*Recruiting season is in full swing right now, a time when high school seniors may cross the Nittany Lions off their list.
*The trials of former Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president for finance Gary Schultz — all accused of trying to cover up the scandal at the time — are still to be completed.
All of this will cloud a field of candidates likely to include many from college and the NFL. Greg Schiano, for instance, has Penn State ties and may want to return to college after two forgetful seasons with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While at Rutgers, Schiano was viewed as an Eastern recruiting expert, who built the Scarlet Knights into a consistent bowl team by landing players from New Jersey to Miami.
Schiano would likely be received well in State College, but he is not O'Brien.
O’Brien, who helped lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 2011-12, arrived in Happy Valley with sterling credentials — apprenticeships coaching at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke, followed by five years as an NFL assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff. He won games, he won over players and he did so with a stern look on his face.
“A few days before we announced the hiring, I was watching a Patriots game, and I see Bill walk down the sideline, stop in front of Tom Brady, and start yelling,” Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. “And I’m thinking, ‘He’s yelling at Tom Brady! Tom Brady! Who’s maybe only the best quarterback ever!’ Right about then, I said to myself, ‘We got the right guy. He’s plenty tough enough.’”
His teams at Penn State took on that identity. After a lackluster start — O'Brien lost to Ohio and Virginia to open his career — Penn State rattled off five straight wins, and finished the year with a rousing 24-21 win over Wisconsin at home.
This season, the Nittany Lions started off better — wins over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan opened the year — but dealt with inconsistency issues along the way. All that said, like his first season, O'Brien closed with a flurry, defeating the Badgers, this time in Wisconsin, 31-24, to close out the campaign.
“We’ve said the same thing for two years,” O'Brien said after the finale. “Our guys, they practice hard, and they love to play.”
O'Brien developed bonds with his players, but never let that get in the way of the task at hand. He needed to grow college football players into Penn State players, and in many cases, he was successful. At a time when his team was undercut by the losses of its best running back, top receiver and front-line kicker — more than a dozen players in all — he kept working with what he was given.
When Silas Redd took most of Penn State’s running game with him by transferring to Southern California, O'Brien drew on his experience at New England and turned former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin into an NFL-ready one. After kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner, O'Brien refused to blame the inexperienced backup and instead had the Nittany Lions try to convert fourth downs in a variety of unlikely situations. His players loved that, and returned every show of loyalty in kind.
“When those things first happened, Coach told us flat out we wouldn’t come out on the other side of the experience unscathed,” said John Urschel, a fifth-year senior and All-Big Ten guard. “But the other thing he promised us was an experience we’d never forget.”
It’s safe to say most of the fan base will never forget O'Brien, either. Whether they forgive him for leaving is another story. But, for now, the focus in Happy Valley is on maintaining a sense of calm and preparing for someone new.
In other words, exactly what the school did two years ago.