Travis Johnson | Penn State is best fit for O’Brien — for now

State College - Centre Daily TimesDecember 18, 2013 

— Take a minute and put yourself in Bill O’Brien’s shoes.

You’ve done a lot with a little recently and taken on more professional responsibility than you’ve ever had in a 20-year coaching career. It’s been fulfilling and at times exhausting work leading the Penn State football team through the darkest period in program history to serviceable results in your first two years.

Heading into Year 3 at Penn State, more changes are already on the horizon. You’ve already put new plans into motion. You’re comfortable where you are and you and your family members are as recognizable in the community as anyone in the state.

You’re beloved by the locals.

You’re just what this university, and quite frankly this town, needed.

You’re wanted by a massive fanbase and a campus full of students, administrators and players who have consistently pledged their undying loyalty to you.

Your cell phone is ringing off the hook. Text messages pile up during recruiting flights and all become available upon landing. Recruits and their coaches, co-workers — those bothersome reporters — and possibly, as CBSSports.com reported earlier this week, NFL teams are all looking to open a dialogue.

What would your priorities be?

Bill O’Brien has his and only he truly knows what they are. And although the Penn State coach has yet to snuff out the NFL rumors — he hasn’t gotten back to me since I reached out to him — he’s left plenty of evidence in his second year indicating where his heart lies.

“I enjoy being the head football coach at Penn State, and I enjoy working here,” O’Brien said in January shortly after his then-agent Joe Linta revealed to the Associated Press that O’Brien planned to stay at Penn State after a brief flirtation with NFL teams. “I enjoy the people I work for, the people I work with, all the people I’ve met, the student body is incredible here, and I enjoy being here. And I plan to be here.”

Look, O’Brien is no dummy. He chooses his words carefully and has often been candid with beat reporters. He doesn’t close doors that could lead to opportunities for himself or his family which puts his unwillingness to openly cut himself off from an NFL return into perspective.

He’s a smart man and a calculated tactician. And his actions — he trekked down to Hershey to take in a PIAA title game shortly after his team’s season-ending awards banquet earlier this week — speak loudly enough.

And I’m willing to bet the the Massachusetts native surely realizes he’s in an ideal situation compared to what the NFL teams — namely the Houston Texans, the only franchise with a vacancy right now — would be willing to offer him.

Let’s get the money out of the way first.

O’Brien’s former boss, New England’s Bill Belichick, is the league’s highest-paid coach. While Belichick pulls in $7.5 million a year, it’d be a stretch to assume an NFL team would be willing to pay O’Brien that kind of money for his first shot at a pro head coaching job. On top of a would-be salary, the franchise making the offer would also have to buy out O’Brien’s current Penn State deal. And right now, according to O’Brien’s contract, that buyout carries the biggest price tag.

Including O’Brien’s current base salary of $1.9 million and adding in a prorated amount of just over $805,000 for the five months left on this year (assuming a team would offer him a job after the Super Bowl in February) and multiplying that number by the three years left on O’Brien’s deal, his buyout this season would be just over $6.6 million.

That buyout number decreases over time as the contract term grows shorter and O’Brien’s base salary drops to $1.1 million next season before going up to $1.65 million the following year. So a move to the NFL becomes more financially feasible over time.

Secondly, O’Brien’s role at Penn State dwarfs what he’d likely be tasked with in the NFL. In Happy Valley, O’Brien is the president and general manager of his squad, in charge of overseeing more than 100 players, evaluating hundreds of recruits with the freedom to pursue any and all of them. He shows a constant interest in his players’ academic exploits, too.

He’s free to tinker with everything from his staff and recently made recommendations to oversee the team’s medical operation. Only two current coaches in the NFL have that type of power.

Belichick is the only head coach/general manager in the pros while Kansas City’s Andy Reid is the Chiefs’ vice president of football operations and has heavy input on personnel decisions. Belichick and Reid combine for more than 30 years of NFL head coaching experience.

In O’Brien’s own words on recruiting and changes to his coaching staff at Penn State: “It’s about a fit.”

Can you really see O’Brien putting up with what Washington’s Mike Shanahan has dealt with this season, with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder reportedly going over the head coach’s head in propping quarterback Robert Griffin III up on a pedestal?

Can you envision O’Brien working for Jerry Jones in Dallas, or managing a hellacious quarterback situation in East Rutherford should jobs with the Cowboys or Jets come open? Are those better fits than Penn State? No way.

Thirdly, the sanctions that crippled his ability to stockpile his roster with scholarship players have been reduced. O’Brien has done well thus far and continues to piece together strong recruiting classes. His most recent addition? Only four-star defensive tackle Thomas Holley, one of the top-ranked recruits in New York and so-far the biggest get of the 2014 recruiting class.

Some believe the bowl ban imposed by the NCAA will be lifted in time for the next postseason. I firmly believe that’s the case, and not only will the Nittany Lions get to play a game across the pond in Ireland, they’ll get a sunny bowl destination to look forward to again, too. A date with an SEC powerhouse or a Pac-12 contender is just another enticing challenge for a man that embraces them.

A return to bowl eligibility means escalators in his contract will kick in depending on his team’s performance, too.

Fourthly, Christian Hackenberg. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year played inspired football for the Nittany Lions and could turn out to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country sooner rather than later under O’Brien’s continued tutelage. A quarterback guru, O’Brien has to be intrigued by the prospect of coaching Hackenberg up to a Heisman Trophy level.

Finally, O’Brien is secure where he is now. The same can’t be said for a lot of NFL coaches in a “What have you done for me lately?” league. The CBS Sports report actually mentioned two teams — the Vikings and Redskins — as landing spots for O’Brien. Both of those teams still have head coaches.

Meanwhile, of the NFL jobs that turned over following last season, more than half of them had coaches who were fired after just three seasons or less.

O’Brien is eligible for a contract extension following the 2015 season.

Some insist O’Brien’s return to the NFL is inevitable. I’d say that’s a fair bet. He was very clear in January that coaching in The League is the pinnacle of his profession. He’s not wrong.

But right now, O’Brien is continuing to lay the groundwork toward a different pinnacle. He’s already established himself as one of the country’s better young coaches and, by his own admission, there are still plenty of things to learn.

All season his players used the saying “Charlie, Mike” — Continue the Mission — as their rallying cry. The mission isn’t finished here for O’Brien. You should’ve seen the stare, the fire and rage in those icy blue eyes following his team’s beatdown from the Buckeyes. Don’t think that’s not on his mind, too.

So, what would you do if you were in his shoes? I believe O’Brien knows what he’s going to do and that includes kicking off his shoes in his home — a place he and his family will call home for a while.

Of course that’s only until next year, when the whispers and rumors of O’Brien’s supposed return to the pros heat up again.

Travis Johnson covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4629.

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