticism aimed at O'Brien is in some ways a sign that he is doing things right. He has succeeded long enough that fans have taken back the horse and sword they gave him and have replaced them with a headset and a playbook. People will always appreciate what O'Brien has done for Penn State -- and he has earned that praise -- but even in defeat and in the face of sanctions, fans have expectations. Criticism is in large part just another aspect of the job, O'Brien will be a hero once again just as quickly as he is second-guessed.
In the end, the past four weeks for Penn State may mark the moment when Bill O'Brien became a little less bulletproof than he once was. If he isn't as bulletproof, that means he's just coaching now. And that's probably the best news Penn State has gotten in a while. And that's really all O'Brien has ever really wanted to do anyway.