Job prospects soaring for Penn State coach Bill O'Brien
A Brown University graduate, Bill O'Brien didn't need long to prove to his first NFL employer that he was no regular bookworm.
“You have a tendency to say, ‘Oh, he's an Ivy League guy,' ” former New England Patriots executive Scott Pioli said by phone from his Kansas City home this week, “and people automatically make an assumption that there is a degree or a type of intellect.
“‘Billy O' is a smart guy, but he also has a common sense.”
He also might be headed back to the NFL.
O'Brien interviewed with the Houston Texans after Christmas last week about becoming their coach and is working on finalizing a contract, ESPN reported Saturday. A deal could be in place within a week, according to the report.
Neither O'Brien nor his agent, Neil Cornrich, responded to phone or email messages seeking comment about NFL rumors involving O'Brien. A Penn State spokesman said only that he is unaware of O'Brien's schedule over the holiday break.
Defensive lineman Thomas Holley, considered one of the Penn State's top recruits for 2014, told ESPN.com on Saturday night that O'Brien told him the Texans rumors held no merit and that he was staying at Penn State.
O'Brien has proven his worth as a head coach — at least at the college level — through two seasons in University Park. The Nittany Lions have gone 15-9 and posted two winning seasons in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, earning O'Brien near-universal praise.
As O'Brien's reputation and stature have grown since he was hired from the Patriots — where he was offensive coordinator under Bill Belichick — so has the speculation O'Brien will return to the NFL.
“I think Coach O'Brien has the perfect combination of NFL experience and, having had done a great job at Penn State under the most difficult of circumstances, (shown) he can be a quality NFL head coach,” said Fox Sports and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, the former Baltimore Ravens coach. “I would think that that would make him an attractive candidate to any number of different places.”
Besides Houston, O'Brien's name has been linked to other teams' coaching vacancies or soon-to-be vacancies, including after the 2012 NFL season.
“It's easy to see why because wherever he's coaching, he's going to be a good coach,” said Pioli, who was Patriots vice president for player personnel when the team hired O'Brien from Duke to serve as a quality control coach.
Pioli now works as an NBC Sports analyst.
O'Brien repeatedly has spoken of his love for his players and the history associated with Penn State, and few doubt that he is being genuine.
But O'Brien has been up front about his desire to become an NFL head coach. Players and recruits often have said one of the things they like most about O'Brien is that he is honest and sincere.
“He's very intelligent, but he's not condescending,” Pioli said. “He's very intelligent, but he doesn't try to be the smartest guy in the room.”
“He's the kind of guy that doesn't think he has all the answers.”
Sports Illustrated called Cornrich “arguably the leading agent of football coaches, both professional and collegiate.” He represents the high-profile Belichick and last year maneuvered a big-money coup for client Bret Bielema in moving from Wisconsin to Arkansas.
According to USA Today, Bielema's salary of about $5.16 million ranks third in the nation among college coaches. Cornrich clients Bob Stoops of Oklahoma (fifth, $4.74 million) and Kirk Ferentz of Iowa (ninth, $3.985 million) also are in the top 10.
According to a USA Today list compiled last month, O'Brien was 14th in pay among coaches ($3.28 million).
O'Brien's contract contains a buyout of approximately $6.6 million for an NFL team — small change for the billion-dollar industry. But former Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin — arguably O'Brien's star pupil — believes the school can't afford to lose O'Brien.
“If it wasn't for having Coach O'Brien at the head coaching position, I don't think the university would be where it is today and the football program wouldn't be in such a great position,” McGloin told the Tribune-Review.
McGloin was a former walk-on who couldn't hold onto the Lions' starting job before O'Brien arrived and transformed him into the Big Ten passing leader and PSU record-holder. An undrafted free agent, McGloin has started six games for the Raiders as a rookie and is a prime tenet of O'Brien's growing legend and resume.
“Good coaches are good coaches,” Pioli said, “and whether Billy O decides to stay at Penn State for the next 20 years or decides to go to the NFL, he's going to be a good coach wherever he goes.
“Or wherever he stays.”