It is no secret that Bill O'Brien is an attractive candidate for an NFL coaching job. Before accepting the job at Penn State O'Brien was a leading candidate for the Jacksonville Jaguars after serving as an assistant coach for Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots.
O'Brien's tough-minded approach to the game combined with his offensive scheme blends well with the NFL. Taking over a tattered program thought to be in shambles by some, dealing with unexpected NCAA sanctions rocking the Richter Scale to levels rarely, if ever, seen in college football and losing a handful of starters and turning out an eight-win season on his way to coach of the year honors and consideration quickly established O'Brien as a capable head coach.
A number of reports have suggested for a while now that O'Brien will be a hot commodity during the NFL coaching carousel, which officially got underway this week with a number of jobs opening up. A buyout initially valued at over $9 million may in fact be closer to $18 or $19 million after O'Brien's contract was automatically extended following NCAA sanctions, when you account for contracted money through Nike sponsorship and media deals on top of the base salary. Still, if an NFL team believes O'Brien is the right guy for the job to turn things around and build a potential Super Bowl contender, then that may not be a deal-breaker.
Still, the hefty price tag for a coach with one year of head coaching experience will be steep enough for some franchises. Given word that O'Brien is strongly considering interviewing with an NFL team, panic mode has started to ignite within the Penn State fan base. Since being introduced as head coach of Penn State, O'Brien has done just about everything possible to win over fans and those who initially criticized the move to hire him as head coach. Leadership from O'Brien was needed in a time of pain and healing for the program, university and community and beyond. Despite being slammed with heavy NCAA sanctions, which will be challenged by the state of Pennsylvania in court, O'Brien managed to keep the positive energy flowing and has done well in building a respectable recruiting Class of 2013. If O'Brien were to leave now there is no telling how much would unravel in the aftermath now one month away from National Signing Day.
This is new territory for Penn State. Penn State now is in a situation where they must compete head-to-head with NFL franchises with deep pockets. This is something the school has not had to deal with since the early days of the Joe Paterno era, when the Patriots and Steelers approached Paterno on separate occasions. Of course, times are different now, and O'Brien is not Paterno.
Many fans seem to understand that O'Brien's time in State College may be ticking down, but when the clock hits zero is the big question. It is not a matter of if O'Brien will leave at some point. It is a matter of when.
O'Brien is already being mentioned as a top target of the Philadelphia Eagles, joining Oregon's Chip Kelly and Syracuse's Doug Marrone on the radar of college coaches on owner Jeff Lurie's list of candidates. It is possible O'Brien's name is one a few other short lists around the NFL.
If O'Brien happens to leave Penn State for another head-coaching gig, he will not have nearly the job security Penn State currently provides with eight years now remaining on a nine-year contract, extended four years with four years of NCAA sanctions. So far O'Brien has shown that he is more than capable of dealing with the setbacks out of his hands, and his message has been that the future of the program will remain bright. Still, the opportunity to coach in the NFL has always felt like the ultimate goal for O'Brien at some point. With his name as hot as it ever has been and with a number of openings around the league, Penn State needs to work hard to ensure O'Brien is happy the way they are not accustomed to doing.
O'Brien is probably not a Penn State lifer. He admitted so much in his introductory press conference a year ago, although that thought was more referring to the idea of coaching in to his 80's the way his predecessor did. The market value for O'Brien has risen after a successful 2012 season with Penn State. Penn State has financial restraints right now due to the loss of bowl share revenue through the Big Ten and decreasing attendance and the need to pay off $60 million in fines, but there should be enough to ensure O'Brien is satisfied as well.
Penn State will be hesitant to restructure O'Brien's deal for a second time in less than a year, but it may be necessary if they feel, like a number of NFL franchise may, that he is their guy. It would be wise for Penn State to do what they can to ensure O'Brien is happy financially. He is not exactly struggling under his current contract of course, but so much goodwill under O'Brien would be thrown away in a flash if Penn State expects O'Brien to be satisfied with his contract the way Paterno was for so long.
Old philosophies are no longer appropriate. There may still be tough times ahead for the program, but they could be much tougher if Penn State ignores O'Brien. O'Brien's buyout should still be enough to keep O'Brien in State College through 2013, but it would be wise for Penn State not to rely on that.