Should Penn State’s Bill O’Brien Win the Bear Bryant Award?


As has been both thoroughly documented and highly disputed, depending on which side of the myopic Nittany Valley one resides, Penn State University has been hit with significant sanctions and penalties over the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and attempted cover-up.  While Penn State University (PSU) did not receive the NCAA’s so-called “Death Penalty” as was administered to Southern Methodist University in 1987, the penalties handed down were considered devastating to a program which has been quite used to being one of the elite programs in NCAA Division I football.

The group which has been impacted the most is the PSU football team, which has received the following impinging sanctions:

  • Five years probation.
  • A four-year postseason ban.
  • Vacating of all wins from 1998 to 2011–112 wins in all. This had the effect of stripping the Nittany Lions of their shared Big Ten titles in 2005 and 2008. It also removed 111 wins from Joe Paterno’s record, dropping him from first to 12th on the NCAA’s all-time wins list.
  • A $60 million fine, the proceeds of which were to go toward an endowment for preventing child abuse. According to the NCAA, this was the equivalent of a typical year’s gross revenue from the football program.
  • Loss of a total of 40 initial scholarships from 2013 to 2017. During the same period, Penn State is limited to 65 total scholarships–only two more than a Division I FCS (formerly I-AA) school is allowed.
  • Penn State was required to adopt all recommendations for reform delineated in the Freeh report.
  • Penn State must enter into an “athletics integrity agreement” with the NCAA and Big Ten, appoint a university-wide athletic compliance officer and compliance council, and accept an NCAA-appointed athletic integrity monitor for the duration of its probation.

Additionally, the NCAA allowed those current PSU players the opportunity to transfer to another NCAA Division I football team without the typical year-in-residence – i.e. sitting out one year after transferring to another university – constraint.  This had as much, if not more, of an impact in stripping the PSU football program of its ability to be competitive in the initial year of the sanctions.  The notable players who opted to transfer to other NCAA Division I programs were:


  • Running Back Silas Redd (University of Southern California) who gained 1,200 yards for the Nittany Lions in 2011
  • Anthony Fera (University of Texas), the punter/placekicker who was a Lou Groza Award (best kicker) finalist in 2011
  • Wide Receiver      Justin Brown (Oklahoma     University)

Given all this, it was widely-believed that no coach, in their right mind, would consider this scorched-earth state of a football program.  But Bill O’Brien, former Offensive Coordinator of the New England Patriots, took on the challenge to try to restore the luster of the once-proud and now seemingly ruined football program.  And the result is nothing short of phenomenal.

The PSU Nittany Lions opened the Bill O’Brien era by losing their first two games, to the Ohio University Bobcats by a score of 24-14 after relinquishing a 14-10 halftime lead and then losing to the Virginia Cavaliers by a score of 17-16 after placekicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals and one extra point.  However, the Nittany Lions recovered by reeling off five consecutive victories and now stand with a record of 5-2.

Getting the Nittany Lions to a 5-2 record is no small feat: every pundit and observer believed PSU would garner, at best, nothing more than a 5-7 or 6-6 record while struggling even more greatly in the seasons that will follow when the sanction’s impact will hit the program the greatest.

And while some might argue that PSU has not yet been tested and may “hit the wall” for the remainder of the season, starting with today’s match up against 8-0OhioStatein what’s being referred to as ‘The Ineligible Bowl’ (OhioStatehas also been hit with sanctions for the current season), O’Brien and his Nittany Lions squad cannot be taken lightly.

So how has O’Brien done this?

  • Risk-Taking and creativity: without the luxury of their most capable offensive weapons, O’Brien has had to utilize many of the offensive schemes he employed with the Patriots.  He has also appeared to have adopted a ‘nothing to lose’ mindset in aggressively attacking their opponents defensive game-plan.
  • Great coaching:  O’Brien and his coaching staff have made their imprint on the current lot of players via fundamentally-sound techniques.
  • The transformation of what was considered in many circles as the Big 1G Conference’s worst Quarterback in Matt McGloin into one of the conference’s best traditional-style passers.
  • Aggressiveness:  No team has gone for converting fourth-down situations than O’Brien and no one has instilled an aggressive mindset like O’Brien has with his remaining players.
  • A winning mentality:  O’Brien had no designs of ‘getting his feet wet’ – he brought in a gameplan and demanded his players buy into and execute it.

Much to O’Brien’s surprise, he has already been dubbed the mid-season’s ‘Coach of the Year’ choice by as many as four major news services.  And whileOhioState’s Urban Meyer has done a phenomenal job in guiding the Buckeyes to a perfect 8-0 record, both the resources and the sanction’s impact to the Buckeyes is far less devastating.

And while the road ahead for O’Brien may become more difficult in the following seasons, his ability to thrive in the face of unfathomable adversity is nothing short of remarkable.  I just hope the former ‘Paternoville’ myopias who believe that, had Paterno lived and continued to coach the Nittany Lions that he would have guided the program to a 7-0 record.  Bill O’Brien deserves so much more than that.

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