The collective sigh of relief could be heard down Route 322 corridor in Central Pennsylvania. It could be heard in the state capital region and outward towards the more populated areas of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
With the NCAA announcing that it would ease up on the near death-sentence penalties it had levied against the Penn State football program, the belief coming out of State College was that the healing process finally could begin.
In reality, the healing process had started well before the NCAA’s announcement.
In late 2011, Penn State was reeling from a scandal that left supporters and detractors alike shaking their heads with disbelief and disgust. School officials desperately sought direction, leadership and stability for the Nittany Lions.
The university was able to find the person who embodied what they needed. In hiring former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, Penn State not only managed to salvage its gridiron program, but it maintained Penn State’s presence as a viable destination for blue-chip prospects. Because of the O’Brien hire, it allowed Penn State to carry out its image-rebuilding period unfettered.
When trying to find a reason for O’Brien’s success, people mistakenly point towards his high octane offensive playbook. This is not the case. Some people may point to his heart-pumping, performance-enhancing motivational skills. This is not the case either. The brilliance of what has made Bill O’Brien successful is he brought simplicity to Happy Valley. O’Brien made Penn State football about what it was meant to be its focus: Penn State the university and the game of football.
When you get down to it, Penn State is not a hard sell. It has great tradition, state of the art facilities, tremendous fan support and a supportive administration. It is a great school – academically and athletically. It has everything a coach at the FBS level could want. O’Brien recognized these attributes and embraced them. In turn, Penn State fans have embraced O’Brien in the aftermath of its most trying of times.
“If you come to Penn State, you have a chance to play in front of 108,000 fans, you’re going to be on TV every week and you’re going to get a fantastic education,” said O’Brien. “It’s really an unbeatable combination.”
O’Brien has endeared himself even more after the 43-40, four-overtime thriller on October 12th. On that Saturday night, the Lions knocked off its Big Ten rival Michigan from the unbeaten ranks. One of the players who played a major part in the victory was Christian Hackenberg. O’Brien received a commitment from the top quarterback prospect in the country during the time where Penn State was still going through the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Against the Wolverines, the 18-year-old freshman threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns, refusing to allow two picks to unnerve him. He was fearless. This was apparent on the last-minute drive in regulation that allowed the Lions to tie the game at 34.
With Penn State down seven and just 50 seconds remaining in the game, Hackenberg completed three passes for 79 yards before running it in himself from the one yard line. Sam Ficken’s point-after then set the stage for a wild extra four frames that were shaped as much by failure as by success.
O’Brien has bridged the gap between the past and present. He has tapped into the passion of players and fans without hardly ever straying far from generic coach speak. Until the Lions can claim their full allotment of scholarships to utilize in 2016, as per the NCAA’s recent amendment, they face an uphill battle that most universities do not have to experience.
Penn State has a record of 12-6 in O’Brien’s first 18 games including 4-2 this season. Penn State is heading into a Saturday prime-time conference clash at No. 4 Ohio State. Penn State has shown glimpses of being something special under O’Brien. Win or lose, the people of Happy Valley are proud of Penn State again. John Butler, Penn State’s defensive coordinator said it best following the Michigan win: “It was a great atmosphere for football and it is just going to keep going from here.” It looks as if the healing will continue.