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Kovacevic: O'Brien deserves a Lion's share

| Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012, 10:59 p.m.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien celebrates with fans after defeating Northwestern, 39-28, on Oct. 6, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien celebrates with fans after defeating Northwestern, 39-28, on Oct. 6, 2013, at Beaver Stadium in University Park.

It was supposed to be the death penalty. Or worse. And if the suddenly omnipotent NCAA and its supporting university presidents had their way, that's precisely how it would have played out.

Penn State football would have been dead.

For a decade, maybe longer.

That it isn't dead, that these Nittany Lions could wind up with an eight-win season Saturday by beating Wisconsin, that anything at all uplifting could emerge after unimaginable horror, the credit should go to one William O'Brien.

Not all of it, of course.

Set aside some for the maturity of Matt McGloin, the athleticism of Allen Robinson, the drive of Gerald Hodges, the brawn of Zach Zwinak, the heart of Michael Mauti and — don't dare forget this one — the persistence of kicker Sam Ficken.

At the same time, they weren't the ones who inherited the greatest one-man challenge in college football history, then were hit with unprecedented sanctions, then watched enemy coaches circle State College to pick through the carnage, then opened with devastating losses to Ohio and Virginia and still, somehow, emerged a greater success than anyone dared to expect.

That was Bill O'Brien.

When all those publications pick coaches of the year in a couple months, O'Brien's name should stand above all. Any sport. Anywhere.

Which makes what could happen next at Penn State all the scarier.

What if he leaves?

That's the question clouding what should be a celebratory week for a senior class that O'Brien aptly calls “special,” but it's a wholly fair one to ask.

A reporter did so eight days ago, only to draw this clunker of an answer from O'Brien: “I'm flattered that you would even ask me that question.”

That only added fuel to the discussion, so another came this past weekend after beating Indiana, and O'Brien's sequel was no more satisfying: “That's not something I even think about. I think about how I'm the head coach at Penn State and I'm looking forward to getting this team ready for Wisconsin.”

By O'Brien's news conference Tuesday, there was no need to ask.

Being coy about the future is par for the course for college coaches. That's the world created by the NCAA's inability to govern pretty much anything aside from seismic child rape scandals, a setting where contracts and commitments mean little.

Every coach plays this game, too, either to legitimately dip a toe in other waters or to angle for pay raises. Even Jamie Dixon, who's as committed to Pitt as any coach is to any school, has done it.

In that regard, I can't find fault with O'Brien.

His five-year contract includes base pay of $950,000, plus other compensation that has his total annual take at $2.3 million. That was market-rate when signed in January, given the extraordinary circumstances and O'Brien never having been a head coach, but it might not be now.

A USA Today survey of college football coaching pay, published this week, ranked O'Brien 33rd, a hair behind West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen's $2.38 million. No. 1 was Alabama's Nick Saban ($5.48 million).

Any coach requires more than a single season to prove his worth but, again citing those extraordinary circumstances, I could argue O'Brien is as valuable to his institution as any coach in the country.

Is he signaling he'd want more to stay?

If so, Penn State president Rodney Erickson and athletic director Dave Joyner had best perk up their ears and engage. O'Brien's success has bought both those men much-needed breathing room to address myriad other issues left in Jerry Sandusky's evil wake.

Now, if O'Brien's real aim is a return to the NFL, that's different. If he wants to go, he'll go.

But don't bet on it. Even with his pedigree as a Bill Belichick disciple, even with his success at Penn State, any NFL team seeking O'Brien's services would have to pay roughly $9 million to buy out the rest of his contract. That's a heavy price, even for a franchise that could really use him such as, say, the Eagles once they finally ax Andy Reid.

Ask me, and O'Brien and Penn State mutually have everything to gain from addressing this issue clearly and quickly. The recruits needed to replace Mauti, et al, have to know. The players who might entertain bolting for other schools have to know. The fans for all of those 106,572 seats deserve to know. The sooner the better.

This isn't just another college football situation, and O'Brien isn't just another coach.

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