Bill O’Brien stood inside Penn State’s Lasch Football Building on Saturday, a floor below the program’s most recent postseason trophies, and told reporters he wasn’t at all surprised by the Nittany Lions’ success.
After all, Penn State’s former head coach said, it’s hard to keep “college football heaven” down.
“This place is a place where kids should really want to come and play football,” he said in his first trip back to campus since officially leaving for the NFL’s Houston Texans in January 2014. “Like I said, it’s like college football heaven. You come in here and you watch a game in front of 108,000 fans. You come into this building, the practice fields, the view from the practice field, the indoor facility, they have the nutrition deal set up in the weight room now.
“I felt like this would be a place that could definitely come back pretty quickly.”
O’Brien — who received a four-year extension from the Texans in January — was back in Happy Valley for the Penn State Chalk Talk, an annual learning experience for high school and junior high coaches around the state. O’Brien was the keynote speaker.
Dressed in a dark Under Armour shirt, the dimple-chinned coach reflected fondly on his two-year coaching career for the blue-and-white. And he made it a point to emphasize that he never felt the Nittany Lions’ unprecedented sanctions were going to weaken the program in the long run.
“There was a time when the sanctions first came out that they said this program would never come back,” O’Brien said. “There were people that said this program would basically be a Division II, Division I-AA program.
“And I think we all looked at each other that were here and looked at this wall and looked at the All-Americans and knew that was never going to happen, that something terrible had happened here, but things were moving forward. And we had the right people in place to bridge that gap to where they are now.”
O’Brien was introduced as Penn State’s head coach on Jan. 7, 2012, two months after the firing of Joe Paterno and six months before NCAA president Mark Emmert handed down stiff penalties in connection with the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal.
In spite of the initial four-year bowl ban and reduced scholarships, O’Brien finished with winning records of 8-4 and 7-5. Since the sanctions, the Nittany Lions have never won fewer than seven games in a season and have been on the cusp of the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. O’Brien said that’s something he takes pride in.
“I knew in time, with the support and the type of program that Coach Paterno had built here, that this place was going to be back, that it was going to be some tough times going through it but in the end it was going to be back battling for national championships,” O’Brien said. “And you can see it now, and all of us that were here — players and coaches — we still keep in touch, and we’re all very proud of what’s going on here now.”