Giger: O’Brien not one to rest on 2012 laurels

CHICAGO – The remarkable rise of Bill O’Brien over the past year has been staggering, to say the least.

He went from virtual unknown to national coach of the year, as well as one of the hottest potential NFL coaching candidates around.

He’s been universally praised for doing a great job under remarkably difficult circumstances at Penn State.

He also quickly became the face of the university, even if he isn’t at all comfortable being viewed that way.

What could O’Brien possibly do as an encore this year and beyond with the Nittany Lions that would come close to matching what he achieved in 2012?

No one knows if that will even be possible, but this much at least is certain: Bill O’Brien knows he can get even better as a head coach.

“Never, ever be satisfied with where you’re at, just try to get better,” he said during a two-hour roundtable discussion with reporters near the conclusion of Big Ten media days Thursday.

O’Brien loves talking football, but when the attention turned to him and all the national notoriety he has received, you could see him squirm a little in his seat. Discussing that stuff is “embarrassing,” he said.

“I appreciate the awards, believe me, they mean a lot to me personally, but those are program awards,” O’Brien said.

While grateful, the coach humbly added perhaps these most telling words when it comes to understanding how tenuous his position is as a head coach.

“I know that it’s a short walk from the penthouse to the outhouse,” he said.

Great is a relative term when it comes to football coaches. They can be great in one area, such as leadership, motivation and day-to-day interactions with players, while still needing work in other areas, such as in-game decisions.

Mike Tomlin is a good example. He’s widely considered one of the five best coaches in the NFL, but how many of you Steelers fans have been left scratching your head trying to figure out what Tomlin is doing with some of his in-game decisions?

O’Brien certainly has been excellent in dealing with all the turmoil Penn State has faced over the past year, but he also readily acknowledged areas where he can improve when it comes to strictly football matters. In other words, he’s a great head coach in many ways who can only get better with more experience.

O’Brien specifically mentioned areas such as clock management before halftime to help set up two-minute drives, end-of-game situations and calling better plays now that he’s more comfortable with the coaches in the press box. He even got as specific as practice week preparation, such as better gauging what the team needs to be working on week to week based on specific tendencies of the opponent.

Each passing season should only make him better in those areas, and if so, just think about how great of a coach he could be down the road given that his intangibles are already off-the-charts.

“He’s the best coach I’ve had the pleasure of being around,” PSU guard John Urschel said. “He was a fantastic steal for Penn State. We’re honored to have him. He truly loves the game of football, he’s passionate about what he does, puts his heart and soul into his job every single day, and I think he sets a great example for our football team.”

The question inevitably with O’Brien will always be how long he will remain at Penn State. He has four years left on his contract, which was recently amended, and there’s no doubt NFL teams will have him on their short lists for potential openings, as long as he keeps doing well at Penn State.

He turned down the NFL after the 2012 season and said Thursday, “I was never offered a job. I listened briefly.”

He loves Penn State, he added, and didn’t want to leave the players he’s loyal to or the staff he assembled in Happy Valley.

He also had a sense of the potential devastation it could have caused the football program had he departed after one year, when players could still transfer under the NCAA sanctions.

“I knew what the situation was,” O’Brien said on that issue.

He stayed put this time around, but in two or three years, depending on the circumstances, it’s hard to believe O’Brien wouldn’t jump if offered a great NFL gig. Not the Jaguars or the Chiefs or some bottom feeder, but a terrific job with a storied franchise that could pay him a ton of money.

When Bill Belichick retires, would the Patriots want him? When the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett or the Jets’ Rex Ryan eventually get fired for failing to live up to expectations, would O’Brien want to go to that kind of circus operation? The Giants would seem like a great fit when Tom Coughlin retires.

O’Brien bristled a bit when told by a reporter that the “pros will keep calling” him in the future.

“That’s your opinion,” he said.

Actually, it’s pretty much everyone’s opinion.

O’Brien just comes across as an NFL guy, although he said Thursday he likes the college and pro games “equally” and for different reasons. Still, he tells a lot of stories about his NFL days, fondly recalls his experiences with the Patriots and just loves being able to focus on football all the time.

He doesn’t have that luxury at Penn State, where he pretty much has to be everything to everyone. He does a lot with the football marketing, has to grease donors at fundraisers and appear at numerous speaking engagements, not to mention make a presentation to the Board of Trustees, which he did recently.

“I’m most comfortable coaching football,” he said. “I don’t believe that I’m the face of the university. I’m just a football coach. I do believe in Penn State, what we try to do there academically, athletically. I think I’m a good fit for Penn State, as the football coach. But I don’t view myself as the face of the university.”

Just as the fans and media have heaped praise on O’Brien over the past year, so too have his players.

“He’s a terrific coach,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “He knows the game. He knows what it takes to win games. He’s coached in many high-profile games, whether it be in the NFL or in college. He’s done it for a long time, and we’d be fools not to listen to the knowledge that he gives us.”

One year in, O’Brien has exceeded any and all expectations. He says he’s “more comfortable this year” at Penn State, and now that he knows more about what to expect with everything going on around the university and the program, he should be able to focus more of his time on becoming an even better head coach.

“I’d say the sky’s the limit for him,” Urschel said. “He’s a great coach, but at the same time, he’s always trying to get better.”

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger