Penn State Football: O’Brien Committed to Proactive Thinking During Time When Athletic Department is Vulnerable
Updated at 7:14 p.m.
Bill O’Brien never wanted a raise. He strongly refuted that he ever asked for one or was offered one by a major donor of the university.
As for a donation to enhance the football program, and, in turn, the athletic department? O’Brien won’t stop anyone from writing the check.
The business end of Penn State football reared its head in the last week, when O’Brien entertained overtures from at least two NFL franchises before deciding to remain at Penn State for at least the 2013 season.
O’Brien did not sweeten his $2.3 million compensation, but he did engage in talks with the Penn State brass to discuss structural changes within the football program. Neither O’Brien nor acting athletic director Dave Joyner specified those changes, but the second-year coach did mention marketing, recruiting personnel, strength and conditioning equipment and boosting or changing academic support as areas that could see forthcoming upgrades.
The assistant coaching staff, which O’Brien referred to as one of his “horses in the race,” appears in line for a raise, and O'Brien said he and Joyner have discussed methods for supplying that income, such as figurative compensation had Penn State been eligible for a bowl game.
“I think that these guys are paid well,” O’Brien said. “I think that they can always be paid better.”
“Not one time have I ever asked (donors) for more money for me or have they ever said to me, ‘Hey, we’re gonna give you more money,’ O’Brien said Monday. “It’s never happened. It never will.
“Sure, would I like them to donate money to our football program so we can get a couple new treadmills and new squat rack or something new in the training room? Sure.”
Penn State is only acknowledging those talks have occurred. The nature of the discussions hasn’t been disclosed, but the purpose is to ensure Penn State remains a “cutting edge” program that can “stay up with the Joneses.”
“The best organizations in pro football are always the ones that are thinking about ways to do things differently, from year to year,” O’Brien said. “ We can't just sit and stay the same.”
Sources within the athletic department fear Penn State could be “stuck in the mud” as the Big Ten and its organizations continue to move aggressively in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics. Fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal has put the athletic department in a less-than-desirable financial situation, which is impacting some projects. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Penn State football profits — the crème de la crème of athletics — have dropped $17 million in the latest fiscal year, July 1, 2011-June 30, 2012.
Just in the last year, a $6.8 million high-definition scoreboard and speaker system renovation was delayed until 2014, and plans to replace the artificial turf inside Holuba Hall and change the field dimensions from two 80-yard fields side by side to one 120-yard field were also put on hold shortly after the announcement in May. The turf replacement project was suspended indefinitely, and O’Brien, around the time the project was delayed, flip-flopped his preference for one field, saying he’d stick with the two-field format because it allowed separate space for the offense and defense.
The controversial Seat Transfer and Equity Program will undergo changes next season, adding new donation and seating options in Beaver Stadium. That was progressive thinking in the midst of seeing attendance dip for the fifth straight year in 2012 down to an average of 96,730 per contest, which still ranked in the top 10 nationally.
More changes are expected to come, and O’Brien plans to implement these changes with the help of university president Rodney Erickson and Joyner, the acting athletic director expected to remain in his position for at least the remainder of Erickson’s presidency, which will end by June 2014. Both men were vehemently booed by Beaver Stadium at halftime of the season finale against Wisconsin.
“I have a lot of confidence in our leaders, Rod Erickson and Dave Joyner,” O’Brien said. “I have a good relationship with those two guys. We talk a lot. Just knowing the intelligence level and the character and the leadership capability of those guys, I’m in line behind them and I stand with them.”
O’Brien, as is his nature, did not want to become speculative when asked if he might entertain future NFL overtures. He would only commit to 2013.
“In my profession, the National Football League is the highest level of coaching,” O’Brien said. “You don’t get any higher in coaching than the NFL. A few teams reached out, and we have had conversations, that’s as far as it went.”
An Eagles spokesman said O’Brien met with the Eagles, and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported he met with the Browns as well.
Joyner said he’s confident in O’Brien’s commitment to Penn State beyond 2013, however it’s expected he won’t be serving as athletic director much beyond that anyway. One recommendation outlined in the Freeh Report calls for a national search for athletic director. The search for a new president is already in its early stages.
O’Brien knows all this but was adamant he made no such power play on the administration.
“You really don’t know me if you write something or you say something that this guy did it for money and leverage,” he said. “I didn’t do anything. I had a conversation in the best interest of my family with a few people, and at the end of the day this is the decision I made.”
Now that he’s back, more decisions must be made. Big decisions to ensure the health of a self-sustaining athletic department. O’Brien, as he’s done since he was introduced one year ago to the day amid the worst crisis in school history, is already thinking of solutions.
Other notes from O'Brien's news conference Monday (football, included):
- Running back Curtis Dukes will not return to the team, but no reason was given.
- Joyner, the acting athletic director, characterized his relationship with O'Brien as "outstanding."
- Tight end Kyle Carter, one of last season's breakout performers on offense, may not be ready for the start of spring practice because of a right wrist injury.
- Seven players have enrolled early for the start of the spring semester, O'Brien said. Among them are junior college-transfer quarterback Tyler Ferguson and incoming freshman tight end Adam Breneman.
- Both O'Brien and Joyner did not comment on the Commonwealth's lawsuit filed against the NCAA. Penn State is not involved with the suit, but Joyner did not sound optimistic the NCAA sanctions might be reduced.