STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- After days of speculation and weeks of unease among Nittany Nation, the Bill O’Brien carousel appears to have finally come to a stop. According to reports, he’s leaving Penn State for the Houston Texans.
Even the most naive Penn State fan knew Happy Valley wasn’t O’Brien’s final destination. O’Brien made no secret of his NFL hopes. But many assumed this moment wouldn’t arrive so soon -- that O’Brien would at least stay to see his prized recruit and freshman sensation, QB Christian Hackenberg, through his career.
The reported move has naturally caused panic and derision among Penn Staters. Some alumni already have taken to referring to O’Brien as the “Lying Lion,” and chatter’s swelled about creating “BillLeave” T-shirts. That resentment has grown from a fanbase that hasn’t seen a head coach bolt for another job since Dick Harlow left the Lions in 1918 to coach Virginia Tech. (And that happened only because Harlow enlisted in the military and was stationed near the school. He later returned to PSU as an assistant.) Penn State has never been a steppingstone; it always has been that final destination.
But labeling O’Brien a traitor or slinging insults his way is a disservice to what he has accomplished. Penn State needed a coach to breathe life into what many thought would become a lifeless program. O’Brien needed a place where he could cut his teeth as a head coach and make a return to the NFL.
Neither party likely knew it would reach its goal so quickly.
Coaching relationships aren’t unconditional, and O’Brien knew that all too well. Fans questioned his play-calling, one even wondering aloud during his weekly radio show why Hackenberg didn’t operate more out of the shotgun. O’Brien found himself being forced to defend defensive coordinator John Butler from “Fire him” criticism, and the loss to Indiana resulted in a cacophony of cries that “JoePa never would’ve let that happen.”
O’Brien often joked on his show that fans love him now ... but what about when he lost? He’d always end the rhetorical question with a laugh, but he knew the answer was far more serious.
Fans want successful coaches like O’Brien to stay, and they can’t be blamed. But O’Brien wasn’t hired to stay for as long as everyone else wanted. He was hired to get Penn State past the darkest time in school history. He, in turn, took the job to advance to the NFL.
That dynamic hasn’t been a secret for at least a year now. Reporters peppered O’Brien with questions on Jan. 7, 2013, and asked whether coaching in the NFL remained one of his goals. He revealed as much as he could.
“You know,” O’Brien said, “it’s something that, like I said, it’s the highest -- in our profession, it’s the highest level of football. And it’s a league that I have a ton of respect for.”
If anything, O’Brien’s reputation will take at least a slight hit. He told members of the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes that he would greet them on the practice field throughout their careers. That’s likely not going to happen now. But he never promised anything to the fans, and he faced an impossible situation with recruits.
Show me a head coach who tells potential commits, “I’m not sure if I’ll be here next year because I’m looking at other jobs,” and I’ll show you a head coach whose team does not go 8-4 or 7-5 under the circumstances Penn State faced.
Yes, this all could’ve worked out better for Penn State. But both parties got what they wanted all along.