Back to the drawing board

In his heart, Bill O’Brien always wanted to be an NFL head coach. Now he is one, deep in the heart of Texas.

O’Brien is leaving Penn State after two seasons to become head coach of the Houston Texans. The move has elicited both praise from some for his efforts during tough times at PSU, but also sharp criticism aimed at him from outraged fans who feel the coach is turning his back on the commitment he made to the Nittany Lions.

O’Brien had 3 years left on his Penn State contract, and it will cost the Texans about $6.7 million to buy out the remainder of that deal. The Texans reportedly are giving O’Brien a five-year contract, and terms have not been revealed.

The Texans reportedly will make the announcement official today.

Penn State officials, meanwhile, haven’t addressed the matter publicly. The school has a news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. today with Athletic Director Dave Joyner.

With O’Brien out of the picture, longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson has been named the team’s interim coach, according to published reports. This is a critical time of year for college football programs from a recruiting standpoint, and Johnson will serve as the point man for all things related to the team until a head coach is hired.

Joyner presumably will be heading the search committee, as he did when O’Brien was hired in January 2012 to succeed Joe Paterno, who had been fired in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

The unusual aspect of Joyner being involved is that he himself will be out a job in six months at the end of PSU President Rodney Erickson’s tenure, yet even in a lame-duck role, he will be largely responsible for making a hire that will drastically impact the university for years to come.

Three names that have surfaced as leading potential candidates to replace O’Brien are Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. (See Page B1 for more on the possible candidates.)

Social media sites erupted with discussion late Tuesday night when ESPN first broke the news about O’Brien’s departure. It occurred on New Year’s Eve, and many people rang in the New Year tracking down whatever information they could find on the Internet and Twitter about why O’Brien is leaving and who will be Penn State’s next coach.

As is often the case on controversial news stories, many Twitter users used the platform to vent their frustration toward O’Brien. He’s been a popular, well-received coach throughout his brief tenure at Penn State, but angry Twitter users called him words like “traitor” and “scumbag,” while others compared him to Benedict Arnold.

The anger stems from the notion that many fans believe O’Brien owed it to Penn State and the players to stick around longer, given that his players made a commitment to stick it out at the school even with severe NCAA sanctions.

Despite the sanctions, O’Brien guided the Lions to an 8-4 record in 2012 and earned several national coach of the year awards. The team went 7-5 this past season, finishing on a high note with a road win at Wisconsin to secure a winning season.

O’Brien never made any promises about staying at Penn State for a lengthy period, particularly not after the sanctions were announced in July of 2012. He is widely viewed as an “NFL guy,” based on the fact that he had spent the previous five years of his coaching career with the New England Patriots, and many people had presumed it was just a matter of time before he left PSU for a pro job.

O’Brien interviewed with some pro teams after the 2012 season, and in a news conference on Jan. 7, 2013, he made it clear how highly he regards the NFL.

“My profession is coaching, and in my profession, the National Football League is the highest level of coaching,” he said. “You don’t get any higher in coaching than the National Football League.”

But even at that news conference a year ago, O’Brien chose his words carefully and did not declare that he was committed to Penn State for a long period of time.

“I’m telling you right now, I’m committed to this 2013 team, and I’m looking forward to coaching them,” he said.

O’Brien decided to return to Penn State for another season, perhaps in large part because his contract buyout at the time was a whopping $19 million. He was able to amend that contract with the school in June, lowering the buyout to a more manageable $6.7 million after the 2013 season.

The buyout reduction ultimately made it much easier for him to leave Penn State for the pros, and that’s what he did.