A few weeks ago, I saw a picture of my freshman sister on Facebook wearing an “O’Brien’s Lions” T-Shirt to a football game.
Shirts like these are nothing more than a marketing ploy by Penn State clothing stores, but fans buy them because they love what Bill O’Brien has done in the short 10 months since he’s been Penn State’s football coach.
O’Brien has to be in one of the most unique coaching situations in college football history. He has the chance to succeed when college football’s governing body has done nearly everything in its power to keep him from doing so.
Nobody knows exactly how the Penn State football team is going to fare down the road. But O’Brien has the fan base thinking this team could make it out of the sanctions ready to compete.
Only uncertainty is certain, and O’Brien’s short-term success is no exception to that mantra.
Not many knew O’Brien’s story when he arrived in Happy Valley in January. He was the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator who was about to start a playoff run. And he yelled at Tom Brady once. O’Brien was not the big name many Penn State fans were looking for.
He made several public appearances to excite the fan base for the 2012 football season, but nobody had seen him in action. When the NCAA sanctioned Penn State in July, O’Brien took to the national media circuit in response. He made himself as transparent as possible. He retained most of his current players and many big names from the 2013 recruiting class.
Against all the odds, he made the Penn State faithful feel like they had a team to root for.
At the halfway point this season, Penn State is 4-2, having won its last four games heading into the bye week. Still high off an exciting 22-point comeback against Northwestern, Penn State fans have every reason to be excited about what Bill O’Brien can do for this school.
Still, the fans need to keep the future in mind when shaping the present, whether it turns out for better or for worse. O’Brien may stagger through the sanctions with this football team, and it may take Penn State several years to recover. His current success may be short-lived after the lack of scholarships starts taking a toll on the roster.
Then again, O’Brien may find a way to tiptoe across the landmines and bring the Lions through the next three-and-a-half seasons practically unscathed.
However things turn out, fans shouldn’t peg him as the goat or the savior. These coach-of-the-year speculations for O’Brien are way too early, and he’s said as much himself. Four wins should not establish the expectation that O’Brien is the singular savior of Penn State football.
Who knows where he’ll be in 10 years? He may still be here, he may be coaching for another team, or he may have retired from coaching to spend more time with his family.
O’Brien has handled his situation with the utmost class, and he has earned the support fans are giving him. But the fan is a fickle creature, and support can quickly turn to animosity or to obsession.
As his tenure pans out, remember the hand O’Brien has been dealt. He’s a coach, he’s a man — and he’s everything in between.
Don’t try to stretch him beyond that.
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