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Penn State Football: The Legacy Of Bill O'Brien

by on January 01, 2014 7:00 PM

History is complicated.

Joe Paterno, a man whose life's work has become something of a tangled mess of controversy and half-truths is an example of how a single instance can change perceptions. The Jerry Sandusky scandal took a snow globe community and shook it until things could never be the same again.

By the time the snow had settled there was an unprecedented mess to sort through. A university and football program undeniably linked together being sucked into a vacuum where a legendary man once stood. Like a star collapsing before a supernova, Penn State too was inching closer and closer to a point of no return.

And so, Bill O'Brien was hired to push back against that collapsing ceiling.

"In order to get this football family moving in the right direction, and I'm the leader of that, and it's my job to bring both sides together or all the different sides together," O'Brien said when he was introduced. "And I understand that there's some controversy out there right now. I can see it. I understand that. But it's my job to head it in the right direction."

There is an argument to be made that he took the job simply to advance his career. That Penn State was a stepping stone despite being a program that had not seen a coach depart on his own terms essentially ever in the history of the program.

The thought that O'Brien would leave for the NFL was understood, but set for some nonspecific date down the road that would follow a successful run as head coach at Penn State.

At that point fans would wish him well, understanding that he had bigger dreams and would express gratitude for his efforts. Penn State would hire a high level coach who would carry the program on to bigger and better things. A smooth transition.

In many ways, fans saw O'Brien as a hire simply to put the program on life support. To get the program past the Sandusky scandal and right the ship. Someone willing to sacrifice countless hours and energy only to be a sacrifice to the college football gods so Penn State would be a destination job once again. Few fans had heard of him, even fewer were excited about the hire. The sooner he left and "someone" came in the better. He was simply marking time.

But O'Brien proved his worth early. He was the leading PR man in a battle against the tide of the new public perception of the program. Strapping a rudder on the back of a sinking ship with one hand and bucketing water out of it with the other. On the field he turned a walk-on into an NFL quarterback and coached two teams to winning seasons.

However fans may feel about his departure, they are undeniably new feelings.

Over his two season at Penn State, O'Brien gave the nation a glimpse of what a modern Penn State football program could look like. Recruiting improved, the team persevered through NCAA sanctions and was competitive in all but perhaps one game under O'Brien.

For those two years fans praised O'Brien for taking the bull by the horns and fighting back. Building a program in spite of what were  thought to be nearly insurmountable odds. He was leading a university that had no particular direction other than hoping time would make everyone forget about those cold weeks in November of 2011.

Through it all, O'Brien was the light atop the mountain that the university could look at. A mountain that he, his players and his assistants kept standing.

But as fans digest the news that O'Brien has departed after two seasons, there is less gratitude than the original plan called for. He left his players, he left the program, and he did it in the late hours of the night. Those are all facts, a part of his story. The morality of the issue is just another momentary blip on the radar of college football's history of dishonesty.

Either way, what will be remembered most about O'Brien's tenure is that the scholarship restrictions were reduced, Penn State's roster was loaded with young talent, and it was becoming increasingly likely that the bowl ban might be lifted before the next season. The Nittany Lions held their ground and punched back during a time they were told they would never win again.

Like many stories told down through the generations the little details will be forgotten by most who did not follow the saga closely. Those who did will shade a small cloud above O'Brien's head as he chooses his dream over his promises because maybe things weren't quite as easy as he expected them to be.

When O'Brien left the program is unimportant to his legacy. He was always going to leave and Penn State fans knew it. There was no grand experiment. There was no mission for the greater good. There was one goal: Save the program.

O'Brien came to Penn State to achieve that goal, and that's what he did. He did not leave the program after a losing season without recruits or talent on the roster. He did not leave the program because he did not like what Penn State stood for or the relationships he had built with his players. He never lied about his admiration for the NFL or make broad generalizations about his future.

His act of dishonesty towards players in his interview stage with the Texans is a blotch on what was otherwise a career that did far more good for the university than bad. Even if O'Brien never "fit" in at a place that often mindlessly demands a lifetime of loyalty, his last hour decision was almost a reluctant one. Making a move after having done everything that was demanded of him and more, only to still question if it was the right call to leave. While fans blast him for not understanding what Penn State stood for, perhaps O'Brien's reported hesitation was a sign that even in the face of his dreams he understood all too well what he was leaving.

In the simplest of terms, Bill O'Brien was the coach Penn State fans expected him to be. In Happy Valley for a short tenure, and a coach who would turn the program in the right direction. The method of departure much less important than the work done prior to it. In the world of sports, the issue is not when or why Bill O'Brien left, or if it was the right thing to do, it is simply whether the program is better off than is was when he got there.

And it is.

Because Bill O'Brien's legacy is that he is the man who saved Penn State football.

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