Penn State prepares for new era, as O'Brien leaves for NFL position
In the hours before news broke that Bill O'Brien reached an agreement to become the Houston Texans' coach, O'Brien called Penn State players so they could hear it from him first.
“Miles is one of the first people Coach O'Brien called (Tuesday night),” George Dieffenbach said of his son, a Fox Chapel graduate who was the Nittany Lions' starting left guard this past season. “Even though it was very hard for Coach O'Brien to speak to my son, it was a very positive and encouraging type of conversation.”
Another prominent player said O'Brien called almost all of the players to tell them the news first. Per school policy, players are prohibited from speaking to the media without permission.
As of Wednesday night, Penn State had not confirmed O'Brien's departure. Athletic director Dave Joyner scheduled a news conference for 11 a.m. Thursday.
Joyner, O'Brien and O'Brien's agent, Neil Cornrich, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
The Houston Chronicle reported O'Brien, 44, was traveling to Houston on Wednesday and will sign a five-year contract with the Texans by Thursday. Houston finished this season 2-14 and secured the No. 1 pick in the April draft.
Reaction from Penn State players on Twitter has been overwhelmingly supportive of O'Brien, who coached the Lions to a 15-9 record over two seasons. One starter told the Tribune-Review, “Everyone on the team respected and loved what he did for (Penn State).”
“Coach O'Brien loves Miles … and Miles loves Coach O'Brien” said George Dieffenbach, who coached tennis at Pitt for 38 seasons before retiring a year ago. “Absolutely loves him.”
Dieffenbach and Penn State's other rising seniors will play for their fourth head coach by this coming fall. Joe Paterno was fired in November 2011 during his 46th season in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. Tom Bradley served as interim coach for that season's final four games, and O'Brien was hired in January 2012 from the New England Patriots.
O'Brien won 15 of his final 22 games and was lauded for the Lions' performance in the wake of NCAA sanctions: four-year bowl ban, a reduction in scholarships and the waiving of the requirement that players who transfer to a FBS school be forced to sit out a season.
With the fiery O'Brien setting the tone, the vast majority of players stayed. But by this season, Penn State was playing with more than 20 fewer scholarship players than the maximum 85 of their opponents — and yet the wins kept coming.
O'Brien, the consensus 2012 national college coach of the year, had his NFL stock rise because of his ability to keep the program above water and to develop quarterbacks. In 2012, he transformed a former walk-on in Matt McGloin into the Big Ten passing leader that season.
This past season, O'Brien mentored true freshman Christian Hackenberg during a season in which Hackenberg had 20 touchdown passes and narrowly missed out on 3,000 passing yards — he finished with 2,995.
Hackenberg's father told The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News that he was “not going to say what the future for Christian is right now.” Losing Hackenberg would be a blow, considering none of his backups has appeared in a college game.
Penn State's 2014 class is ranked by Rivals among the top 20 despite being five players short of other schools' because of sanctions.
Only one of the 19 players in that class, however, has yet to bind himself to the school via a letter of intent. Most can't sign until Feb. 5, and other schools surely will to attempt to poach the Lions' top recruits, including defensive tackle Thomas Holley of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. was named interim head coach. The longest-tenured member of the staff, Johnson is considered an excellent recruiter and will be counted upon to keep the class intact.
The school likely will act quickly in securing O'Brien's replacement. Among those linked to the job are Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, a Pennsylvania native; Greg Schiano, a former PSU assistant (1990-95) who was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday; and Miami coach Al Golden, a former PSU tight end (1987-91) and assistant coach (2000).
John S. Nichols, a member of the six-person university search committee that chose O'Brien two years ago, said ties to Penn State or Pennsylvania “certainly could be a criterion, but in my view it ought not be a litmus test” this time around.
“A true dedication to the university and the program is important, but being a Penn Stater shouldn't be the only or an all-important consideration,” Nichols said.
As with what happened during the search for Paterno's replacement two years ago, not everyone in the Penn State community agrees.
“I think now they have an opportunity to make a wrong, right by bringing in a Penn Stater,” former linebacker LaVar Arrington told pennstate.247sports.com. “Bring in somebody who understands us.”
A Massachusetts native and Brown alumnus, O'Brien declined overtures from the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles a year ago. He repeatedly has said he and his family were comfortable in central Pennsylvania.
“I absolutely enjoy every single day coming to work here,” he said Jan. 7, 2013, at a Penn State news conference in which he affirmed he was coming back for the 2013 season.
Also that day, though, O'Brien said of the NFL, “In our profession it's the highest level of football, and it's a league that I have a ton of respect for.”
Enough to accept an offer from its worst team.