The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 1, 2013

Bill Bowman's college sports column: Bill O'Brien weighing options

By William Bowman
The Daily Item

— Getting a big-time coaching gig, in any sport, is all about timing, being hot at the right time. Whether it’s a top coordinator for a good team, or a hot-shot college coach, success will have people reaching for the phone.

Bill O’Brien, who just completed his first season as the football coach at Penn State, is on that short list of hot commodities and chances are pretty good he won’t get hotter than he is right now. That is pretty remarkable considering 13 months ago no one really knew who he was.

Back then he was the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, the mastermind of an offense that featured Tom Brady and reached the Super Bowl last February. Even with all that, he wasn’t a hot-shot candidate.

Who he is now is way different, and that has Penn State people on edge. A year ago PSU bluebloods felt like the once-proud program, beset by scandal and the death of its legendary coach, settled for O’Brien. Now, after what has to be considered a remarkable season under the toughest of circumstances, it seems like Penn State might need O’Brien more than he needs Penn State.

Reports over the last few days have professional teams such as the Eagles, Browns and Bills interested in O’Brien. Part of it is because of his NFL pedigree. Part of it is because of his success at Penn State as a head coach. And part of it is perfect timing.

Whether he stays or goes, no one really knows. All we have are ‘reports,’ and in today’s Twitter and Facebook world, ‘reports’ can really run the gamut from fact to speculation. What we know for sure is near the end of the season when asked point-blank on several occasions whether he would be back in 2013, O’Brien deflected it every time.

Now take that for what it’s worth. The guy has said and done everything the correct way since he stepped into the muck in State College. He gets a pass in my book.

Look at both sides of this. NFL teams would be crazy not to at least gauge O’Brien’s interest, because if he is willing to bolt Penn State after one year, you at least want to know before you look elsewhere. But hiring O’Brien isn’t as simple as offering him a 5-year deal worth a given amount of money. There is the buyout that will need to be paid to Penn State and, due to the sanctions the NCAA hit the program with in the summer, O’Brien got four years added onto his original 5-year deal. So the buyout is what is left of a nine-year deal, not the five he originally signed. Reports have that amount approaching $18 million, which means a team would have to pay that amount before it even gets to signing O’Brien to a contract.

Even for rich guys like NFL owners, that’s a big a number to swallow in today’s economy.

For Penn State, losing O’Brien could be devastating. Already in the midst of seemingly crippling sanctions, O’Brien leaving might push the program over the edge. Penn State’s current staff has done a pretty good job putting together a solid recruiting class — led by top QB recruit Christian Hackenberg — and until national signing day next month, those who have not enrolled early are still free to sign elsewhere.

Don’t forget: NCAA sanctions say current Penn State players are still free to transfer without penalty until the start of the 2013 season. So if O’Brien leaves, how many more current players — stars like Allen Robinson and Deion Barnes — stay or go? And how many recruits go elsewhere? Losing a good recruiting class and couple of more standouts could have long-lasting implications.

Really no one outside the O’Brien home and maybe the tightest of circles at PSU have any real idea how the coach is feeling. Maybe he is using the threat of an NFL gig as leverage to get a better deal with Penn State, or for the right to eliminate part of the buyout in the future.

Listening to him talk about how loyal the 2012 team was I have a difficult time believing O’Brien would go after one season. The coach sold a team, a program and a university on looking out for the greater good. I also think he understands the total carnage that could be left in the ashes in Happy Valley if he did leave.

O’Brien has coached in the NFL and in college. And now he has head coaching experience, which NFL owners and GMs love. But he also seems to be extremely loyal. That being said, no one really knows what is going to happen in the next few days.

Sports Editor William Bowman covers college sports for The Daily Item. Email comments or questions to