STATE COLLEGE —
He took control at Penn State in the midst of the bleakest days in its history. After four straight wins proved the Nittany Lions program could thrive in the face of scandal, coach Bill O’Brien has thrust himself into contention as an early frontrunner for national coach of the year.
Just don’t tell O’Brien.
After a shaky start to his tenure – a 24-14 loss at home to Ohio – O’Brien has earned praise for the turnaround and the way he has handled the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Sandusky, maintaining his innocence, was sentenced Tuesday to at least 30 years in prison.
O’Brien was busy at work 11 miles down the road from the courtroom, far removed from Sandusky’s sentence in Bellefonte in the child sexual abuse scandal that brought shame to Penn State and led to former coach Joe Paterno’s downfall.
O’Brien has led the Nittany Lions to a 4-2 record, including four straight victories and an upset over previously unbeaten Northwestern. The win was a huge confidence boost going into the off week and propelled O’Brien into the race for coach of the year honors. Only six games into the season, and with the brunt of conference play ahead, O’Brien refused to consider the idea that he’d be in the thick of the race with stalwarts like Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, who have their teams nestled in the top 10.
“We have Murderer’s Row coming up here, starting with Iowa,” O’Brien said. “There’s a lot of great coaches in this country. I’ve only coached six games in my whole career. That’s the farthest thing from my mind.”
O’Brien has tried to keep a “business as usual” approach for the Nittany Lions as they prepare for an Oct. 20 game at Iowa (3-2). Then comes the big one – Oct. 27 at Beaver Stadium – against the Buckeyes that could have voters ready to hand O’Brien the coaching award at midfield if Penn State pulls off the upset.
Either way, he’s in the conversation because he quickly made Penn State competitive in a season many expected they’d be reeling following the scandal and sanctions that gutted the program. O’Brien had to face open season on his entire roster after the NCAA penalties were announced making his top priority not scouting reports or practice schedules, but simply keeping the Nittany Lions intact.
A reduction in scholarships and a four-year postseason ban are among the sanctions, so potentially crippling that some critics – some of the same ones pushing O’Brien for top coaching honors – have suggested they were worse than shutting down football entirely for at least a season.
O’Brien never believed it. He knew that playing a full slate was always a better alternative than sitting on the sidelines, even when they were 0-2.
So far, he’s right, even as the pressure never lets up.
“It’s kind of like drinking water from a fire hose,” O’Brien said. “Something happens new every day. You have to budget your time and do the best that you can. We have a great staff here, a veteran staff that has done an excellent job of coaching these kids, and that really helps when you’re a brand new head coach.
“It helps to have a great staff.”
The sordid Sandusky case has caused such grief for the program over the last 11 months, that not even a winning record and victories over nationally ranked teams could begin to make a dent on the black cloud that hovers over campus. Don’t forget, O’Brien might not even have a full roster until 2020.
But while tough times certainly loom in Happy Valley, for this week, for the now, there is every reason for the Nittany Lions to feel good about the season’s first two months.
And as much he downplays his impact, O’Brien can take credit for the solid start.
“I knew that we had a really tough, resilient group of players and a good coaching staff,” he said. “It had nothing to do with me. It’s about the players and coaching staff here doing a good job of coming together and playing well.”