This was never the original plan. Not for Penn State and not for Bill O’Brien.
The Nittany Lions coach is leaving for the NFL after just two seasons in Happy Valley. ESPN first reported late Tuesday night that O’Brien has agreed to become the new head coach of the Houston Texans. An official announcement may not come until Thursday because of the holiday.
Such a quick departure shows just how much has changed for both O’Brien and the university since he was hired in January 2012.
“When I took the job, I don’t believe Penn State was hiring a coach for the next three years,” O’Brien told The Times Leader shortly after he was introduced as Joe Paterno’s successor. “I believe they were hiring a coach for a little bit longer than that.
“Obviously you take everything day-to-day, but I intend to be here a long time.”
That, of course, was six months before the NCAA sanctions hit. A severe handicap that blindsided O’Brien and derailed the plan he had drawn up to contend for national titles.
Though those sanctions are rolling back earlier than expected, O’Brien’s two years at Penn State were physically and emotionally exhausting as he played an enormous role in saving the program from destruction. All of it came at a university suffering from a leadership vacuum in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, operating essentially with an interim president and interim athletic director.
That O’Brien was able to pull through those two seasons with a record of 15-9 explains why the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator has been one of the hottest coaching candidates in NFL circles in the past two winters.
In Houston, O’Brien can inherit a talented roster coming off of a catastrophic season, He has the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, potentially a franchise quarterback, to build around. He has another place where he can get top-flight care for his son Jack, who has a rare and terrifying brain malformation.
He has the NFL job he coveted.
Penn State, meanwhile, has another coaching search on its hands and no time to waste.
The university will receive a buyout figure of roughly $6.5 million because of O’Brien’s early departure, a bill that is expected to be footed by the Texans. O’Brien successfully negotiated to reduce that number this past summer through new agent Neil Cornrich.
Though the effect of O’Brien’s departure now isn’t as devastating as it would have been last winter — Lions players were then still free to transfer without penalty — the still healing program faces yet another crisis moment.
For one thing, much of the coaching staff came aboard because of direct ties to O’Brien, calling into question whether they would stay without him. Those ties could also lead to O’Brien bringing some of them to Houston along with him.
Two assistants who had not previously worked with O’Brien — Ron Vanderlinden and Charlie Fisher — are already gone. More upheaval is likely to follow, whether from voluntary departures or a new hire looking to bring in his own people.
And the remaining players — all of whom had opportunities to freely go elsewhere but were convinced by O’Brien to stay and honor their commitments to Penn State — now have to watch their coach leave them behind. For the rising seniors, they would be preparing for a fourth different head coach over the course of four seasons.
Needless to say, Penn State will not have the luxury of taking a full seven weeks to find a replacement as it did the last time around.
Earlier this month, The Patriot-News in Harrisburg cited anonymous Penn State sources that the school had received indications that coaches such as Scranton’s Mike Munchak (Tennessee Titans), James Franklin (Vanderbilt) and Greg Schiano (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) sent feelers out about the job.
Schiano, a former Penn State assistant coach, was fired Monday by the Buccaneers. Munchak’s future is still very much in limbo after another losing season with the Titans. Both have publicly denied interest in Penn State, though that was while both were still employed as NFL head coaches.
Franklin, who works in the same city as Munchak, was in Birmingham, Ala., today for a press conference for the upcoming BBVA Compass Bowl. As a young and energetic coach who has made perennial cellar-dweller Vanderbilt competitive in the cutthroat SEC, Franklin’s name comes up for every high-profile college job, including Penn State and Texas.
“I love the Vandy fans. I love the Vandy nation,” Franklin said Monday when asked about his future. “I love everything we’re doing. “I’m extremely excited to play (the bowl game) and continue to build our program. Couldn’t be more excited. It’s going to be awesome.
“Just very proud. Going around at Christmas, shopping — an excitement, a buzz. You go to the airport and you see more black and gold. That’s a great testament to all the hard work the administration, the fans, the community, the players, the fans, everybody. That’s a positive.”
When asked another question about interest from other schools, Franklin politely ended the press conference and left.
Another name to keep in mind is Greg Roman.
The San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator made Penn State’s short list two years ago and was one of the few candidates to do a bit of public campaigning for the job.
“I’ve coached in college at Stanford and in the pros for 14 years in the NFL, so it’s more about the individual opportunity, the people you’re surrounding yourself with,” Roman said in January 2012. “And a job like Penn State is a lifetime job. That’s a job — if I were to become the head coach there, I wouldn’t leave there.
“(I interviewed there) and found everybody involved on their end to be extremely intelligent, extremely focused on finding the best person they could under the unique circumstances there.”
Roman, a 41-year-old New Jersey native, has spent nearly all of his coaching career in the NFL but did serve two seasons as Jim Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator at Stanford before joining him with the 49ers in 2011. While with the Cardinal, he helped develop Andrew Luck into a No. 1 overall draft pick, working with him as a sophomore and a junior. That fact, no doubt, could appeal to Penn State’s Freshman All-American, Christian Hackenberg.
Regardless of who takes over at Penn State, time is of the essence. With the sanctions beginning to fade, the Lions can sign close to a full recruiting class this winter, and the results there could determine how quickly the program is able to recover.
National signing day is the first week of February. And the Lions also have a small handful of recruits — such as quarterback Michael O’Connor — who have graduated early with the intention of enrolling at Penn State in a matter of weeks.
It all makes for another delicate balancing act for Penn State. A new coach must be found quickly, but a rushed decision that yields a bad fit could destroy the promising but fragile foundation that has been built for the post-sanctions program.
Penn State aced this test the last time, ultimately preventing a collapse by choosing O’Brien.
Now, much sooner than expected, the university will have to pull it off again.