If Bill O'Brien Leaves for the NFL, Where Does Penn State Football Turn?

Adam JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterJanuary 2, 2013

These are about to be trying times all over again for Penn State fans. Bill O'Brien, the first-year head coach of Penn State who led the team to a surprising 8-4 finish in 2012, is reportedly on the short list of several NFL teams, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. Here's more on that:

As NFL owners and executives revisit the success of college coaches at the pro level, Penn State's Bill O'Brien may be on more short lists than Oregon's Chip Kelly and that would include the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, according to league sources.

O'Brien would not necessarily jump at any NFL opportunity, but if he did leave Penn State it would qualify as a surprise after the former Patriots offensive coordinator was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year in his first season as the Nittany Lions coach in 2012.

However, sources say teams that have gauged his interest have been informed by a third party representative that when O'Brien accepted the task of being the late Joe Paterno's successor, he was told by school officials that the Jerry Sandusky scandal was a criminal matter, not an NCAA concern. That proved to be bad information as Penn State was dealt a four-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions as part of its penalties.

If O'Brien leaves, the result would likely be devastating for Penn State. Signing day is still four weeks away, and even if O'Brien can figure out a way not to leave for the NFL until after Feb. 1, Penn State would find itself in the very unenviable position of having signed commitments asking out of their letters of intent. It's generally good business to let a kid reevaluate his options at that point. If O'Brien leaves before then, Penn State's commitments are still only verbal and liable to vanish on the whims of a 17-year-old.

That is not idle, insignificant talk, either; PSU quarterback commitment Christian Hackenberg said to ESPN earlier that he'd "think about" reopening his commitment if O'Brien left, since "he's the guy who's going to develop me," per Hackenberg. Other recruits would likely have similar decisions to make.

Then there's the fact that, in accordance with Penn State's sanctions, any player can transfer to another school during this offseason without the fear of facing a one-year ineligibility period. Nobody has for Penn State yet, mainly because everybody (including the signed commits) had that opportunity before the 2012 season. Hard to imagine anybody flipping on that after an 8-4 year.

Ah, but after an 8-4 campaign that sends their savior of a head coach to the NFL after one year? You'd best believe it's open season on Penn State's players all over again—and who's going to preach to them the value of keeping a commitment if their own head coach split after a single season?

What Penn State would likely need to replace O'Brien, then, is a head coach with actual ties to Penn State, so he has more of a built-in connection to the program and more innate incentive to stick around.

The catch-22 that arises, however, is that Joe Paterno was the head coach of the Penn State football program for so long, and until so recently, any coaching candidate with a history at Penn State is inexorably connected to the Joe Paterno regime. And that situation is still, um, complicated.

The State of Pennsylvania is suing the NCAA over its hefty sanctions, but they're sanctions Penn State's administration agreed to. And being a former Penn State assistant still makes a coach radioactive enough that nobody has hired former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, despite him being an overwhelming favorite to succeed Paterno once the legendary head coach stepped down—before the scandal hit, anyway.

The good news for Penn State is that there are still a couple of Paterno-era assistants who stuck around after Paterno was fired and the sanctions hit, and they helped provide critical program continuity during the transition.

They would need to be asked to provide that same service if O'Brien left, and it's hard to imagine that they'd do so without one of them being named head coach. Linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden has as stellar a resume as any position coach—even going back to his Northwestern days, when he coached Pat Fitzgerald—and he'd be a great candidate for a promotion.

The real key assistant, however, is Larry Johnson, Sr. He's been Penn State's best recruiter for nearly two decades, and the stranglehold Penn State held on the upper Atlantic area for so long was a direct result of Johnson's efforts.

He's been in charge of the defensive line, and his results there speak for themselves. He is a beloved assistant coach, and if Penn State suddenly found itself in the lurch again with O'Brien leaving, it'd be hard to imagine anybody other than Johnson keeping that program together once again.

Is Johnson the best head-coaching candidate out there at this point? Of course not. But he is the rare coach with deep ties to Penn State who manages to evade the professional stigma of being a "Joe Paterno guy" (even though he totally is one).

Larry Johnson should be Penn State's very first call if O'Brien decides to take his talents back to the NFL, and Lord help the Nittany Lions if they have to make a second one.