Breaking down Bill O'Brien's decision to leave Penn State for the Houston Texans
"There's only one Joe Paterno. What I'm going to try to do is be Bill O'Brien and we're going to do the best we can to continue the success that he's had here for many, many years. Again, we're going to show respect for coach Paterno and what he did here and we're going to move forward to a new era of Penn State football." -- Bill O’Brien, Jan. 7, 2012
On Tuesday night, shortly before the ball dropped and ushered in 2014, news broke that Bill O’Brien will become the next head coach of the Houston Texans. He’ll depart Penn State after two seasons at the school, where he went 8-4 in ’12 and 7-5 in ’13, respectively.
To fully understand why O’Brien is leaving, go read David Jones’ piece from PennLive.com. In it, Jones provides details of his conversation with O’Brien from Dec. 4, one in which the coach very clearly expressed his frustrations with the position.
We’ll get to that in a second. But first, I want to revisit the above quote from O’Brien’s introductory press conference at Penn State in January 2012.
“There’s only one Joe Paterno. What I’m going to try to do is be Bill O’Brien.”
At the time, that line seemed largely insignificant. It was type of thing you’d expect to hear from a man who was just hired to replace the face of the university for nearly half a century. Now, it reads differently. From the moment he arrived in Happy Valley, O’Brien was extremely cognizant of the type of problems he might encounter.
He walked into an incredibly difficult and unprecedented situation. He found success, offered hope to a reeling fan base and, two years later, he left. O’Brien wanted to coach in the way he was most comfortable. If Jones' column is any indication, he realized that might not be possible at Penn State.
From the Jones piece:
“You can print this: You can print that I don’t really give a —- what the ‘Paterno people’ think about what I do with this program. I’ve done everything I can to show respect to coach Paterno. Everything in my power. So I could really care less about what the Paterno faction of people, or whatever you call them, think about what I do with the program. I’m tired of it.
“For any ‘Paterno person’ to have any objection to what I’m doing, it makes me wanna put my fist through this windshield right now.”
[ … ]
“I’m trying to field the most competitive football team I can with near-death penalty —-ing sanctions. Every time I say something like that and somebody prints it, it’s skewed as an excuse. And I’m not an excuse-maker. I’m trying to do the best I can for the kids in that program. That’s all I care about is the kids in that program. As long as I’m the head football coach here.”
Players and fans have every right to be upset about O'Brien's choice. Moves like this are emotional, and reacting strongly is part of being human. Coaches are not the football-operating robots we often depict them to be. Relationships between programs and people are never perfect. O’Brien’s quotes make all of that quite clear.
O’Brien was seemingly fed up. He found an opportunity in which he wouldn’t have to fill a vacuum as a “figurehead” or deal with a “Paterno faction." So he moved on. Ultimately, Bill O'Brien did what was right for Bill O'Brien.
As fans, we inherently expect players and coaches to feel the same connection to a team that we do. We expect them to embrace the culture, to love the quirks, to live and breathe every aspect of a school from its creamery to Canyon Pizza. In State College -- a place with a proud and storied football tradition -- that sentiment is especially strong.
But Penn State will be okay. It might be far better than that. Though leadership questions loom as a major unknown -- the school has a lame-duck president (Rodney Erickson) and could be set to find a new athletic director -- it should have several quality options to replace O’Brien, as the AP’s Ralph Russo pointed out on Wednesday morning. Once a program rocked by an unthinkable scandal and a relentlessly messy aftermath, the clouds have begun to disperse. Behind quarterback Christian Hackenberg and company, the Nittany Lions appear to have a bright future.
Bill O’Brien is not Joe Paterno. He is not a Penn State lifer. He elected to pursue his NFL dream, a move plenty of coaches have made before him and plenty more will make in the future.
The new year is a time for new beginnings. For every party involved, that’s exactly what this is.