On December 11, 2011, Bill O’Brien became a household name.
O’Brien, then a 42-year-old first-year offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, berated superstar quarterback Tom Brady on the sideline after a costly fourth-quarter interception.
In that moment, O’Brien became the most well-known head-coaching candidate in all of football. O’Brien led the Patriots to a No. 2 overall ranking in total offense in 2011, so he proved deserving of his newfound coaching celebrity.
It was the college game, however, where O’Brien would get his first shot at being a head coach. After the 2011 season, O’Brien would be mentioned in connection with open NFL jobs, but it was Penn State University where O’Brien felt most comfortable.
O’Brien’s first season at Penn State was marked with turmoil. The Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal rocked Happy Valley. Legendary head coach Joe Paterno was fired and the NCAA levied a variety of sanctions against the school that allowed several players to transfer immediately.
Despite the obvious challenges, O’Brien surprised everyone by leading the Nittany Lions to an 8-4 record, 6-2 in the Big Ten.
It was no surprise after the season when multiple NFL teams expressed interest in O’Brien.
The question quickly became: Was O’Brien interested in a return to the NFL?
While the NFL may be O’Brien’s preferred destination, remaining at Penn State, at least for the next five years, is in his best interest for the long term. O’Brien’s success in just one season in Happy Valley made him a beloved figure in State College.
Before accepting the Penn State job in early-2012, O’Brien’s agent, Joe Linta, told a Boston-area reporter this: "Everybody’s dream, like his, is to be an NFL coach.”
There is no doubt; O’Brien has designs on becoming a NFL head coach in the future. How soon is the appropriate question.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated tweeted this about O’Brien in January:
No reporter or writer is more clued in to the happenings around the NFL than King. When he reports such a story, there is a reason.
Folks around Happy Valley were concerned in January when O’Brien’s name circulated in connection to head-coaching jobs in Philadelphia and Cleveland. To make it worse, O’Brien allowed his name to stay in contention for those jobs for some time before making a public declaration that he would be Penn State’s coach in 2013.
O’Brien said this in reference to his return as the Nittany Lions’ head coach: "I'm not a one-and-done guy, I made a commitment to these players at Penn State and that's what I am going to do. I'm not gonna cut and run after one year. That's for sure."
In that statement, O’Brien made it known he was happy to return as Penn State coach next season but did not make it clear he was in it for the long haul.
The NFL is enamored with O’Brien because of his success in New England and the leadership he displayed in coaching a player like Brady as hard as he did. How many coaches have the cojones to challenge the likes of Tom Brady? They are few and far between, but that is a man I would want to lead my team.
And despite the aforementioned shouting match with Brady, the quarterback respects O’Brien.
Great players appreciate a coach that can match their passion, a coach who is never afraid of challenging a star player. O’Brien is this kind of coach.
Since O’Brien and the NFL appear to be such a perfect match, why not take the plunge and accept one of the first offers that come his way?
Perhaps O’Brien is waiting for a certain job to become available. A native Bostonian, O’Brien’s only NFL experience came with the Patriots. He left the college game in 2007, as an offensive coordinator, to take an entry-level position on Bill Belichick’s staff.
Belichick, the longest-tenured coach in the NFL, may not be going anywhere for quite some time. As long as Brady is still his quarterback, he will be around. Brady, however, will be 36 when this season begins.
Multiple NFL jobs become open each season. Sure, his stock may be higher than ever, but someone will always inquire. If he is interested, he can entertain the opportunity. If he isn’t, he can use his agent to quietly rebuff all inquiries.
The life span of NFL coaches is extremely short. Remember Steve Spagnuolo? Just a few years ago, he was the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and in demand. After one unsuccessful three-year stint as head coach of the St. Louis Rams and a bad year as coordinator in New Orleans, Spagnuolo is now just a defensive assistant with the Ravens.
Think that can’t happen to O’Brien?
Owners and general managers forget quickly how hot of a name you once were if there is not instant success. That is the nature of the NFL.
Job security will not be an issue for O’Brien as head coach of Penn State. He is the guy Penn State administrators chose to lead the Nittany Lions after Joe Paterno. And remember, the man O’Brien replaced held his post for 46 years.
O’Brien’s legend will only grow by remaining in Happy Valley for the next several seasons. He weathered the worst part of the penalty in 2012. O’Brien showed high school players Penn State is still a desirable destination with the team’s success. The Nittany Lions will only continue to get better each season under his tutelage.
If O’Brien chooses to stay at Penn State for the next few seasons, he can essentially name his price to NFL owners. For example, look at Chip Kelly. Kelly flirted heavily with the NFL in 2012 and almost became Tampa Bay’s head coach before returning to Oregon. Kelly signed a $32.5 million contract to become the Eagles’ head coach in January.
Kelly had zero NFL experience. O’Brien is a proven commodity in the league.
The biggest mistake O’Brien could make is the continued flirtation with NFL teams each offseason. Being linked to every available NFL job each offseason could make O’Brien appear insincere about the pros.
Why not enjoy his status as the man leading one of the most storied programs in all of sports back to the top? You never know; O’Brien could one day have his own statue outside of Beaver Stadium.
There isn’t a more NFL-ready coach in the college game than O’Brien. It is just a matter of time before O’Brien decides to make that leap. In the short term, however, O’Brien should stick it out in State College so he can become a legend before he ever enters the NFL.
Good things come to those who wait. You never know—a certain job in O’Brien’s childhood hometown could be available if he remains patient for a few more years.