Giger: O’Brien now has incentive to stay at PSU longer

Let me first say that I had never believed, under the heavy weight of the NCAA sanctions, that Bill O’Brien would be at Penn State for more than another year or two.

He’s an excellent coach with NFL aspirations, the NFL wants him, and at some point he would have gotten fed up with the enormous burden of having only 65 scholarships through 2017.

Why would any terrific coach choose to hang around and deal with all that mess when an NFL opportunity was waiting?

Now O’Brien doesn’t have to.

Which means that now there’s a much greater chance he will remain at Penn State for a number of years.

That should come as tremendous news to Nittany Lion fans.

The NCAA’s decision Tuesday to gradually give PSU back its scholarships is a game-changer in two big ways.

The first is obvious – that the Lions will be able to lure more good players, making them a better team year in and year out.

Just as important is that O’Brien’s job became significantly easier – still difficult, but much easier nonetheless – and he won’t have to bang his head against the wall every day for years trying to figure out how to field a competitive team with only 65 scholarships.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first.

If the New England Patriots or New York Giants come after O’Brien, he’s gone. There’s nothing Penn State could do to prevent him from leaving for an elite franchise like that.

Bill Belichick probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so the Patriots job wouldn’t seem feasible for a while. But the Giants job? They’re 0-3 and have been awful, plus Coughlin is 67 and could decide to retire in a year or two.

Another possibility could be the Steelers. If they miss the playoffs this year and next, Mike Tomlin could be on his way out, and they might be interested in O’Brien.

Those are some of the best jobs in the NFL, and O’Brien would be wise to wait for one of them. As long as he keeps doing well at Penn State, there would be no reason for him to take a midling pro job like the San Diego Chargers, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns or Buffalo Bills.

And he absolutely can continue to do well with the Lions thanks to the NCAA’s help – did you ever think you’d see that phrase? – by giving back the scholarships.

Penn State will have 75 scholarships next year, 80 in 2015 and 85 in 2016. The Lions also will be able to go to a bowl game by 2016, if not sooner because the NCAA very well might reduce that sanction, as well.

Penn State should be able to compete with and/or beat every team in the Big Ten this season – with the possible exception of Ohio State – and that’s with only about 66 scholarships plus a few more given to walk-ons.

Just think what O’Brien can do with 80 or 85 scholarships and the reward of a bowl game to sell to recruits.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Penn State could compete for a Big Ten title the first year it’s able to return to a bowl game. And who knows, with the college football playoff system coming up, winning the Big Ten could get the Lions in contention for the playoff.

It’s really not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Not with O’Brien at the helm, armed with a potentially great quarterback in Christian Hackenberg for another three years.

The key is keeping O’Brien around and keeping him happy. He’s already had his contract amended so he’ll make more than $3 million a year through 2016, so he’s making enough money and has enough job security that he won’t have to gamble by taking a low- or mid-level NFL job.

How long O’Brien remains with the Lions will depend on a lot factors, many of which are beyond Penn State’s control. The NCAA took care of a big one Tuesday.

We’ve all wondered just how good Penn State could be under a good young coach like O’Brien if the sanctions weren’t in place. And many of us already had come to the conclusion that we’d never find out because he’d be gone long before then.

But now he has a lot more reason to stay, and it will be fascinating to see if he can live up to the extremely high expectations everyone already has for him.

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger