A Challenge Mastered, O’Brien Takes Another

The most inane comment I’ve heard in 2013, a year of particular foolishness in sports, is that Bill O’Brien would be a “rat” for leaving Penn State so soon. Let me see if I have this straight: A man who likely would have been an NFL head coach two years ago instead accepted perhaps the most staggering challenge in the history of college athletics — repair a fabled football program ravaged by the Jerry Sandusky scandal — and, in that time, has done wonderfully honorable work.

He recalibrated a thought process. He obliterated the former culture and created a new way for a different time. If he didn’t make any of us forget that Sandusky was a serial monster who sexually abused young people, or that a fallen legend named Joe Paterno and some sheep-like administrators covered up the horrific criminal trail rather than report it to the authorities, O’Brien did serve as a moral compass and directed Penn State’s football identity in the proper direction. He finished 15-9 in two seasons, took a 25-point underdog to Wisconsin last month and upset the nationally ranked Badgers, groomed one quarterback who is playing in the NFL (Matt McGloin) and another who will at some point (Christian Hackenberg) and was in the 2012 discussion for Sportsman of the Year. The NCAA, duly impressed by “observable changes in behavior and attitide,” will begin to restore scholarships, and the program will have its full allotment of 85 by 2016.

Bill O’Brien’s work is done. A foundation is in place for his successor to flourish — and the likes of Mike Munchak, James Franklin and Greg Schiano are said to be interested. Happy Valley is as happy as it could be under the circumstances.

What critic in good conscience would call him a rat if he wants to leave for the next level?

Wisely getting out in front of Black Monday — the annual purging of failed head coaches that leaves numerous NFL openings — the Houston Texans know superb work when they see it and are eyeing O’Brien to replace the deposed Gary Kubiak. In turn, O’Brien must know a prime opportunity when he sees it. Despite a mysteriously dark season that left them at 2-14, the Texans, once thought to be a Super Bowl contender, still have enough talent to execute a Kansas City-like turnaround and make the playoffs next season. They also get the No. 1 pick in the draft and plan to use it on a quarterback — with O’Brien’s track record at the position well-established, not only at Penn State but in New England as the offensive coordinator best known for once yelling at Tom Brady on a sideline. Whether that QB pick is Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota (who may change course and declare for the draft) or rapidly rising Blake Bortles, the Texans need to pair a quarterback of the future with a guru who can maximize the prospect’s skills.

Yet, even while Penn State people should feel good that O’Brien can pursue his NFL dreams, some don’t like it. They are resurrecting old quotes when he accepted the job — “I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead. But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes,” he said then — and are calling him a carpet-bagger. Never mind that many coaches wanted no part of the immediate work in State College and cowardly waited for someone like O’Brien to do the heavy lifting, to knock down the wall so someone else could walk through it later. Critics are saying he used Penn State.

I say Penn State used him and was fortunate to have him.

Keep in mind that other Bill Belichick disciples haven’t fared well as big-time head coaches. Romeo Crennel, Josh McDaniels, Charlie Weis, Eric Mangini, even Greg Schiano by extension of coaching Belichick’s son at Rutgers — busts, all. O’Brien will reverse the trending arrow, just as he did amid a storm in Pennsylvania.

Let him go.

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