When Bill O'Brien landed in State College in January 2012, he inherited one of the most toxic situations the college landscape has ever seen. And six months later in July when the NCAA handed down crippling sanctions and even discussed shutting the program down, the belief was it would be 10 years before Penn State was competitive again.
Fast forward two years, and to say the situation O'Brien is leaving is better than the one he inherited is a vast understatement. Off to become the Houston Texans' new coach, O'Brien's two years at Penn State have lifted the program from the verge of extinction to one that could compete for a Big Ten title once the sanctions end.
Whoever takes over should have little trouble recruiting at Penn State now that O'Brien has navigated the Nittany Lions through the worst. He won't have to face the same questions from recruits and parents, which O'Brien handled with aplomb.
The 2012 class O'Brien inherited was decimated with departures. One of the country's best classes quickly dropped from the ranks and was left with just two four-star signees. O'Brien responded with a 2013 class that included No. 1 quarterback and star-in-the- making Christian Hackenberg and the top-ranked tight end in Adam Breneman. That class finished 24th in the country and the 2014 class is ranked the same with a little more than a month until signing day. If the new coach can keep the 2014 class together, he will already enter Penn State with talented freshman and sophomore classes to build Penn State into a contender in a few seasons.
So the pieces are in place for O'Brien's replacement on the field, which should translate to early wins and continued recruiting success. The facilities and the resources at Penn State are already among some of the country's best, and O'Brien fought to improve on them last year. That should be an easy sell for the next coach in Happy Valley.
The new coach will have a star quarterback to build around, and recent history dictates having the hot commodity at quarterback usually results in strong recruiting classes to follow. Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston are just a few quarterbacks whose stardom directly impacted the following recruiting classes. Hackenberg is working his way into that company.
With a 15-9 record over the last two seasons and with the most severe sanctions slated to end following the 2015 season -- if not earlier -- the worst is behind the Nittany Lions. O'Brien got through the toughest part with a winning record and double-digit Big Ten wins, which has recruits believing Penn State is only an NCAA ruling away from possibly playing in a conference championship.
The NCAA also ruled it would give PSU some of its scholarships back earlier than previously planned, which will allow for the future staff to recruit full classes the next few cycles.
What the new coach will not inherit is O'Brien's ability to connect with recruits and their families. Recruits were committing to O'Brien as much as they were committing to Penn State. He was the right person at the right time for the Penn State program, and while he has left the university in a position to continue progressing on the field, there is no guarantee his replacement will have his recruiting acumen.