Alabama on Thursday named Bill O'Brien as its new offensive coordinator, referencing a turning point in his career that occurred nine years ago.
"Prior to joining the [Houston] Texans, O'Brien took on one of the tallest tasks in college football history when he was named head coach at Penn State on Jan. 6, 2012," Alabama's news release said.
The Athletic's Bruce Feldman first reported the news during the College Football Playoff championship game, in which Alabama beat Ohio State 52-24. O'Brien now takes over the most prolific scoring offense in Power 5 football, one that averaged 48.5 points over 13 games last season.
"I am honored and excited to join Coach Saban's staff at The University of Alabama," O'Brien said in a statement. "I have an incredible amount of admiration for the rich football tradition at this University and the success Coach Saban has had during his time in Tuscaloosa. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to work with some of the best football players in the country, while helping to continue the success this program has enjoyed for many years."
It's a fascinating move for both O'Brien and Alabama, whose paths would have seemed unlikely to converge. But Alabama needed a coordinator after Steve Sarkisian left to take over at Texas, and O'Brien was job-hunting after being fired from the Houston Texans during his seventh season.
O'Brien cut his teeth in college football, working on offenses at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke before taking a leap to become an offensive assistant with the New England Patriots in 2007. He eventually became offensive coordinator, coaching in Super Bowl XLVI while beginning his tenure at Penn State in 2012.
During his two seasons at Penn State, O'Brien curated teams that averaged 28.9 points per game. He turned Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, into the first Penn State quarterback to start an NFL game since Kerry Collins. And he helped players like Allen Robinson, Donovan Smith and Jesse James become NFL draft picks.
It's somewhat surprising to see O'Brien pursue a college job, particularly considering the NFL openings that were available. While at Penn State, though, O'Brien built the offense himself, serving as his own coordinator and calling his own plays, and made clear that he considered it his specialty.
The Texans named O'Brien their general manager in early 2020, awarding him control over the roster. Among his first moves was to trade All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins for draft picks. After the Texans started the season 0-4, O'Brien was fired in early October.
One question for his college return: How much does O'Brien want to recruit again? Doing so for Alabama certainly is a different proposition than for Penn State in the immediate post-Paterno era with NCAA sanctions looming.
But O'Brien sees himself as a coach with adroit player-development skills, which certainly will be useful at Alabama.
"I think there's no question that you can develop young players," O'Brien said on his first Signing Day in 2012. "We've developed a lot of young players in the NFL. There's no question that you can develop a 17‑year‑old guy that comes in at any position, through coaching, hard work, weight room activity. There's absolutely no question about that, that there's a chance for guys to get better every day when they come in here through hard work and listening to their coaches."
And all those 5-star players on Alabama's roster? O'Brien has no time for that.
"I could care less about player rankings," O'Brien said in 2012, as he prepared for the Super Bowl. "... I'm not sure who does the rankings. All I know is that I'm a part of a football team right now with the New England Patriots that if you went up and down our roster you would find guys highly ranked coming out of high school and plenty of guys not ranked at all coming out of high school. All I care about is our staff, our players, what they feel about the guys that are coming in here to help us win games. That to me is the most important thing."
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