Bill O'Brien is the man at Penn State, but he may be looking for greener pastures. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
When Black Monday came around at the end of the 2012 regular season, it was the start of a process by which there were eight new head coaching vacancies. There could be at least that many at the end of the 2013 regular season and beyond, and it appears that Penn State's Bill O'Brien is preparing the road for a journey back to the NFL.
O'Brien took the Penn State job after the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked the program to its very core, and has succeeded despite scholarship limitations, bowl bans, and a downtrodden sense in general among the Nittany Lions. He was announced as Joe Paterno's long-term replacement on Jan. 7, 2012, and he managed an 8-4 record in his first year, with a 7-5 follow-up in 2013. To put up such records would be impressive for any new coach replacing any legend, but given the circumstances, the work O'Brien did to rejuvenate the program was singularly impressive.
After his first season at Penn State, there was talk about O'Brien heading back to the pros, where he had worked his way up from a general assistant, to receivers coach, to quarterbacks coach, to offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots during the franchise's most prolific offensive outputs from 2007 through 2011.
The possibility of losing their new coach prompted those in charge at Penn State to up the ante, giving O'Brien a new contract in June and raising his base salary from $950,000 to $1,932,779. O'Brien got a $935,279 lump-sum payment and a five-percent salary raise, but he also got a buyout clause that is raising a lot of interest these days. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the language that would have O'Brien owing his current base salary plus the base salaries throughout the current deal, which goes through 2016, may be a thing of the past.
One Penn State official said Bill O’Brien’s rep recently approached the school about potential reducing his NFL buyout even further.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 22, 2013
O'Brien's interest in the NFL is real -- even after he announced that he was staying at Penn State, he made his ultimate destination clear.
"My profession is coaching, and in my profession, the National Football League is the highest level of coaching,'' O'Brien said earlier this year.
The NFL's interest in O'Brien is also real -- he has already been contacted by at least one pro team, and the work he's done at Penn State would certainly seem to make him an attractive candidate for NFL teams looking for a turnaround. It's hard to think of any other team in any other sport who's dealt with what the Penn State football team has dealt with in recent years. That factor may also minimize any reluctance teams might have in taking on another Belichick acolyte, as the record is not very positive there. From Nick Saban to Eric Mangini to Josh McDaniels, Belichick's former assistants have failed miserably when they've been given the keys to NFL franchises.
Is Bill O'Brien the man to break that chain? It certainly appears as if he's getting ready to test the waters.