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Penn State coach O'Brien could be hot commodity for NFL

| Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, 11:28 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien walks the sidelines during the 3rd quarter at Beaver Stadium in University Park on September 22, 2012. Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Temple Owls 24-13. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

Bill O'Brien has talked about his passion for coaching at Penn State and how much he and his family have embraced living in State College.

His long-term commitment to Penn State could get tested after his first season in Happy Valley.

The job O'Brien has done holding Penn State's football program together coupled with his success as an NFL assistant could make him a coveted candidate for NFL teams looking to fill a head coaching vacancy in the offseason.

O'Brien had two opportunities Tuesday to quash any talk of his leaving Penn State after this season, but he declined to look past Indiana, the Nittany Lions' opponent on Saturday.

“I'm flattered that you would even ask me that question,” O'Brien said when asked about his name being linked to projected NFL jobs. “I'm worried about Indiana and looking forward to doing the best we can for this team as a coaching staff.”

There are six first-year NFL head coaches this season. There figure to be at least as many in 2013 given the bottom-line mentality in the NFL and the enormous pressure to win.

O'Brien rose from offensive assistant to offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots from 2007-11. He has only improved his coaching stock with his job at Penn State.

The Nittany Lions (6-4, 4-2 in the Big Ten) have been more than competitive despite harsh NCAA sanctions levied against the program in July, which resulted in the transfer of a handful of key players, including star running back Silas Redd.

“Coach O'Brien, he's been our leader throughout this whole process and I don't think any other coach could do as good of a job as he's done keeping this whole program together,” senior outside linebacker Michael Mauti said. “In my opinion, that's the coach of the year right there. I've said it all year.”

O'Brien signed a five-year contract with a base salary of $950,000 last January. Four years were added to the contract after the NCAA punished Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, one for every year the Nittany Lions are on probation.

O'Brien may have more job security than any coach in college football, but he faces a new set of challenges after this season.

Players are again allowed to transfer and be eligible in 2013, and replenishing Penn State's talent base will become more difficult due to scholarship restrictions that are part of the sanctions.

O'Brien hasn't given any indication he is interested in returning to the NFL. He likely would have commanded interest as a head coaching candidate last year had he not taken the job at Penn State.

O'Brien has become close with the players who stayed at Penn State, particularly the seniors who helped him head off a mass exodus following the NCAA sanctions.

The commitment of the players is why O'Brien said Tuesday that he hopes Beaver Stadium is packed the next two Saturdays even though the regular-season finale against Wisconsin falls when students are home for Thanksgiving break.

“As fans, as students, can we choose not to support them in their last two games, eight quarters of football?” O'Brien said. “This is a team that's put its heart and soul into this season. I expect that our students and our fans understand what this team has been through and what they did to commit to each other, to commit to this university and come support them in their last two games, especially this senior class.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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