STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Bill O’Brien is leaving Penn State less than two years after replacing Joe Paterno and returning to the NFL with the Houston Texans to coach the worst team in the league.
Two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that O’Brien reached an agreement with the Texans on Tuesday night. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement hasn’t been made.
O’Brien bolted Penn State and a slew of players who pledged commitment to a team in its darkest hour for an NFL team that ended the season on a 14-game skid and 2-14 record.
O’Brien, a former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, took on perhaps college football’s toughest job in January 2012, joining a school rattled by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Despite a lack of scholarships, a bowl ban, an overall sense of doom and player defections from the late Paterno’s roster, O’Brien led the Nittany Lions to two winning seasons (8-4, 7-5) while restoring some tempered enthusiasm in Happy Valley.
But the Nittany Lions are back to the drawing board this week after losing O’Brien in circumstances similar to those of last year. After his debut season, O’Brien interviewed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, among others, only to stay in State College.
But the Texans’ job was too good to pass up some 12 months later. While the Browns and Jaguars were in the midst of overhauls, from the front office to the locker room, Houston is viewed as one of the best jobs in the NFL. There is plenty of talent on the roster — especially on defense — and the AFC South is a division seemingly up for grabs every season.
The NCAA penalties in July triggered a clause in O’Brien’s contract that extends his deal the length of any sanctions given to Penn State. That means O’Brien’s deal now runs through 2020. O’Brien received a restructured contract last year after he decided to stay. Though the contract was set to run seven more seasons, a buyout clause will kick in to allow his exit.
But in the eyes of Nittany Nation those are all details now. What O’Brien will make elsewhere, and what he’s inheriting at the game’s highest level, mean little to a fan base and community that wrapped its arms around not only him but his family as well.
O’Brien met the challenge of succeeding Paterno with ferocity and passion. He changed the culture by, among other things, placing names on the backs of the jerseys, playing loud music during practice to fire up players and overhauling the offseason weight training program. All along, he was lauded.
At the same time, though, he always paid homage to Paterno and his legacy. He said and did the right things, and made the most of his 24 games at Penn State.
In the end, that made him even more marketable to the NFL.
Of course, that is little consolation to Penn State. The Nittany Lions need to prepare for an expanded Big Ten next season and now need a coach. While Penn State is still a destination job, the roadblocks are still considerable in the post-Sandusky era:
—Though there is talk that this may be reduced at some point, Penn State’s bowl ban has not been lifted yet and runs through the 2015 season.
— While some scholarships have been restored, there is not the full allotment that other Big Ten schools — including new members Rutgers and Maryland — have at their disposal.
—Recruiting season is in full swing right now, a time when high school seniors may cross the Nittany Lions off their list.
— The trials of former Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president for finance Gary Schultz — all accused of trying to cover up the scandal at the time — are still to be completed.
All of this will cloud a field of candidates likely to include many from college and the NFL. Greg Schiano, for instance, has Penn State ties and may want to return to college after two forgetful seasons with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While at Rutgers, Schiano was viewed as an Eastern recruiting expert, who built the Scarlet Knights into a consistent bowl team by landing players from New Jersey to Miami.
Schiano would likely be received well in State College, but he is not O’Brien.
O’Brien, who helped lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 2011-12, arrived in Happy Valley with sterling credentials — apprenticeships coaching at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, followed by five years as an NFL assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff. He won games, he won over players and he did so with a stern look on his face.
“A few days before we announced the hiring, I was watching a Patriots game, and I see Bill walk down the sideline, stop in front of Tom Brady, and start yelling,” Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. “And I’m thinking, âHe’s yelling at Tom Brady! Tom Brady! Who’s maybe only the best quarterback ever!’ Right about then, I said to myself, âWe got the right guy. He’s plenty tough enough.”‘
His teams at Penn State took on that identity. After a lackluster start — O’Brien lost to Ohio and Virginia to open his career — Penn State rattled off five straight wins, and finished the year with a rousing 24-21 win over Wisconsin at home.
This season, the Nittany Lions started off better — wins over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan opened the year — but dealt with inconsistency issues along the way. All that said, like his first season, O’Brien closed with a flurry, defeating the Badgers, this time in Wisconsin, 31-24, to close out the campaign.
“We’ve said the same thing for two years,” O’Brien said after the finale. “Our guys, they practice hard, and they love to play.”
O’Brien developed bonds with his players, but never let that get in the way of the task at hand. He needed to grow college football players into Penn State players, and in many cases, he was successful. At a time when his team was undercut by the losses of its best running back, top receiver and front-line kicker — more than a dozen players in all — he kept working with what he was given.
When Silas Redd took most of Penn State’s running game with him by transferring to Southern California, O’Brien drew on his experience at New England and turned former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin into an NFL-ready one. After kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner, O’Brien refused to blame the inexperienced backup and instead had the Nittany Lions try to convert fourth downs in a variety of unlikely situations. His players loved that, and returned every show of loyalty in kind.
“When those things first happened, Coach told us flat out we wouldn’t come out on the other side of the experience unscathed,” said John Urschel, a fifth-year senior and All-Big Ten guard. “But the other thing he promised us was an experience we’d never forget.”
It’s safe to say most of the fan base will never forget O’Brien, either. Whether they forgive him for leaving is another story. But, for now, the focus in Happy Valley is on maintaining a sense of calm and preparing for someone new.
In other words, exactly what the school did two years ago.
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.