There's never an ideal time to lose a football coach, especially a bright, successful one like Bill O'Brien. But the timing of O'Brien's reported departure to the NFL's Houston Texans appears to be especially unfortunate for Penn State.
It isn't necessarily related to recruiting, although Penn State's 2014 class certainly could be impacted significantly by O'Brien's exit, barely a month before national signing day. It isn't necessarily related to the current players, although key ones such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg certainly must reassess their future with the program.
The bad timing has more to do with those overseeing the upcoming coach search and the willingness of coveted candidates to buy into Penn State. The problem is that Penn State's football program isn't the only entity at the school with instability at the top. There's the athletic department. And the entire university itself.
Athletic director Dave Joyner and university president Rodney Erickson both were hastily appointed to their posts in 2011 after the child sex abuse scandal broke. Joyner is no longer Penn State's acting AD, but he's only expected to serve until Erickson steps down June 30 (or potentially earlier). Penn State's presidential search has been rocky and unsuccessful so far, as the school's reported choice, David Smith, ended up resigning his post at SUNY-Upstate Medical University in November after it was found that he had been accepting unapproved money from outside companies linked to the school.
So Penn State must now begin a coaching search with a lame-duck AD and a lame-duck president. It might not matter, as the school hired O'Brien at a shaky time. The program still continues to operate under heavy NCAA sanctions, including two more years of a postseason ban, but O'Brien's impressive performance elevated its profile for potential candidates. There's also a chance the sanctions are further reduced before the 2014 season.
Still, coaches like to know who their bosses will be. They know what happens when new athletic directors come in and things go south on the field. ADs want to hire their own coaches, and typically keep inherited coaches on shorter leashes than ones they select. Regardless of the sentiment about Joyner and Erickson -- and for many Penn Staters, it's not favorable -- the fact that they'll soon be gone can't be overlooked by potential candidates. There will be more than two people involved in identifying and hiring Penn State's next coach, but every coach wants and needs to have an AD and a president firmly in his corner for the long term.
O'Brien's frustration with Penn State's leadership and the need to be a figurehead for the school -- as told to David Jones in this illuminating piece -- also must be noted. Few coaches will be interested in a job that requires them to not only win football games but unify a community.
Penn State's administrative flux might not matter to the right coach. Maybe it's someone with stronger ties to the school, who isn't worried about winning over his future bosses.
But after all Penn State has been through, it would be better to begin another football transition without one still going on with the administration.