Penn State’s football program would have been back to ground zero.
If coach Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL after one season in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions would have been left in the dust without their celebrated leader — one who coached a memorable 8-4 season despite enduring the first year of the sanction era.
But, much to the delight of alumni, current players, recruits and fans alike, O’Brien decided Thursday he would remain Penn State’s coach after interviewing with NFL teams. The Big Ten coach of the year received interest from both the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles last week, according to multiple media reports, but ultimately decided against leaving the Lions’ program.
In an interview with The Harrisburg Patriot-News, O’Brien said he opted against leaving because he wanted to remain loyal to the program and its members.
“I’m not a one-and-done guy,” O’Brien said Thursday. “I made a commitment to these players at Penn State and that’s what I am going to do.”
Penn State officially introduced O’Brien as the team’s successor to Joe Paterno on Jan. 7, 2012 — one year ago today — and the initial reception was not overwhelming for the first-time head coach.
However, the former New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator silenced many of his critics after the Lions won eight of their final 10 games to finish second in the Leaders Division behind undefeated Ohio State.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the coach was praised for keeping the majority of the team together through the announcement of the sanctions while also successfully recruiting future players.
With this in mind, Quinn Barham, a former offensive lineman who last played in the 2011 season, said the constant rumors surrounding O’Brien leaving had much of the Penn State community anxious about the program’s future.
“I was a little worried, just as I think everyone else was, by the fact that he was even considering leaving and taking interviews,” Barham said. “A big thing with Penn State is tradition and loyalty and the fact that he chose to stay with Penn State shows what he’s made of, at the end of the day.”
Barham said the way O’Brien handled his hectic first year, one filled with transfers and bowl ineligibility, proved he was the perfect man for the job.
So, if O’Brien were to have left for the NFL, especially after saying he intended to stay at Penn State, Barham said the entire community would have suffered a setback.
“The last thing you would want is to almost start from square one again,” Barham said, “after all we’ve been through, and try to find another coach who will be willing to come in with a new group of guys and willing to take on the load that O’Brien took on this year.”
Not only that, but O’Brien leaving for the NFL could have prompted current players to transfer — something they are still able to do without penalty under the sanctions — or recruits to decommit.
Scouting expert Brian Dohn, of Scout.com, said O’Brien’s absence would have decimated a recruiting class that is already negatively affected by the sanctions — which leave the program with fewer scholarships to offer.
“It would have been devastating, just in the sense that several of the high profile and the most-talented commits had said the only way they’re leaving is if Bill O’Brien left,” Dohn said. “So, [Penn State] would have lost the top quarterback, the top tight end, offensive linemen, defensive ends, [etc.].”
However, since O’Brien opted to stay true to his word, the expert said a light at the end of the tunnel still remains for the program.
“Him staying gives hope to Penn State for the next couple of years,” Dohn said. “If he left, it would have been devastating to a program that’s already taken some devastating hits.”
Three-star linebacker commit Zayd Issah said he’s not sure he would have decommitted had O’Brien left, but it definitely would have “changed things.”
Issah originally decommitted following the announcement of the sanctions last July, but recommitted on Dec. 9 — about two weeks following the culmination of the Lions 8-4 season — after deciding Penn State was “still a good place to go.”
The Harrisburg native said he was ready for anything to happen while the rumors were swirling, but the negative effects of O’Brien leaving certainly would have been noticeable.
“[It would have been] almost like starting over, and just having to go back to square one,” Issah said.
“I don’t think there would have been a big a fallout as expected, but I think just the fact that we would have to start back from square one and having a new man in charge would have been devastating.”
But, in the end, O’Brien did as he said on several occasions he “intended” to do, by announcing he would remain apart of the Penn State community for at least one more season.
Thus, Issah, likely similar to many close to Penn State, found himself exhaling one major sigh of relief.
“I’m glad he’s staying just because that’s what he told all of us in the beginning when we committed,” Issah said. “Now, he’s sticking to his word, so it makes it seem like a lot of the other things that he’s saying are likely to happen [will happen], and it’s easier to trust him.”