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Penn State Football: O'Brien Returns To Penn State, Looks Back

by on April 07, 2018 4:40 PM

Bill O'Brien's fairly brief tenure at Penn State was perhaps the most important in the program's history.

It was a bridge between two eras, and a successful one at that. The Nittany Lions won in spite of their own odds and played hard in spite of their own limited rewards. No bowl games, no titles. Just football.

And that was enough for them.

If anything makes Penn State different from the rest of college football, it's a complicated relationship with the past. If coaches are touchstones into the history of a program, Penn State has never really had those. Former assistants of the Paterno era seem to be filled with more bitterness than anything else. And even without the Jerry Sandusky scandal, illness seemed to take Paterno so quickly that any post-coaching life was brief.

That was until Saturday, when Bill O'Brien rounded a corner and let his trademark New England smile splash across the halls of the Lasch Football Building for the first time since his departure, and the first for a former coach in Penn State's long history. He remembered names, he remembered how things used to be, and enjoyed what they have become.

“I just told the high school coaches, I said relative to college football this is football heaven,” O’Brien said, in town to speak at James Franklin's coaching clinic. "You come through this building, you see the lettermen wall, you see the guys coming out of meetings, all the changes that James [Franklin] has made in the building are incredible. … This is what it’s all about. I have great memories here.”

For O'Brien the reunion appeared to be one he enjoyed, even if those players he coached and recruited are now gone. As he spoke to the media current players walked past the huddle, watching but not stopping. That connection between eras is more a story than a tangible one, O'Brien is an idea more than he is a figure to them now.

Needless to say though, current players are in a better place because of O'Brien, even if they don't directly know it. And O'Brien? He knows all too well what his time at Penn State brought him.

Lessons learned.

“The other thing I learned here was about character,” he said. “I learned about if you have guys who have great character who are mentally tough, who are physically tough that love the game, love to practice, you’re going to win games. I think that’s something that I’ve tried to carry into Houston. Having guys with high character and maybe a guy runs a 4.2 and this guy over here runs a 4.4, but this guy who runs a 4.2 is always in trouble, but this guy who runs a 4.4 is a guy that works hard, wants to try and get better every day, that’s what we had here. That’s what we had here. We had a bunch of guys that loved to practice, that loved Penn State.”

It remains to be seen when O'Brien will return to Penn State again, perhaps in a way that fans will be able to show their appreciation. In the meanwhile they will continue to enjoy the fruits of O'Brien's labor, or at least the foundation that James Franklin and his staff were able to build on.

“There was a time when the sanctions first came out that they said this program would never come back. There were people that said this program would basically be a Division II, a Division I-AA program, whatever the word is for that now,” he said. “We all looked at each other that were here and looked at this wall and look at the All-Americans and knew like that was never going to happen. … We had the right people in place to bridge that gap to where they are now.”

Safe to say that time has past.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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