Bill O'Brien is a great offensive football mind because he is always putting pressure on the defense, probing for weaknesses and attacking hard once he finds them. He'll move wide receivers and tight ends all over the field and then, when you finally think you have them all covered, hit you with three straight runs off tackle. And his offenses work because he's constantly thinking forward, both in terms of the rest of the game at hand and the games yet to be played.
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien isn't going anywhere -- at least in 2013.
Penn State's head coach did pretty much the same thing this week without being anywhere near the field.
While many of his coaching peers were readying their teams for bowl games and his players were enjoying a rare holiday break, O'Brien was putting some pressure on a different sort of defense -- the Penn State brass.
During a few anxious hours Thursday, after news had broken that O'Brien had interviewed with the Cleveland Browns this week, we wondered if the man who had prevented the program from crumbling during his first 360-or-so days on the job was really going to bolt before completing a full year at the helm, if he was really going to be able to leave after telling his players and recruits that he was, indeed, "committed for the long term," as he said in July.
Though he and his agent, Joe Linta, might be the only ones who will ever know his true intentions, it looks now as though O'Brien was merely using his position of considerable leverage -- one he had earned by both the job he had done this fall and by the still-uneasy climate created by the sanctions -- to improve both his own situation and help his program out in the process.
And O'Brien was in a terrific position, a first-and-goal from the 2 with all three timeouts left kind of position. If he had left right now, a month before signing day and seven months before the free-transfer period ended, a program that had been patching holes in the sides of the ship for the last year might have seen that ship capsize. His replacement could have been handed a roster of walk-ons (would they still have been called run-ons if O'Brien had departed?) while the Nittany Lions' top talent scattered to schools around the nation.
O'Brien had his bosses in a tight spot and he knew it. And he was also smart enough to realize he might never be in a similar position again. So he and Linta asked Rodney Erickson and David Joyner, in so many words, what they were willing to do to keep him. And, though the details of that answer are still leaking out -- a $1.3 million bump in compensation, via a deep-pocketed donor, is reportedly part of the "New Deal" -- it was enough for him to decide to remain in State College.
Which, again, might have been O'Brien's intention all along. Leaving a group of players who showed him and everyone else what loyalty meant, who he said repeatedly that he had bonded with, for any job -- the Browns, the Patriots, NFL commissioner -- would have undeniably taken an emotional toll. And leaving a place where he'll have both job security and, thanks to the sanctions, more than a little leniency in the win-loss department, for the better part of the next decade for an NFL job that might be taken away from him in two years would have been a significant risk.
All that said, it isn't hard to envision O'Brien at the helm of an NFL team someday, and that day might come a lot sooner than many Penn State fans would like. He was very careful to avoid making definitive statements about his future toward the end of the season, probably because, in the back of his mind if not the front, he knew he would be having some discussions with the Penn State administration but also because he didn't want to publicly paint himself into a professional corner. This might not be the last time that Nittany Lion fans spend part of the winter not knowing if O'Brien will still be here when spring football begins.
At least for now, though, he'll remain at Penn State, where he has fortified his standing. Some fans -- and a few members of the administration -- might take issue with the way he did so, but they should also understand, or grudgingly admit, that O'Brien is a man who knows how to take advantage of his position. That makes him a formidable adversary on game days and, as he showed this week, someone who knows how to get what he wants away from the field, too. That sort of leader -- one that has been lacking in many other areas of the administration -- might serve Penn State well as it continues to weather the sanctions.
Provided he stays around, of course.