Fred Vuich for Sports Illustrated
Fred Vuich for Sports Illustrated

Bill O’Brien’s NFL Future

The Texans and Vikings have already called, and more teams are sure to inquire this offseason. Millions are to be made and a dream job is to be had. But those who know Penn State’s coach best say it’s far from a sure thing

By
Emily Kaplan
· More from Emily·

The shroud of intrigue surrounding impending NFL head coaching vacancies has again descended upon Happy Valley. The rebuilder and savior of Penn State football, the 44-year-old Bill O’Brien, has resurfaced as one of the hottest candidates. And why not?

Bill Belichick’s former offensive coordinator—he of the YouTube fame for berating Tom Brady on the sideline during a 2011 game—remains hamstrung by the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. At Penn State, O’Brien can’t compete in a bowl game or coach a full quota of scholarship players until 2016. Yet he continues to haul in top recruits, lead the Nittany Lions to improbable wins (their 31-24 victory killed Wisconsin’s BCS bowl hopes on Nov. 30) and develop NFL-caliber talent (former QB Matt McGloin, a barely recruited walk-on, started six games for the Raiders this season.)

O’Brien has been a feel-good story for a fan base still reeling from the unthinkable. But with his dream job within reach, how long will he last at a college program saddled by the NCAA’s bureaucratic limbo? The NFL keeps calling. Multi-million dollar contracts are to be negotiated. Sunday afternoons beckon like a siren.

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Bill O’Brien and one of his sons, Michael, on the field at Beaver Stadium before a pep rally in August 2012. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

“Sure, it seems like a no-brainer,” says Jim O’Leary, O’Brien’s high school coach and longtime mentor. “But I think those who know Bill know the decision is not that easy.”

O’Brien’s name has been on the lips of NFL executives since he led the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record and was named the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year in 2012; he’s now 15-9 through two seasons. The Texans and Vikings have reportedly reached out this season. But two factors could sway O’Brien to put his dream job on hold. He made a commitment to Penn State and is under contract through 2016. There is also the difficulty of uprooting his family, which he rarely discusses—and never unsolicited.

O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, have two sons: Michael, 8, and Jack, 11, who has a rare neurological disorder called Lissencephaly. Jack cannot walk or talk. He has seizures nearly every day.

“We all knew about his hardships at home,” says Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a senior safety. “But he rarely brings it up, that’s not him.”

It is true that O’Brien has amended his Penn State contract several times. It was widely reported over the summer that he had received a $1 million raise and also reduced the buyout for NFL teams from $19.33 million to $6.48 million. But O’Brien’s contract also includes several other benefits, including a guaranteed van to accommodate a special needs passenger. Plenty of cities have good children’s hospitals, but the Hershey Medical Center, a highly regarded hospital affiliated with Penn State, is only 90 minutes away. As O’Leary notes, familiarity with doctors and having a sense of continuity is important. Besides medical care, the O’Brien’s have found an elementary school they like for Jack in State College. Bill can end practice early enough to be home for dinner. If he can’t make it? Colleen, Michael and Jack are frequent visitors at his office, anyway.

“From our conversations, Colleen and Bill are very comfortable with the care they can get for their son at Penn State,” O’Leary says. “They only speak glowingly about the place.”

That’s not to say they can’t settle elsewhere. “You have to think how much you can help your family when [the NFL is] throwing that kind of money at you,” says O’Leary, who was reached by phone last Friday. “But I think it’s just as important to find a community they feel comfortable with.”

O’Leary describes O’Brien as a hard-nosed Boston guy who’s stayed true to his roots. He’s Ivy League educated, a Brown grad, but modest. O’Leary, who still coaches football at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., had his Eagles in a state title game at West Roxbury a few years ago. O’Brien showed up with Michael on the sideline.

“Are you going to say hi?” O’Leary asked after noticing his protégé.

“I didn’t want to distract you,” O’Brien replied.

“What you see is what you get with Bill,” O’Leary says. “I don’t see him as a guy who would move his family out to, say, California, just because. It has to be the right situation.”

TK (TK TK)
O’Brien at a team meeting in August 2012. (Fred Vuich for Sports Illustrated)

Penn State, of course, was not the ideal situation. But O’Brien has become the face of the university for his resiliency in overcoming adversity. After five seasons as an NFL assistant, he accepted the Nittany Lions job in January 2012, only to be blindsided by crippling NCAA sanctions in July. One of the most devastating: players could transfer without penalty.

O’Brien had to re-recruit his players, and persuade high school commits to stay. Among them: stud quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who was also courted by Alabama and South Carolina, and Adam Breneman, the country’s No. 1 tight end. In July, eight recruits’ families drove to Penn State for a meeting in the football facility. Standing behind a podium, O’Brien fielded more than 50 questions. “Afterward, there was a sense of calmness,” says Brian Breneman, Adam’s father. “If we all kept together, we could pull through it.”

The coach convinced the group to stay because he himself was staying, even though it wouldn’t be easy. Breneman and Hackenberg both played this fall; Hackenberg was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year.

“It’s frustrating to deal with the NFL rumors again,” Breneman’s father says. “But it’s the nature of D1 athletics, it’s the nature of having such a successful coach.”

O’Brien quashed NFL rumors last winter, and Obeng-Agyapong says most of the players believe he’ll remain in Happy Valley. “He came in with a difficult situation and stuck with it,” Obeng-Agyapong says. “He gave us his word. And we stuck around for him.”

“He’ll always be conflicted because he signed on to do a job and I don’t think he’s completed that job,” O’Leary says. “But you’re talking millions of dollars. I don’t think you can blame him either way.”

Penn State fans can take some solace: O’Brien concluded his end-of-year team banquet by saying, “See you next year.” He then left early to recruit at a Pennsylvania high school game.

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47 comments
JVHB
JVHB

Good call, Emily - you're really tapped in as a Penn State "insider"

Paul Sousa
Paul Sousa

The loyalty thing can go both ways.  Major College Football now (mostly due to the espn fanboys/jocksniffers) is a separate professional league.  These schools will fire a coach for a 5-5 season and could care less about a team GPA. 

Big
Big

Rumors are starting to come out that the Browns have fired their head coach so they can make a run at Bill due to his link to GM Lombardi through Pats.

catalacjack
catalacjack

I believe that BO'B was the perfect solution at the perfect time. He came from the NFL so knew how to live with a reduced roster. Was smart enough to talk to others who run a successful "run on" program. And has the personality to make others believe that they can succeed. If he truly is a coach for Penn State then his word to those who he recruited will be honored, and if that is not the case, then he never was meant to be the PSU coach. I know others will argue this point, but Joe showed us what honor looks like in a coach. So I wait, and see if we have found another honorable coach, which is really confusing considering the BOT we have lived with all these years.

jimbobpsu
jimbobpsu

I believe Bill is a man of his word.  He told the kids that he would stick with them while they were at state.  I can't think of anyone who could done a better job under the circumstances.  I think we have at least two more years.  The world needs more people like him.  


John159
John159

Who ever came up with this often quoted 90 minutes from State College to Hershey, must be looking at 2:00 am in the middle of the summer, hitting all of the lights, driving a Avendator. These people have never driven 90 miles on Rt. 322. Certainly not an Interstate road, just barely 4 lanes, and even that is questionable. 

Do some real research before you act as though you know something. Don’t just Google it. 101 miles on 322, sorry, that faster than the speed limit on that road, and in some places it is considerably less than 55. 101 miles in 105 minutes. 

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

Coaches have unbelievable egos.  A college coach like O'Brien is in a great situation.  The vast majority of coaches who get hired in the NFL fail there.  Does he really have such an immense ego that he would walk away from a campus where is revered, has signed multiple contracts and is paid $3.2M per year (not a small amount) just to see if he can succeed in the NFL where so many others have failed?  If so, his ego > his integrity.  That's all I would need to know.

HugoSLaVia
HugoSLaVia

That "thingy" on O'Bs desk? Looks like one of 'em cum-putin thing-a-ma-giggies. THAT'S new for a PS coach.

ShaunHarper
ShaunHarper

How many ex-Tom Brady coaches need to fail before people realize the coaches have nothing to do with his success?  Bill O'Brien exists only because of Tom Brady.  Bill Belichick may only exist because of Tom Brady.  Rome Crennel, Eric Mangenius, Charlie Weis, and Josh McDaniel's are all failures - in many cases multiple times over.  O'Brien has managed to win a few games in the worst conference in NCAA football.  Go ahead and sign him Houston.  Just realize Tom Brady will not be throwing the ball to Andre Johnson.

Steve Phillips
Steve Phillips

Always liked Penn State but since O'Brien has become the head coach I have come to respect all he has done in spite of ridiculous NCAA penalties! He has to have some special qualities and that is the type person we need to lead young people into the future.

He will have far more impact on the lives of people at State than he would at the pro level. Money isn't everything, hell I taught and coached for over 30 years and would not have traded anything for it. Not even the millions I could have made in business.

He will be rewarded ten times over if he stays! Go Penn State!

Big
Big

Houston would be a great spot for his child. Texan offices are 5 minutes from Texas Children's Hospital the largest children's hospital in the United States. U.S. News & World Report ranks Texas Children's Hospital #4 amongst the pediatric hospitals in the nation. Texas has NO personal income tax and home prices are low.  While it is hot during the summer, there is almost NO winter to speak of.  Plus the owner Bob McNair is a very patient owner who gives coaches plenty of time to get the job done. 

woodyfromcheers
woodyfromcheers

Newsflash: He is not leaving PSU for years to come.  I grew up with him.  O'Leary, others that know him personally like me will tell you that.  Interviewing is what all successful people do on a routine basis in any profession.  Part of his job is to maintain strong ties with the NFL so that he can have the influence he had on the Raiders of giving McGloin an opportunity.  He is not just producing potential professional football players, but is developing young men to be leaders in any walk of life.  Any player who gets the chance to be coached and mentored by OB will be set on all levels of life.  He's one of a kind which is why so many top-ranked players want to go to PSU and play for him - they know and their parents know that their kids will finish with a degree and the ability to do whatever they desire.

bobpeters
bobpeters

he'd be a fool to leave and houston would be a fool to hire him.  he makes $3.2m per year and has job security in state college.  he could stay there for years, making a positive impact on the community.  instead he is drawn to the flame of nfl coaching where better coaches such as capers and kubiak have been unable to survive.  what makes him think he can do better?  his one year as belichick's ball boy? his 7 and 5 record this year at penn state? there are so many better qualified candidates out there, none of whom have a multi-million dollar buy-out.  go ahead and hire him, houston.  three years from now, he'll be coaching at tulsa or back to baby-sitting nfl quarterbacks - dreaming of that $3.2m annuity he walked away from. he promised his players he would stay for their four years.  what happened to that?  or is integrity not a requirement of the texans job?

FDowney
FDowney

I'll be surprised if he leaves. It's not inconceivable, but I'll be surprised. Why? Because we went to the same high school--I'm a bit older, but I was the statistician for the football team under Jim O'Leary's predecessor as head coach--and there are some things that place absolutely drums into you: loyalty, responsibility, honesty, sticking out a tough job, things like that. Now, nobody's perfect, and that's a lot of money they are waving at him. Also, he ended up in a worse situation than he thought he would, for sure. But I don't think he's leaving. He's an Eagle, and that would be very un-Eagle-like. Especially if he did promise the QB he was staying.

Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan
Ocean_State_Patriots_Fan

Considering the NFL head coaching records of some of the bigger branches (e.g., Crennel, McDaniels, Mangini, Saban, and Schwartz) of the Belichick coaching tree, Coach O’Brien may want to consider staying put in college football.

chetjohnson
chetjohnson

Bill O'Brien is not going anywhere.  He is still laying what is a very strong foundation and would not leave that commitment since he is not built that way.  He and his players made promises to each other and those will be kept.  In fact, the NFL would be a step down for him.  Personally, I think he is too good for the Not for Long league.  Roger Goodell and the NFL are on a very destructive path and no way does O'Brien want to walk that road.

SteveS1
SteveS1

The job for Bill is the Lions.  That team is loaded with talent and just needs a decent coach to come in an tell that team to stop f**king around.  Billy would bench Suh and anybody else on the defense the first time they tried one of their patented cheap stunts, he'd know how to use Johnson and Bush, etc, etc.  It's the perfect fit for him.

randomdeletion
randomdeletion

The top medical center in the entire world is basically where the Texans headquarters are.  It is literally a few blocks down the street from Reliant Stadium.  If the Texans offer him the job he would be foolish to pass up the opportunity for his son to be so close the best doctors in the world.  90 minutes away for his son, or right down the street?  What would you do?  


This is the same neighborhood of Rice University and their neighborhood is one of the most expensive nicest neighborhoods in the Houston area.  


Yeah it would be a no brainer.  He would leave for the Texans job. 

anthony.glod
anthony.glod

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE BILL, STAY HERE AT PENN STATE. IF YOU BUY ANY CHANCE SEE AND READ THESE COMMENTS. DONT MAKE IT ABOUT THE MONEY. YOU CAN BE THE MAN HERE AT PENN STATE WITH YOUR NFL EXPERIENCE COMING FROM NEW ENGLAND IF YOU CAN TAKE THIS TEAM TO EVENTUALLY COMPETE FOR A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!! THE NFL ISNT GOING ANYWHERE. IT WILL BE WAITING FOR YOU SOMEWHERE DOWN THE LINE. ALWAYS A HEAD COACHING JOB AVAILABLE. THIS CAN BE A GREAT EXPERIENCE IN LIFE AND FOR YOUR CAREER. THE MONEY WILL COME WITH THE SUCCESS.


SeanSmith4
SeanSmith4

Well damn was hoping he'd save the vikings

BillGeesey
BillGeesey

Just another line of crap to get fans all worked up. Dont they have anything better and true to write about? Its BS.

MikeKulick
MikeKulick

I have little doubt he'll be back next year. It'll be tempting but Penn State is a great fit for him and his family. He apparently also promised Hackenberg (their stellar freshman QB) when he recruited him that he would be there for all four year of Hack's career. Take that however you will, but I think Penn Staters can rest easy amongst the offseason media rabble on this one. 

JacobMarchlinski
JacobMarchlinski

The Hershey Medical Center isn't in Hershey, PA. Its right outside of State College off of I-99/US-322. You can see the stadium from the parking lot. Close enough that the Red Link bus stops there for med students.

liquidmuse3
liquidmuse3

@RobertSmith So you're saying because "so many others have failed", he shouldn't try, & him wanted to test himself against the best in his profession is simply "ego". In the contract, there's a buyout all parties agreed to, so there's your integrity right there. He's literally rescued that program & has done wonders, yet you're gonna kill him to want to be try to be the best in his chosen field. I shudder, no offense, how you approach your chosen field, with such muddled concepts of "integrity" & "ego".

LarryBerti
LarryBerti

@RobertSmith

Completely agree, O'Brien has done an excellent job recruiting and keeping the team together.  Something, I as a PSU grad and fan will always be grateful for; however, he is far from the best coach in football, he has a lot to learn yet ( to be expected) and McGloin and Paterno’s recruits ( men of character ) made him look like an absolute genius.I hope he stays and brings this program to where it should be, but at the same time, if this is going to be way it is every year – then he should leave immediately.I am really not into all the fluff talk about commitment etc, and the guy can’t just say “ I’m here until my contract is up, then I will weight my options” – just remember , money can’t buy everything and you may find wanting is not the same as having!All that being said thanks for everything you did for PSU – now go in peace!Merry Christmas to all & Happy New Year!!


liquidmuse3
liquidmuse3

@ShaunHarper Fair enough on the ex-NE coaching idea, but there's a dearth of good coaches to choose from (trust me, I have one in Schiano). Yes, O'Brien is overrated, but with what he did at Penn St (all the other coaches failed after leaving NE), PLUS, frankly, standing up to Brady, makes me think he might break the mold.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

@ShaunHarper How dare you!!!   The genius Belichick is 52-61 without Brady in 113 NFL games.  It is not clear how you can suggest BB is only a "genius" because Drew Bledsoe got injured and he was FORCED to play Brady.  Clearly he recognized the HOFer sitting the bench and was just waiting for the right moment to spring him on the NFL.

pgjr109
pgjr109

@woodyfromcheers Bad comment, you were completely wrong!!  Guess you don't know much.  Don't post!

bobpeters
bobpeters

@woodyfromcheers 

he's interviewimg to strengthen psu ties to the texans?  hmm,  doesn't seem like the best way to develop an nfl pipeline unless he is planning to interview with every team.  not dissing the guy's commitment to education and i'm siure he was a nice guy,  but do you honestly belive the school and his young men are well-served by his annual pursuit of other jobs?  how do you think the players and recruits feel about him interviewing?  you can't say his december flirtations are normal and typical.  does your current employer know when you're interviewing with other companies? 

randomdeletion
randomdeletion

@woodyfromcheers Yeah the improved situation for his son shouldn't matter, just newsflashes by people that want him to remain at PSU. 

killer44
killer44

@bobpeters Don't talk about integrity or loyalty.  If he had gone 3-9 in his seasons with Penn State, how long would they have kept him around, even with the sanctions hampering him.

killer44
killer44

@FDowney If it is a matter of loyalty, why did he leave the Patriots?  People are going to do what is best for them, not for everyone else.  I love having him here in State College, but I know he will go sooner or later.  He wants the NFL.  I just hope he stays long enough to get PSU to a bowl game or two.

randomdeletion
randomdeletion

@FDowney What about loyalty to his son?  He could not put his son in a better position for him than to be a few blocks from the best care he could get anywhere.  That is how close he could live to the medical center in Houston which is just a few more blocks away to Reliant stadium and the Texans offices.  Is that more important?  Would that loyalty take precedent over loyalty to players at a university?  What about sticking out the tough job of being this boy's dad first?  Isn't that his most important job?  

Vito_Andolini
Vito_Andolini

@randomdeletion

My God...have you ever been to Houston?

Gotta be one of the worst places in the country to live.

Unbearably hot and humid in summer, high crime, no scenery and bad air pollution.

frhmom
frhmom

@JacobMarchlinski 

The Centre County Hospital is what you see from the Stadium.  The Hershey Medical Center is in Hershey (hence its name) and is 90 miles from PSU.

LarryBerti
LarryBerti

Just one additional comment. Take the names off the uniforms - it's time and it looks cheap. Just saying

Paul Sousa
Paul Sousa

@RobertSmith @ShaunHarper He was not forced to play Brady.  He was already greasing the skids under Bledsoe.  Matter of fact the final exhibition game of Bledsoe's final season in NE Belichick had him out there in the 4th quarter because he became so erratic he needed the work.   Bledsoe at the time was the highest paid QB and owner's favorite player.  He was FORCED to play Bledsoe.  It has been well documented Belechick and Charlie Weiss were not Bledsoe fans  

woodyfromcheers
woodyfromcheers

@bobpeters@woodyfromcheers That's one way to look at it.  Another way that actually helps PSU is leveraging the media's touting why he is one the hottest NFL coaching candidates these days.  Because he is lesser known for winning Bowl games for college programs, like a Holtz or Carroll, this kind of PR elevates his brand for PSU - because the College and players/prospects know he's not leaving. If that wasn't the case, I agree with you that this wouldn't be a good way to build loyalty.  He's doing this for the right reasons -- for recruiting incoming players and also using it as a platform for NFL organizations to get to know him as a coach and person for future PSU players that want to pursue football at the professional level - perhaps as a player, coach, operations, etc.

woodyfromcheers
woodyfromcheers

@randomdeletion@woodyfromcheersLeaving personal out of it, PSU needs much more than a coach right now and he has proven that he has the qualities the College needs to lead them - not just the football program but help rebuild a once-stronger brand of education.  He is doing that not just by winning football games but in many ways most coaches could never do. 

FDowney
FDowney

@randomdeletion@FDowneyThere is more than one place where his son can get care, and he seems to be happy with that situation in State College. Nothing against the facilities in Houston, but if we're playing the "best care anywhere" card, he'll wait for the Patriots job to open up.

ddub
ddub

@Vito_Andolini @randomdeletion Vito, your statement is based on what? What you see on TV? What you hear? Your basing that statement that Houston is one of the worst places in the country on a small sampling. As with any big city, there are nice parts and not so nice parts. Are there mountains and palm trees? Nope. Is it hot? Yes, but not unbearable. Reasonably priced real estate, great suburbs, water, and lower crime rates than some areas that are quite a bit smaller, like Indianapolis and Dallas. I've lived in various parts of Houston for a majority of my life and it's fine. Is it L.A. or Miami? No. I live in a town 25 miles southeast, and it is a great life...

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