The somewhat surprising success Bill O’Brien has had in a short time at Penn State amid controversial times for the program has made O’Brien a name heard in a number of coach of the year discussions, and it could be enough to grab the eyes of some NFL organizations who may be preparing for a coaching change this off-season.
Jason La Confora, NFL insider for CBSSports.com, this week mentioned O’Brien as a name to watch as a future NFL head coach, along with Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. O’Brien, who was reported to be interested in a head coaching vacancy with the Jacksonville Jaguars before deciding to accept the Penn State head coaching job in January, is a name La Confora believes NFL teams will explore when searching for a new head coach.
La Confora suggests the Jacksonville job would have been O’Brien’s if he wanted to accept it last off-season. Jacksonville was impressed with O’Brien as an offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, who advanced to the Super Bowl with Tom Brady at quarterback. Jacksonville instead hired former Florida Gator and Atlanta Falcons assistant Mike Mularkey but with a 1-7 record could be prepared to make another coaching change already.
Find a coach capable of handling an NFL roster can be challenging, and it is rare to see college coaches succeed when making the jump. However, O’Brien is believed to be different given his NFL background. From 2007 through the 2011 season O’Brien was an assistant under Bill Belichick so adapting to the NFL style would not be quite the concern other college coaches have had.
O’Brien addressed his decision to accept the Penn State job over a potential job in Jacksonville during his introductory press conference in January.
“I was a college football coach for 14 years, and I have a passion for college football,” O’Brien said. “I felt like some of the relationships that I’ve developed over the years in college football that mean so much to me, watching a young man come in as a freshman, teach him how to play football the way we want him to play football, teach him how to get a degree, a meaningful degree, is something that I really feel I can have a good effect on a bunch of kids that come through Penn State along with my staff.”
The chances O’Brien would pick up and leave Penn State after one season are pretty slim. Though he was told by school administrators during his hiring process that heavy sanctions against the school would likely not be a problem for him, the contract he signed was amended to provide more job security as a result of the NCAA’s sanctions, offering job security no first year head coach in college or professional football will likely ever be able to receive. O’Brien signed for an initial five-year contract, and it was extended four years automatically when the football program was hit with a four-year postseason ban, among other sanctions. Considering the average length of an NFL head coach in one city lasts just under five years, that is job security nobody will be able to match at the college and pro level for O’Brien.
Of course, there are ways out of the contract in the event O’Brien did want to take on a new opportunity already. It does not appear O’Brien would do so, but the biggest hurdle any team or school would have to do would be to pay off the rest of O’Brien’s contract, which would amount to approximately $9.53 million for all remaining years following the 2012 season. That would be in addition to any salary being offered to O’Brien. That alone should suggest that O’Brien is not going anywhere this off-season, because Penn State would not be likely to pass up on any potential buyout, although negotiating a lower buyout is always possible.
Losing O’Brien would be a blow for Penn State, given the enthusiasm he has generated around a program going through dark times. O’Brien has done a decent job so far of generating interest with recruits, securing verbal commitments from a pair of talented and top-quality high school players, and he has done nothing but suggest he is going nowhere any time soon.
But if he did, hypothetically speaking, how bad would it be for Penn State? Finding a replacement for O’Brien would be a tall order given three more seasons of NCAA sanctions, but if an NFL team were to buyout O’Brien’s contract that money could help payoff the $60 million fine issued by the NCAA, or to help fund any other programs or departments that have subsequently been hurt by the sanctions.
If O’Brien did happen to have a change of heart, and again this is not suggesting anything of the sort, as gut-wrenching as it might be for the program, it could have some easily overlooked revenue to come with it.
Kevin is a national college football writer for rootshed.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He can be reached at email@example.com.