The shroud of intrigue surrounding impending NFL head coaching vacancies has again descended upon Happy Valley. The rebuilder and savior of Penn State football, the 44-year-old Bill O’Brien, has resurfaced as one of the hottest candidates. And why not?
Bill Belichick’s former offensive coordinator—he of the YouTube fame for berating Tom Brady on the sideline during a 2011 game—remains hamstrung by the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. At Penn State, O’Brien can’t compete in a bowl game or coach a full quota of scholarship players until 2016. Yet he continues to haul in top recruits, lead the Nittany Lions to improbable wins (their 31-24 victory killed Wisconsin’s BCS bowl hopes on Nov. 30) and develop NFL-caliber talent (former QB Matt McGloin, a barely recruited walk-on, started six games for the Raiders this season.)
O’Brien has been a feel-good story for a fan base still reeling from the unthinkable. But with his dream job within reach, how long will he last at a college program saddled by the NCAA’s bureaucratic limbo? The NFL keeps calling. Multi-million dollar contracts are to be negotiated. Sunday afternoons beckon like a siren.
Bill O'Brien and one of his sons, Michael, on the field at Beaver Stadium before a pep rally in August 2012. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
“Sure, it seems like a no-brainer,” says Jim O’Leary, O’Brien’s high school coach and longtime mentor. “But I think those who know Bill know the decision is not that easy.”
O’Brien’s name has been on the lips of NFL executives since he led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record and was named the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year in 2012; he’s now 15-9 through two seasons. The Texans and Vikings have reportedly reached out this season. But two factors could sway O’Brien to put his dream job on hold. He made a commitment to Penn State and is under contract through 2016. There is also the difficulty of uprooting his family, which he rarely discusses—and never unsolicited.
O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, have two sons: Michael, 8, and Jack, 11, who has a rare neurological disorder called Lissencephaly. Jack cannot walk or talk. He has seizures nearly every day.
“We all knew about his hardships at home,” says Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a senior safety. “But he rarely brings it up, that’s not him.”
It is true that O’Brien has amended his Penn State contract several times. It was widely reported over the summer that he had received a $1 million raise and also reduced the buyout for NFL teams from $19.33 million to $6.48 million. But O’Brien’s contract also includes several other benefits, including a guaranteed van to accommodate a special needs passenger. Plenty of cities have good children's hospitals, but the Hershey Medical Center, a highly regarded hospital affiliated with Penn State, is only 90 minutes away. As O’Leary notes, familiarity with doctors and having a sense of continuity is important. Besides medical care, the O’Brien’s have found an elementary school they like for Jack in State College. Bill can end practice early enough to be home for dinner. If he can’t make it? Colleen, Michael and Jack are frequent visitors at his office, anyway.
“From our conversations, Colleen and Bill are very comfortable with the care they can get for their son at Penn State,” O’Leary says. “They only speak glowingly about the place.”
That’s not to say they can’t settle elsewhere. “You have to think how much you can help your family when [the NFL is] throwing that kind of money at you,” says O’Leary, who was reached by phone last Friday. “But I think it’s just as important to find a community they feel comfortable with.”
O’Leary describes O’Brien as a hard-nosed Boston guy who’s stayed true to his roots. He’s Ivy League educated, a Brown grad, but modest. O’Leary, who still coaches football at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., had his Eagles in a state title game at West Roxbury a few years ago. O’Brien showed up with Michael on the sideline.
“Are you going to say hi?” O’Leary asked after noticing his protégé.
“I didn’t want to distract you,” O’Brien replied.
“What you see is what you get with Bill,” O’Leary says. “I don’t see him as a guy who would move his family out to, say, California, just because. It has to be the right situation.”
O'Brien at a team meeting in August 2012. (Fred Vuich for Sports Illustrated)
Penn State, of course, was not the ideal situation. But O’Brien has become the face of the university for his resiliency in overcoming adversity. After five seasons as an NFL assistant, he accepted the Nittany Lions job in January 2012, only to be blindsided by crippling NCAA sanctions in July. One of the most devastating: players could transfer without penalty.
O’Brien had to re-recruit his players, and persuade high school commits to stay. Among them: stud quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who was also courted by Alabama and South Carolina, and Adam Breneman, the country’s No. 1 tight end. In July, eight recruits’ families drove to Penn State for a meeting in the football facility. Standing behind a podium, O’Brien fielded more than 50 questions. “Afterward, there was a sense of calmness,” says Brian Breneman, Adam’s father. “If we all kept together, we could pull through it.”
The coach convinced the group to stay because he himself was staying, even though it wouldn’t be easy. Breneman and Hackenberg both played this fall; Hackenberg was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year.
“It’s frustrating to deal with the NFL rumors again,” Breneman’s father says. “But it’s the nature of D1 athletics, it’s the nature of having such a successful coach.”
O’Brien quashed NFL rumors last winter, and Obeng-Agyapong says most of the players believe he’ll remain in Happy Valley. “He came in with a difficult situation and stuck with it,” Obeng-Agyapong says. “He gave us his word. And we stuck around for him.”
“He’ll always be conflicted because he signed on to do a job and I don't think he’s completed that job,” O’Leary says. “But you’re talking millions of dollars. I don’t think you can blame him either way.”
Penn State fans can take some solace: O’Brien concluded his end-of-year team banquet by saying, “See you next year.” He then left early to recruit at a Pennsylvania high school game.