Column: Back to Square One for Penn State Football

Story posted January 1, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Phil Constantino

As Bill O’Brien departs for the Houston Texans, it is impossible to call his two-year tenure at Penn State anything less than impressive.

Inheriting a program on the heels of the worst scandal in the history of collegiate athletics, and while suffering the implications of unprecedented sanctions, O’Brien took the hand he was dealt and turned it into two winning seasons and National Coach of the Year honors, while garnering consistent NFL head coaching interest along the way.

When the “experts” said Penn State would collapse, “O-B” kept it together.

As O’Brien packs up for his next gig, Penn State fans are singing his praises – except for those few, of course, who are angry at O’Brien for leaving – thanking him for making Penn State better than it was two years ago. But is it? Did O’Brien really make Penn State a better job than when he took the position?

Whichever coach is given the duty of replacing O’Brien, his first order of business is to re-recruit every single player currently at Penn State; no different than O’Brien’s job in the summer of 2012.

Many of Penn State’s current athletes came for what O’Brien had to offer, an NFL pedigree and knowledge that could put them in the league after their time in Happy Valley. A resume that includes coaching Tom Brady’s offense to the Super Bowl, and more recently, turning former walk-on Matt McGloin into an NFL starter as a rookie. That’s gone.

What’s stopping Christian Hackenberg from picking up and leaving if the new coach doesn't meet his standards of quarterback development?

In the past, in some cases, the NCAA has made exceptions for players leaving amidst a coaching change, waiving the required redshirt season as part of its transfer rules. The NCAA has enabled Penn Staters to leave before, who’s to say they won’t do it again?

Step two; re-recruit all of Penn State’s verbal commitments in the class of 2014, while still suffering from restrictions, such as scholarship reductions, levied on the program. No different than O’Brien’s job with the classes of 2012 and 2013.

Like the current players, many of these top-notch high school prospects, that surprisingly made up one of the most highly rated classes in the country, pledged their talents for things O’Brien could offer, a pass-happy, tight end-happy NFL level offense that was exciting to play in. That’s gone. The opportunity to play with an elite college quarterback such as Hackenberg, that’s in jeopardy too.

Keeping recruits like Chris Godwin, De’Andre Thompkins and Mike Gesicki; highly rated guys at positions who would benefit from O’Brien’s style, could be a challenge to retain.

On top of this all the bowl ban is still in effect for two more seasons. Who’s to stop Thomas Holley, the most highly touted recruit in the class from flipping to one of his other finalists, like Ohio State? The Buckeyes are expected to once again compete for a National Title next year.

Problem No. 3; dealing with a dysfunctional administration. This clearly is no different than when O’Brien first arrived on campus. By now the shortcomings of athletic director Dave Joyner are well profiled. He is absent when the program needs him most.

The football team wants nothing to do with him. Reports say Joyner, and the lack of leadership in the administration was a significant factor in O’Brien’s decision to move on. What coach would want to put up with that?

For those who gave into uncertainty, and were heard begging for O’Brien to just leave already so you didn’t have to do the same NFL dance every offseason? Think again.

For those who said O’Brien flirting with the NFL created an instability that would prevent recruits from committing to a school that the head coach was not committed to? Think again...the guy could recruit.

For those who say don’t worry, James Franklin, Greg Schiano or Al Golden will come home and pick up right where O-B left off? Think again, it’s not that easy.

Maybe if O’Brien stayed just a bit longer Penn State could have survived for the duration of the sanctions, and not just have weathered the storm in the interim.

Did O’Brien do a tremendous job at Penn State given the circumstances? 

Absolutely, arguably one of the greatest coaching jobs in sports history.

Did O’Brien prevent a Penn State football program on the verge of destruction from becoming the next SMU, falling into 20-plus years of futility after enduring some of the harshest penalties in NCAA history?

Yes, and Penn State fans should be forever thankful.

Did O’Brien make Penn State a better job? No.

The same issues that faced O’Brien two years ago still linger as a dark cloud hanging over the program.

Whoever the next coach is has a tall task trying to navigate a program that is in just as fragile of a state as when O’Brien inherited it. That’s if Penn State can even land that guy with the bumpy road that lies ahead.

It’s back to square one for Penn State football.

Phil Constantino is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email PhilipBConstantino@gmail.com.

Photo Courtesy: (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)