O'Brien has toughest job in America
Bill O’Brien never really understood what he was walking into at Penn State. You could tell as much back in February when Super Bowl week coincided with National Signing Day, and O’Brien seemed unconcerned — almost cavalier — about the players his staff had recruited while he was finishing his duties as co-offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
“This week has been about the Patriots, not about recruiting,” O’Brien said. “[The dual responsibility] is a little overblown.”
Anyone who’s been around college football understands that no single moment is more important to the success or failure of a coach than signing day. Even one subpar class can take three or four years to overcome.
So it was a bit disconcerting to hear O’Brien say his assistants at Penn State were responsible for most of the work. Heck, even if he wasn’t involved in the nitty-gritty details, most coaches in his position would have used the Super Bowl as a pulpit to recruit, recruit and recruit some more.
Maybe he avoided such talk out of deference to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Or maybe he simply thought that no matter how bad the fallout from the end of the Joe Paterno era, he was taking over one of the country’s top 15 programs. At those kinds of schools, with the facilities and tradition and fan base, the players tend to come no matter what.
But now it’s clear. O’Brien just didn’t get it. He didn’t see what a long, painful slog this was going to be. He didn’t understand that in giving up one of the best launching-pad jobs in coaching, he was walking straight into a bonfire that could permanently alter the trajectory of his career.
If Penn State ever becomes relevant again, O’Brien likely won’t be around to see it. The penalties handed down by the NCAA yesterday have all but guaranteed it will sink to the bottom of the Big Ten for the next decade or more.
Moments after the sanctions rained down on Penn State yesterday for the football program’s role in covering up Jerry Sandusky’s sexual molestation crimes, O’Brien issued a statement that he knew “there would be tough times ahead” when he took the job. He also said he was “committed for the long term.”
What else was he going to say? The truth is he’s likely stuck because he wasn’t prepared for it to be this bad.
First, let’s step back and acknowledge that O’Brien will be fine no matter how many games he loses. His five-year contract guarantees him $2.3 million per year, and for a 42-year-old who was Duke’s offensive coordinator just six years ago, that’s not too bad.
But as of today, O’Brien not only has the most difficult coaching job in college football, he might have the toughest in the history of the sport. And in perhaps the biggest admission that he didn’t know how bad it was going to be, O’Brien signed a contract with almost no wiggle room to get out.
Even if O’Brien wanted to leave Penn State after this season, he’d have to pay a buyout equal to the full amount remaining on his contract, more than $8 million. Maybe Penn State would let him walk, but Florida-based sports agent Darren Heitner said the school wouldn’t be under legal obligation to do so.
“If I was his attorney, I’d have strongly advised him to do whatever he could to put in any type of opt-out without having to pay any liquidated damages (in the event of NCAA sanctions),” Heitner said. “On the other hand, let’s just say Bill O’Brien outperforms what everyone thinks he’ll be able to accomplish the next five years at Penn State, the guy is going to be gold. There won’t be a school with a vacancy that won’t want him to be their head coach.”
That’s a big bet, though, given the handicap O’Brien was given yesterday. This isn’t USC, which is back in the national championship conversation just a few years after it got whacked hard for the Reggie Bush scandal. This isn’t Alabama, which has shaken off NCAA probation three times since 1995. This is an absolute napalming, and there isn’t a coach alive or dead who could keep the program upright given these unprecedented penalties.
Most of them wouldn’t even try.
If O’Brien had stayed with the Patriots, he’d be back with Belichick this season, drawing up schemes for the NFL’s best quarterback and its most potent offense. Given the track record of that job, it’s not a stretch to say he would have been a serious candidate for NFL head coaching jobs sooner or later.
Now you wonder if he’ll ever have those opportunities again. You wonder if he’d have ever taken this job if he knew it was going to be this hard.