About year ago, the name Bill O’Brien meant very little to an angry and hurt Penn State fanbase.
Nittany Nation had seen its university disgraced by child sexual abuse charges against once-revered former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, seen its beloved head coach Joe Paterno fired along with university president Graham Spanier and had two more school officials facing perjury charges.
And then, acting athletic director David Joyner had the nerve to go outside the Penn State family to hire someone that few had heard of, save a sideline argument with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Vocal alumni and several former players (such as LaVar Arrington) blasted Joyner for the decision, which became public knowledge on Jan. 6, 2012.
A day later, the man with the prominent chin cleft strolled into the Nittany Lion Inn and charmed a roomful of reporters and university bigwigs.
Now, a year after his hiring, he had many of those same critics on the edge of their seats praying he wouldn’t bolt for the NFL. Those prayers were answered when he accepted a raise Thursday and remained in a much Happier Valley.
From unrecognizable to indispensable — what a year it has been for Bill O’Brien.
He’s taken a program racked with the pain of the Sandusky scandal and bludgeoned by NCAA sanctions and kept it among the elite in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
Along the way to an 8-4 record, he earned the respect of his peers and the nation as he garnered several Coach of the Year honors.
None of what O’Brien has accomplished should have surprised anyone who was at the Nittany Lion Inn last January or watched that first news conference live on television.
“I feel like a pretty mentally tough guy,” O’Brien said that afternoon as his wife Colleen and youngest son Michael watched in the packed audience. “I feel like I can do this and lead this program and I can’t wait to get started.”
His mental toughness would be tested long before the season would start. The NCAA lowered the boom on Penn State in late July, handing down some of the most severe penalties in collegiate history.
Among those directly aimed at the on-field product, the Nittany Lions suffered a four-year bowl ban, had their scholarships reduced to 65 and current players were allowed to transfer immediately to other programs.
Starting running back Silas Redd (Southern Cal), wide receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma) and kicker/punter Anthony Fara (Texas) were among those to take advantage of the transfer options.
While those players bolted, O’Brien and a strong group of seniors inspired and held the rest of the team together.
Still, the season got off to a rocky 0-2 start, with losses to Ohio University (24-14) of the Mid-American Conference and to Virginia (17-16), in a game most remembered for Penn State’s kicking ineptitude.
But O’Brien’s entertaining pro-style offense would get on track from there. He helped former walk-on Matt McGloin become the most prolific passer in a season in school history.
The Nittany Lions would bag eight wins in their final 10 games, falling only to unbeaten Ohio State and conference runner-up Nebraska.
The season provided its share of highlights, maybe none more than a season-ending 24-21 overtime win over Wisconsin. Kicker Sam Ficken, who O’Brien stuck with despite a horrible start to the season, provided the game-winning margin.
What O’Brien helped provide on the field was one thing, but what he did off the field endeared him to the fans, students and fellow Penn State coaches.
In the spring, he embarked on an 18-stop Coaches Caravan, pressing the flesh with Penn State fans throughout seven states.
O’Brien also showed support for other Penn State coaches, showing up at a number of their events.
While Paterno was almost a deity to fans, O’Brien is different. He gives the impression of a normal, down-to-earth guy that you could see in line at the grocery store, gas station or at a favorite watering hole. You could have a normal conversation with him about anything but football.
O’Brien earned the fans’ love and support in his own way.
Maybe that’s why there was sheer panic when news surfaced that he had interviewed with the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles and was on the short list of other NFL teams with coaching openings.
Nittany Nation breathed a sigh of relief when O’Brien, who had his salary grow thanks to a contribution from booster extraordinaire Terry Pegula, decided to stay.
“I’m not a one-and-done guy,” he told the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “I made a commitment to these players at Penn State and that’s what I am going to do. I’m not gonna cut and run after one year, that’s for sure.”
O’Brien, who received a four-year extension in correlation to the length of the NCAA penalties, still has eight years left on his contract.
The next three, with the bowl ban and scholarship restrictions, promise to be just as challenging if not more so than this first year.
There’s optimism though as O’Brien is landing highly-rated recruits despite the NCAA sanctions.
A year ago, O’Brien told the masses, “I’m the leader of this football family. ... I can’t wait to get going on this, get everyone headed in the right direction.”
There’s no arguing, the formerly unknown guy has shown more than a few skeptics that he knows how to lead.