Head coach Bill O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record in his first season at Penn State.
Who will replace Andy Reid in 2013? With this season spiraling out of control -- despite Sunday's win -- that's one of the few relevant questions left to ponder. As such, I hope you'll indulge me in an ongoing series discussing potential top candidates for the Eagles head coaching job.
Who Is Bill O'Brien?
Bill O'Brien, 43, just finished his first year as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Growing up in Boston, his football lineage stretches back two generations. O'Brien's father played at Brown University, and his grandfather played for a professional team way back in the 1920s that used Fenway Park as home field. O'Brien and his two older brothers followed their father's footsteps to Brown, but while the others went on to law school and politics, Bill jumped straight from playing to coaching.
After graduating with a dual degree in political science and organizational behavior management, O'Brien bounced around college football. He was the tight ends coach at Brown in 1993, then became the team's inside linebackers coach the following year. In 1995 he joined George O'Leary's staff at Georgia Tech as a graduate assistant, then as the running backs coach from 1998 to 2000. He was promoted to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, then assistant head coach in 2002, after which O'Brien moved on to Maryland as running backs coach for two years, then two more as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Duke.
The biggest move came in 2007, when Bill Belichick offered O'Brien a job as a lowly offensive assistant. Long time friend and scout (and former Eagles executive) Jason Licht set them up, but he was surprised that O'Brien would rather be a film lackey with the Patriots than a coordinator in college. “Most people wouldn’t have taken that jump because it’s such a risk and a leap of faith,” said Licht to The New York Times. “But what surprised me the most is that it was such a quick decision for him. He had so much confidence that this was the best way for him to rise within the profession.”
O'Brien, often working from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m., became close friends with Josh McDaniels, and after moving from wide receivers coach to quarterbacks coach he replaced McDaniels as offensive coordinator in 2011. As the Patriots cruised to a 13-3 record and Super Bowl appearance, O'Brien directed an offense averaged more than 32 points per game. Wes Welker had 122 receptions for 1,569 yards, and two tight ends (Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez) combined for 169 receptions for 2,237 yards and 24 TDs. It was an eye-opening performance, even if O'Brien did benefit from QB Tom Brady, and it catapulted the young coach to the top of some coaching search lists.
The Jaguars got permission to interview O'Brien during the Patriots' playoff bye week, but reports conflict as to how close he was to that job. Jason La Canfora reported that he was a "top candidate" in Jacksonville, but that he pulled out of the process to take the Penn State job instead, replacing the legendary but embattled Joe Paterno. It's unclear why he took that job instead of waiting for a NFL position to open up. His agent, Joe Linta, told the Boston Herald at the time that "Everybody’s dream, like his, is to be an NFL coach." But just days later he signed with Penn State. O'Brien also apparently disregarded warnings of harsh NCAA sanctions. He told Rick Reilly: "I didn't know the NCAA was going to come in here and do what they did."
In any case, O'Brien has exceeded all expectations in his first season in Happy Valley. Despite losing key players to transfer and confronting huge off the field concerns, Penn State went 8-4 and he was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year (in the same season Urban Meyer went 12-0 at Ohio State). The way O'Brien has turned around the program, against all odds, has made him a much desired NFL head coaching candidate again.
Why Hire Bill O'Brien?
An O'Brien hire comes with many advantages. First of all, he has proven he can come into an organization and turn things around. There haven't been many worse hands dealt to a new head coach than what he's seen at Penn State in the last 12 months, and he's handled it perfectly.
You're also getting a college coach who has experience running an NFL system. While Chip Kelly's offense could be a risky transition, we know O'Brien's works with professional players. Moreover, he proved that he doesn't need Brady to make it work. Importing the Patriots offense to Penn State, he turned former walk-on Matt McGloin, a limited passer who makes poor decisions, into a legitimate threat. Before O'Brien, McGloin completed only 54 percent of his passes with 22 TDs and 14 INTs in two seasons. In 2012, he completed 60 percent for 24 TDs and only 5 INTs.
Why Not Hire Bill O'Brien?
There are honestly very few reasons not to hire O'Brien. He has the experience, the success, and the leadership to succeed in the NFL. There is the much-cited notion of his contract, which requires a buyout of $9.2 million. But these days top NFL head coaches are paid an annual salary of $5 to $8 million per year. Most owners won't balk at negotiating for him at that price.
The real questions start with whether he wants out of Penn State after a year, anyway. I'm not sold on the idea that O'Brien will want to leave. He already chose the Penn State job over the NFL once, and despite his protestations, he must have known what he was getting into. Certainly O'Brien can use NFL offers as leverage to get a raise if he so desires. More to the point, (and maybe this is my Penn State fandom coloring my opinion) if he does leave immediately, does that speak poorly about his oft-praised character? Instead of bravely accepting the long-term fight to restore Penn State's winning tradition in the face of NCAA sanctions, O'Brien will just be the guy who teased fans with being the savior only to jump to greener pastures right away.
Not hero to villain, perhaps, but certainly hero to opportunist.
When you read about O'Brien's personal journey, especially about having to deal with his son's scary and dangerous seizure condition, it's hard to dislike the guy. Even more so when you watch how he has turned around a moribund and scandal-ridden Nittany Lions squad. I would love to have him as the next Eagles head coach... if only he didn't have to leave Penn State to get there.