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OK without O’Brien

Posted by Eric Fisher On January 1

Loyalty. Commitment. Honesty.

This is what we expect of our college athletes. This is what college coaches demand of their athletes.

Apparently, those same standards don’t apply to college coaches. They certainly don’t apply to Bill O’Brien.

To be honest, I never thought O’Brien exhibited those qualities. That’s why I wasn’t thrilled when he was named Penn State’s head coach.

I would have preferred a coach with a sense of loyalty and commitment to Penn State. I would have preferred a coach who would stick around 5-10 years. Instead, Penn State hired O’Brien.

From the beginning, my perception was that O’Brien would use Penn State as a stepping stone to a head coaching opportunity in the NFL. He would wait for the right opportunity and then leave.

And that’s exactly what he did.

After just one season at Penn State, O’Brien already was looking to leave. He explored opportunities with the Eagles, Browns and Jaguars – and that may not be a complete list. Nobody should be surprised that he left for the Texans, who have the first pick in next year’s NFL Draft, after just two seasons at Penn State.

This isn’t meant to suggest that O’Brien wasn’t dedicated and committed during his two seasons with the Nittany Lions. He arrived under very difficult circumstances, to say the least, and those circumstances got even worse after the self-righteous NCAA imposed Draconian sanctions that included a bowl ban, a reduction in scholarships and an option for players to transfer to other schools without losing eligibility.

O’Brien refused to make excuses. He refused to use the sanctions or player departures to justify any failures by the Nittany Lions. Keeping the Nittany Lions from sinking even further after Jerry Sandusky’s arrest and conviction and the subsequent NCAA sanctions was O’Brien’s greatest triumph.

He had some help, however. The leadership exhibited by the senior class, with linebacker Mike Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich deserving special mention, had a lot to do with the Nittany Lions keeping their heads up and refusing to let Penn State’s program crumble.

Mauti and Zordich were second-generation Penn State players. Those leadership qualities were instilled by their families. They developed their leadership skills under Joe Paterno, just as their fathers did.

Everyone always stresses what a tough situation O’Brien walked into at Penn State – and he did. But the flip side is that he inherited some wonderful football players and young men who were fully committed to Penn State.

The positives of Penn State seemed to be ignored when O’Brien won numerous coach of the year awards after his inaugural season. The narrative was that O’Brien had rescued the program and miraculously achieved an 8-4 record.

While lauding O’Brien’s refusal to make excuses, I didn’t think O’Brien should have won coach of the year awards. I thought the Nittany Lions’ record was around what it should have been. If anything, I thought coaching mistakes by O’Brien cost the Nittany Lions their first two games that year (against Ohio and Virginia).

Strategy mistakes by rookie head coaches should be forgiven. But mistakes that cost teams victories, whether the coach is a rookie or 20-year veteran, should not be ignored when considering coach of the year candidates.

Penn State’s 7-5 record this past season also was around what it should have been. The Nittany Lions closed the season with an unexpected upset of Wisconsin on the road. But the Nittany Lions probably shouldn’t have been blown out at Indiana, 44-24, and maybe shouldn’t have lost at home to Nebraska in overtime – although it’s hard to complain about an overtime loss after the Nittany Lions won home games in overtime against Michigan and Illinois.

I don’t have many problems with O’Brien’s game-day coaching, although I thought he received far too much credit from most broadcasters and the coach-of-the-year voters.

My problem with O’Brien is his lack of loyalty and commitment. As I said, I never felt he was loyal to Penn State, so I’m not surprised he’s leaving after two years. But commitment is an issue, especially for someone who demands commitment from his players.

When the sanctions were imposed, O’Brien worked hard to get recruits, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg, to stay committed to Penn State. At the same time as he was asking for commitments, though, O’Brien already was developing an exit strategy.

O’Brien continued to seek commitments from recruits last offseason while exploring NFL opportunities. As recently as last weekend, there were reports that defensive tackle Thomas Holley of Abraham Lincoln High School in New York, a prized recruit who had committed to Penn State, called O’Brien about the Texans rumors and O’Brien assured him he would remain at Penn State. If those reports were true, O’Brien lied to Holley.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like head coaches, particularly college head coaches, to exhibit loyalty, commitment and honesty. College coaches are molders of young men. Character matters.

While respecting his football knowledge and some elements of his character, I never felt comfortable with O’Brien as Penn State’s head coach. I didn’t like his demeanor on the sideline, nor the demeanor of some of his assistant coaches.

College football players don’t have to be treated with kid gloves, but there was no need for O’Brien to dress down players on the sideline, including several occasions when he continued to stalk the player and scream at him after the initial “conversation” appeared over. The over-the-top antics of some of his assistants on the sideline also seemed out of character for Penn State.

But what truly troubled me about O’Brien is I never felt he was fully committed to Penn State. He gave a full effort, but, as I’ve said, I always felt that O’Brien would be gone as soon as he found the right NFL opportunity.

O’Brien might turn out to be a terrific NFL head coach. But he could never be a terrific college head coach.

Coaching in the NFL is strictly about wins and losses. Being a successful college football coach should be about more than wins and losses. Despite his successes, Bill O’Brien never possessed the qualities to be a great college coach – no matter how many coach of the year awards he collected.

Commitment. Loyalty. Honesty. Those are the qualities Penn State should have stressed when it hired its last head coach. The university would be better served if those are the qualities Penn State searches for in its next head coach.


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