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Penn State Hires Neophyte Bill O'Brien For a Job That Could Crush a Seasoned Head Coach

After a plodding, 58-day search, the Nittany Lions have found their man. New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will become the next Penn State head coach. O’Brien, calling plays for three seasons, has never finished below 8th in NFL total offense. He will take complete control after the Patriots’ playoff run (good luck recruiting).

LaVar Arrington and other Penn State players are outraged Tom Bradley wasn’t retained.

Penn State by most accounts, focused most of its search on NFL candidates. Titans coach and PSU alum Mike Munchak made the list, as did 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Green Bay quarterbacks’ coach Tom Clements. The only college name linked strongly was Chris Peterson, who had no interest. Considering the ample evidence NFL play-calling and college football head coaching require different skill-sets, such a focus seems narrow and misguided.

It’s an odd tack for a search committee, composed of non-football people. The amateur move would have been for an established head coach. Perhaps, they have been advised by a prominent alumnus, with extensive NFL connections and a track record of “trust your gut” hirings of prominent NFL assistants who have never been a head coach?

O’Brien does have college experience, though not the type that screams shoo-in for the Penn State job. He spent four years as an offensive coordinator, two at Georgia Tech and two at Duke. His Blue Devil offenses finished 118th in total yardage in 2005 and 103rd in 2006. The team failed to win an FBS game during the two years and was shutout at home by FCS Richmond. This failure brought him to the Patriots. He was hired as an offensive assistant without portfolio, the college washout position.

Penn State hired O’Brien for his NFL credentials. It’s unclear how those translate into building a winning program in college. Can he manage a staff? Can he recruit? Can he mold talent? Will he mesh with a parochial State College culture? The only salient difference between this hire and those of Bill Callahan at Nebraska and Charlie Weis at Notre Dame is those two men had more impressive resumes. It’s as though Penn State, en route to the present, got stuck in the mid-2000s.

Pressure on the field may not even compare to that off the field. Penn State is asking someone who has never been a head coach to replace one of the sport’s greatest icons and to be the university’s public face while undergoing college athletics’ biggest historical scandal. Many seasoned coaches would be crushed by the weight of one of those tasks.

Even if O’Brien is successful, is this his dream job or the best opportunity now? Penn State has won national titles, has an enormous fan base and is outstripped in revenue by only Texas and Notre Dame. This is a job where you buy a ranch home and stick around for decades. Will he remain committed the next time a prime NFL job opens up?

Bill O’Brien has precedent stacked against him and a whale of a task at hand. He may surprise us all, but for now, we will wash this hiring down with a generous draft of skepticism.

[Photo via Getty]

 

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