Penn State was supposed to have entered the dark ages, a stretch of impending doom on the football field after being ravaged by NCAA sanctions amid a disturbing child abuse scandal linked to high-ranking officials of the university and legendary and iconic head football coach. Nobody was supposed to want to fathom representing the football program that saw the mantra of “success with honor” covered from mud-slinging national pundits and beyond.
Nobody was supposed to want to even consider taking the job of head coach of the football program, knowing they would be taking over a once-proud program that some felt should not be playing at all. This was a program that was supposed to now represent everything wrong in collegiate athletics. Penn State was supposed to be the program shunned by the nation. This was supposed to be a program that would be ravished by a mass exodus following NCAA sanctions, struggling to compete with even the middle of the pack programs in the Big Ten and in non-conference play. Some suggested Penn State would struggle to compete even at the FCS level following the sanctions.
Worst yet, Penn State hired a guy with no head coaching experience that was more famous for a sideline verbal spat with future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady than anything else. This was the best Penn State could do? Clearly Penn State was bruised and battered so badly no respected coaching candidate would even consider taking the job as head coach. No common man would put himself in that position.
Bill O’Brien is no common man.
After guiding Penn State to an 8-4 record and seeing offensive records shatter along the way, O’Brien was named the Big Ten’s Hayes-Schembechler and Dave McClain Coach of the Year, annual Big Ten awards voted separately by the coaches and the media. The Big Ten announced the two coaching honors Tuesday night and Penn State fans celebrated their first-year head coach with pride, congratulating the coach on Twitter even though he does not use the social network.
“This is a fantastic honor; it’s very humbling,” O’Brien said in a statement shared by Penn State. “Any time you are named coach of the year, it has a lot to do with two groups of people – it’s your coaching staff and obviously your players. We have a great coaching staff that did a nice job of keeping everything together and teaching our players. And our players did a great job of going out there every week and playing as hard as they could. It’s an honor for our program.”
Though things started off on a rough note with losses at home to Ohio and on the road against Virginia, O’Brien kept the team from packing it up for the rest of the season. With a steady senior leadership from players like linebacker Michael Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich to set the tone, O’Brien steadied the ship and helped lead Penn State to five straight wins and a 6-2 Big Ten record. In a year some national voices suggested getting to four or five wins would be nearly impossible, O’Brien has done his job in convincing many he was and is the right man for the job.
“From the time I first met Bill in February, I thought he was the perfect fit for Penn State Football,” said Gerry DiNardo, Big Ten Network analyst. “He had an immediate and great connection with the team and quickly became their leader following a legendary leader in Joe Paterno. When you watch him call plays, he is one of the best play callers in college football. He is a passionate football man who has connected with the players and the community.”
Following a successful season few covering the sport nationally say coming, O’Brien has become a hot name in coaching rumor mills. An NFL pedigree few college coaches typically have, O’Brien has been mentioned as a potential target some NFL teams looking for a new head coach this off-season could target, despite a contract buyout of up to $9.5 million. O’Brien’s delay in addressing the situation in a confident manner for fans was distressing at times for those who bought in to the O’Brien era as the season rolled along. On Tuesday, following a few weeks of speculation, O’Brien confirmed he is ready to coach at Penn State in 2013, putting many at ease.
O’Brien won the Big Ten’s coach of the year awards despite Urban Meyer taking over Ohio State and turning them from a six-win team to an undefeated, 12-0 team this season, including a key road win at Penn State. O’Brien and Meyer were each deserving of the conference’s coach of the year awards, make no mistake. Success at Ohio State under Meyer was expected to develop quickly, although perhaps not at the rapid rate it did this season, but consider what each coach had to start off with and a case for O’Brien became stronger and stronger.
O’Brien started the spring with Silas Redd, the team’s leading rusher in 2011 and a player expected to really take the next step to becoming a top running back in the nation by some this fall. Instead, Redd transferred to USC following the NCAA sanctions allowing a free transfer to any current Penn State player. O’Brien put faith in sophomore running back Bill Belton, a small and shifty running back who had seen some time late in the 2011 season to generate some sparks on offense. Belton was banged up early on in the season and saw his role diminished along the way while third-string running back Zach Zwinak moved up the depth chart throughout the season and ended the year with 1,000 rushing yards to lead the team.
Penn State lost another veteran offensive starter with the loss of wide receiver Justin Brown to Oklahoma. Brown was the team’s leading returning receiver this season, but his transfer meant Penn State would start the season without six of the top nine receivers on the team from 2011, due to graduations, transfers and dismissals. Enter sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson, who ended the season as the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year after leading the Big Ten as the only receiver to pass 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns (11).
Perhaps the biggest success story of O’Brien’s first season in State College came with quarterback Matt McGloin. The senior quarterback has seen his share of highs and lows since coming to Penn State, on and off the field, but a coach with the offensive wisdom of O’Brien proved to be a difference maker for the Scranton native. McGloin was intercepted just five times in 2012, matching his total from 2011 when he split a majority of the playing time with Rob Bolden, who transferred to LSU this summer. McGloin passed for 3,271 yards this season to more than double his total passing yards in the past two seasons in split duty with Bolden, and he led the Big Ten with 24 touchdown passes.
With one year of sanctions now in the books, O’Brien’s job may actually start to get a little easier. Recruiting will be a big test for O’Brien in his first full recruiting season on the job. Top notch recruits like quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman have long been verbally committed to Penn State and keeping them on board will be crucial for O’Brien’s master plan. In addition to being selective with a reduced scholarship limit, O’Brien also needs to keep his current underclassmen from leaving the program as well. The NCAA sanctions now allow for open transfers for Penn State players from now until the start of training camp.
Bill O’Brien has passed a number of tough tests in year one at Penn State, but there are still a number of challenges awaiting him moving forward. The good news, for Penn State fans, is O’Brien has what it takes to continue proving his doubters wrong.
Freshman Deion Barnes also awarded
Penn State freshman defensive end Deion Barnes was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Barnes joins former running back Curtis Ennis as the only Penn State players to win the award.
“It’s a great honor to be the Freshman of the Year,” said Barnes. “It feels good, but I am looking forward to next season. I need to play better than I did this year.”
Barnes, a Philadelphia product, led Penn State with six sacks for a loss of 30 yards and was 13th in the Big Ten in tackles for loss, with 10.0.
In addition to O’Brien, Barnes and Robinson’s individual Big Ten awards, linebacker Michael Mauti was named Big Ten Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.