The college football coaching carousel has two coaching vacancies to fill, for now. Nevada's Chris Ault resigned after a long tenure with the school, leaving a second coaching job to fill at the college level, but that number could increase in the coming days and weeks as the NFL season came to a close on Sunday and many coaching changes are expected to be made shortly. Penn State's Bill O'Brien and Oregon's Chip Kelly remain two popular names floated around by NFL analysts as potential NFL head coaching candidates around the league.
The Philadelphia Eagles will apparently be one of the teams looking for a new head coach, for the first time since after the 1998 season. Long time head coach Andy Reid is on his way out as head coach. Both Comcast Sportsnet and Philly.com mention O'Brien as a potential target for the Eagles.
The chances O'Brien actually leaves Penn State after just one season in Happy Valley this year are probably pretty slim. Certainly far from impossible, but any NFL team looking to hire O'Brien would be forced to pay off more than $9 million on the final eight years of O'Brien's contract (O'Brien's five-year contract was contractually automatically extended four years as a result of four years of NCAA sanctions). That is on top of an NFL coaching salary O'Brien would be due as well. O'Brien surely will not stay at Penn State as long as his predecessor, Joe Paterno, but many seem to feel as though at some point he will be lured back in to the NFL at some point. It is not likely to happen this season, but O'Brien has only himself to blame if he gets bothered by questions about his name being involved in NFL coaching rumor mills.
"You guys gave legs to a story last week, and there's no story there," said after Penn State's victory over Indiana. "I'm focused on this football team. That's not something that I even think about. I think about the fact that I'm the head coach of Penn State... We give legs to a story that isn't even there just because someone wrote an article."
The problem is O'Brien could have squashed the story right then and there, with one more week left in the regular season. He did not.
O'Brien has said that he plans on coaching Penn State in 2013, but he also has never said, without a doubt, that he would not consider taking an NFL coaching job if it happened to come along. All O'Brien would have had to say was he would not consider any offers. But like most coaches in football, it is difficult to say "never."
Penn State's head coach possesses many of the qualities NFL franchises like to see in a head-coaching candidate. He has NFL experience working with quarterback Tom Brady, one of the game's all-time greats. O'Brien's coaching style and philosophy leads to success at the NFL level and he is a branch off of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, although that does not always lead to great success as history has shown.
Recent history also shows that college football coaches are starting a new trend on Sundays. Pete Carroll seems to have washed away the stains from his previous NFL stint with the Seattle Seahawks. Tampa Bay's Greg Schiano has changed the culture with his new team on the first year of the job, although the Bucs missed the playoffs this season. In San Francisco Jim Harbaugh has instantly made the 49ers one of the top teams in the NFC. As previously noted, these coaches all have NFL experience on various degrees, something Oregon's Chip Kelly does not have on his profile. O’Brien certainly does.
Those coaches also all have multiple years under their belts as a head coach. O'Brien seems to be a good head coach, but he still lacks experience. It is not a deal-breaker, but with that price tag, it may be more of one than usual.
"I'm the head football coach at Penn State. I love coaching here and I can't wait to get back to work on Monday and get ready for Wisconsin," O'Brien said following the Indiana game.
O'Brien has been honored with a number of Coach of the Year awards already, and he has had much more of an impact on the Penn State football program than most seem to have expected in 2012. O'Brien breathed new life in to the program in a time of turmoil by reinventing the offense and approach to the game while embracing some of the principles of Penn State football and adding his personal touch on others. He has handled everything at Penn State with the utmost class and bluntness when needed and he has done his best to assemble a recruiting class that has surprised many recruiting analysts along the way.
Is he ready to be an NFL coach right now? Maybe. He was one of the leading candidates for a job at Jacksonville last year before joining Penn State. He owes nothing to Penn State, as hard as that may be for some fans to comprehend. But it just does not seem likely that any NFL team would want to owe Penn State over $9 million for a coach with one year of head coaching experience.