Yesterday I received my ballot for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. With a number of very worthy candidates on the ballot I know that this should be a close race when the votes start being counted by the Football Writers Association of America.
Brian Kelly has Notre Dame back on the top of the college football world, playing for a BCS championship in January with a Heisman finalist playing in the middle of his defense. Urban Meyer also took his Ohio State team from playing .500 football last year to an undefeated regular season with nothing to show for it. Will Muschamp has Florida back in the SEC discussion the way Meyer had them at their height not so long ago.
David Shaw took Stanford to a Pac 12 championship few expected in a year many anticipated a colossal showdown between Oregon and USC. Shaw and Stanford, without Andrew Luck, beat them both.
Kevin Sumlin led Texas A&M in to the SEC in grand fashion, sending a freshman quarterback in Johnny Manziel to New York as a Heisman frontrunner and shocking the SEC by knocking off Alabama in Tuscaloosa to earn some serious respect in their new conference home this season.
Bill Snyder once again found a winning formula using a bunch of players long forgotten in recruiting trails looking to make others regret passing on them, and if not for one poor game the Wildcats would be playing for a BCS championship.
Dave Doeren, heading to North Carolina State, is largely responsible for sending Northern Illinois to the BCS, the first team to do so out of the MAC conference, after winning 12 straight games capped by a double overtime victory in the MAC championship game. Gary Andersen led Utah State to a 10-2 season and the final WAC championship to be awarded in conference history. Utah State’s two losses this season both came on the road, at Wisconsin and BYU, by a combined five points.
To put it simply, all of these coaches are worthy of coach of the year honors for a variety of reason. My vote, however, has gone to Penn State’s Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien was not the popular hire when first introduced, but he proved to be the right hire by the end of the season, restoring some pride in the program along the way. Some will laud O’Brien for his emotional leadership and toughness when they cast their votes. His ability to not shy away from a troubled program is commendable, but he deserves the honor for a number of other reasons as well.
O’Brien came to Penn State amid a cloud of controversy raining down on a once proud and storied program. He did not back away from what was sure to be some tough times, and when the NCAA slammed his newly inherited program he did not waste time lamenting on the outcome. Oh, he was not happy about being hit with a four-year postseason ban, significant reduction in scholarships and other programs being allowed to roam on his new turf in an attempt to pry players away, but he sure was not going to fret over anything out of his control.
What it all really comes down to is coaching. Coaches coach, and O’Brien stuck to the basics of his job, assuring those who stay they will be a part of something special. O’Brien had already been inheriting an offense that was considered good, but nothing great. Following the transfers of Silas Redd (USC) and Justin Brown (Oklahoma), the new head coach was left with a bunch of scraps on offense, it was perceived. The loss of kicker Anthony Fera (Texas) proved to be the most costly transfer out of the whole process, as the first two games of the season would tell.
Unlike any of the other candidates on the ballot, O’Brien’s season got off to a poor start. Penn Sate lost the season opener to Ohio by being shutout in the second half. Penn State losing a season opener at home to a team from the MAC is unthinkable, even under the circumstances. It got worse the next week when a special teams implosion cost Penn State a win at Virginia. The 0-2 record following the year that was for Penn State would have been enough to write this team completely off for the year, but O’Brien looked for the positives to build on from week to week. Those who watched closely would notice that Penn State was actually playing better each week of the season through the first month and a half.
When the season came to a close, with an overtime victory against eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin, O’Brien had turned Matt McGloin in to one of the top passers in the Big Ten, breaking a good handful of Penn State passing records along the way. Think about that for a moment. Matt McGloin is the school passing record holder for a number of categories, in O’Brien’s first year. What would have happened if Kerry Collins were on this team? McGloin found a go-to target in sophomore Allen Robinson, who was thrust in to a key starting role in the receiving game following the loss of Brown and other off-season losses due to a dismissed player and graduation. Robinson had one of the top receiving seasons in Penn State history. The tight ends were expected to be a key part of the offense under O’Brien but nobody knew how long it would take to develop. All that happened was Penn State’s young tight ends had some of the best production on the team in decades.
The challenges are just starting for O’Brien, but year one of the new era in State College turned out to be a special one for many reasons. O’Brien is right there at the top of the list.
There is a solid argument against O’Brien, I admit. Most coaches of the year will not lose their first two games of the season of course, and Penn State did lose their two biggest games of the season against Nebraska and Ohio State. If that is enough for you to scratch O’Brien off the list, so be it.
To me, wins and losses are only a part of the equation. The ability to keep a team motivated and get the most out of young talent weighs heavier on my scale. O’Brien won games when nobody expected him to, and he developed young players in a fashion never before seen at Penn State.
The Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year will be named December 13.
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.