Not turning his back: Nittany Nation relishes O’Brien’s decision

The message on the Twitter page of the “Supa Six” – the group name taken on by Penn State football players Bill Belton, Allen Robinson, Adrian Amos, Donovan Smith, Deion Barnes and Kyle Carter – could have summed up the feelings of all the Nittany Lion faithful late Thursday night.

“2013 letsss goooo!!!”

Nittany Nation can move ahead now that Bill O’Brien has made it clear he’ll be returning for a second year as football coach, but it was letting out a collective deep breath after running the gamut of emotions as O’Brien was interviewing with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns and appeared to be seriously considering leaving Penn State.

“The temptations were strong, but not strong enough. Thank God,” redshirt freshman running back Akeel Lynch posted on Twitter.

Former Lion all-Big Ten offensive tackle Keith Conlin, who now lives in Centre County, described his feelings as those of relief at learning O’Brien was staying on. He said the importance of O’Brien’s decision to stay cannot be overstated.

“I just think that if he had left, it would have been pretty bad news for people in this town, not just for football, but the town in general,” Conlin said. “There’s no doubt in my mind there wouldn’t be a player left, there wouldn’t be a roster next year [if O’Brien left].”

It wasn’t just former players or area residents like Conlin that saw keeping O’Brien as a huge move for Penn State and his courtship with pro openings as exceedingly worrisome to the university. ESPN NFL analyst Adam Schefter put on Twitter that Penn State was so concerned that it actually began to contact potential head coaching candidates.

“Biggest win of season for Penn St.,” Schefter tweeted.

O’Brien went 8-4 and won the Big Ten coach of the year from both the media and conference coaches while being named a finalist for several national awards after coming over from the offensive coordinators post with the New England Patriots. O’Brien accomplished that despite unprecedented NCAA sanctions that included allowing top players like Silas Redd, Justin Brown and Anthony Fera transfer weeks before the start of the season.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported at the beginning of the week O’Brien’s began entertaining NFL offers after being misled by Penn State about the scope of the penalties – that it was a criminal matter outside of NCAA jurisdiction – although the probation automatically added four years to his contract.

O’Brien’s agent, Joe Linta, told the Associated Press late Thursday night that O’Brien’s experience in 2012 at Penn State played on the coach’s “heartstrings” and made the decision easy in the end.

“His loyalty to the team and those kids was a really strong bond,” Linta said. “Although he loves the NFL and loves coaching, the experience this year with those kids was the opportunity of a lifetime for him.”

“I’m not a one-and-done guy,” O’Brien told the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “I made a commitment to these players at Penn State, and that’s what I am going to do. I’m not going to cut and run after one year, that’s for sure.”

A social media post attributed to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, though, said O’Brien was in line to get an increase of $1.3 million in salary up to $3.6 million and receive assurances the university would make some “structural/personnel” changes to help entice him to return.

There were a number of comments critical of Penn State’s investment Thursday on Internet forums devoted to Lion athletics, but Conlin said it had to be done.

“Bill deserved what he got. The university had to step up and take ownership and do what it did to keep him here,” Conlin said. “They did. Thank God, for all of us that live here, that work here. It was that scary, in my opinion.”

Much like the suit Tom Corbett brought against the NCAA on Wednesday to remove the sanctions, Conlin contends that the the quality of Penn State football has a direct impact on the region’s economy. Had O’Brien taken an NFL job – leaving Penn State to find its fourth coach in three years – it would have signaled a death knell for the Lion program.

“I don’t think any of the recruits would have came here, and I don’t think any of the players would have stayed, either – they still have the ability to leave,” Conlin said. “If he had left, what would keep them here?”

Cornerback Stephon Morris, who just finished up his eligibility, agreed with Conlin. He stayed for his senior year at Penn State, but he said he probably would have gone somewhere else if he was a returning player and O’Brien had moved on.

“Any player would have to think like that. It’s tough to go through three head coaches in a career, especially at a place like Penn State, where you put so much faith and trust that your coach is going to be there forever,” Morris said.

Morris, however, said he never doubted that O’Brien would return, or that, at least, because of his honesty and loyalty, he would have told the players and recruits that he was probably leaving. Morris wasn’t alone.

“I’m not worried, I trust my coach,” tight end Garry Gilliam tweeted before later adding “Practice what you preach #ThingsBOBdoes love my coach.”

Blue-chip tight end Adam Breneman, who enrolls next week, reacted similarly.

“Told ya so,” Breneman posted on Twitter.

All-American quarterback Christian Hackenberg remained a solid commitment and said he had spoken to O’Brien about the rumors he might leave in the last couple of months.

“So glad that Bill O’Brien is staying and that means @chackenberg1 will definitely be a nittany lion this fall!” Hackenberg retweeted.

Of course, while the 2013 recruits might be unfazed, prospects going forward might have second thoughts on going to Penn State if they think O’Brien could leave at any time. Penn State recruiting analyst Greg Pickel didn’t believe it would have a big impact.

“Sure, could the perceived notion that O’Brien could bolt at any time to the NFL after the happenings of the last week be used against Penn State via negative recruiting? Absolutely,” Pickel said. “But there are so many things – and ways – to negatively recruit at any given school, that I don’t feel this past week adds any stronger firepower to those opposing coaches’ arsenal. Because of the message O’Brien has sent recruits and their families, I believe they know what to expect from O’Brien.”

Morris thought the pro interest in O’Brien might have just the opposite effect.

“I feel happy that our coach is interviewed by NFL teams, that he’s connected, that he’s part of the NFL network,” Morris said. “I’m happy that he stayed. I’m happy for the parents. I’m happy for the Penn State football team. I’m happy for the fans. I definitely didn’t want Penn State to have four head coaches in three years.”

Morris’ father, Roman, trains defensive backs – several that Penn State is recruiting – in the Washington, D.C. area said he didn’t blame O’Brien for exploring his options.

“I kind of understand. He assessed the situation. You only get hot once. If you get hot twice, good for you. Can he rekindle what he did last year? I hope so,” Roman Morris said. “What he did last year is going in the annals. It’ll never be rewritten.”

One thing is sure: This is virgin territory for a Penn State program that was guided for 46 years by Joe Paterno and hasn’t had to deal with NFL competition for its coach since the early 1970s.

“We were really spoiled by Joe and his longevity and not having to worry about this. We’ve entered the realm of what every other college team goes through,” Conlin said. “This is just another example of us having to move forward. That’s just the way it is and just the way it’s run nowadays. For good or bad.”