- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Penn State senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill knew about the rumblings last year that Urban Meyer might be interested in succeeding Joe Paterno. He noticed when Meyer attended Nittany Lions practices as part of his job as an ESPN analyst.
"We heard the rumors," Hill said Tuesday. "But you never know what's true and what's not."
Well, this much we know is true: Both Penn State and Ohio State ended up with the right coaches at the right time.
Just try to name two better offseason coaching hires than Meyer and Bill O'Brien. They enter Saturday's game in State College, Pa., as two of the leading candidates for national coach of the year awards, and not even NCAA probation has slowed them down in their first year on the job.
Both schools got it right by going away from tradition.
Meyer was a no-brainer hire, an Ohio native with a pair of BCS championships and an undefeated season at Utah under his belt. Yet his arrival meant a departure from Ohio State's traditionally conservative style of play on offense, made famous by Woody Hayes and, more recently, Jim Tressel. Unlike the buttoned-down, senatorial Tressel, Meyer is a rock-star coach who's not afraid to give very blunt assessments of his team and players in the media.
Penn State's success was built on the loyalty of one man, Paterno. For decades, Nittany Lions fans speculated on who would succeed JoePa, often zeroing in on former assistants. Instead, in part because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the school hired a guy in O'Brien with no previous ties to Penn State.
The choice was a bold one in that O'Brien had never been a head coach at any level. He'd gone largely unnoticed as an offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and Duke before deciding to work his way up the New England Patriots ladder. Yes, he'd gained attention as the Patriots' quarterbacks coach and eventually the play-caller for one of the NFL's best offenses. But former Patriots assistants haven't always worked out in their new gigs, and the last ex-New England offensive coordinator to land a major-college head-coaching job is known more for his spectacular failures than his early achievements.
O'Brien also had to deal with unprecedented NCAA sanctions handed down this summer, along with the loss of 12 players who transferred and 18 who left the program since the end of last season. Yet here are the Nittany Lions surging, not sagging. They have won five straight games and seem to be getting better each week, including last week's dominant 38-14 win at Iowa.
O'Brien -- who turned 43 today -- has transformed an offense that had grown stagnant and stale under Paterno into a modern, versatile attack that keeps defenses guessing. Senior Matt McGloin has blossomed from arguably the Big Ten's worst quarterback a year ago into the league's best traditional-style passer. O'Brien has instilled an aggressiveness in the players, going for it on fourth down more than any other team in the country.
I asked Hill, the Lions' star defensive lineman, what he thought was the biggest attribute O'Brien gave to Penn State.
"A winning mentality," Hill said. "He wants to win, and he wants to win now. There was no coming in and just getting your feet wet and trying to work into things. He brought in a game plan and what he wants to do with this program, and he's doing everything he's wanted to do."
The same could be said for Meyer, whose spread offense has found its perfect match in sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. The team is averaging 39 points per game and eclipsed 50 points in back-to-back games earlier this month.
But the 8-0 Buckeyes have also had to hang on for dear life in close wins over California, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue, the latter of which took a near-miracle to send the game into overtime last week. Thinned by injury, the defense is hanging on by a thread. Though not as severe as Penn State's, Meyer has had to deal with some of his own roster issues.
Meyer was asked this week how he would grade the job he and his coaching staff have done so far this season.
"I think pretty good," he said. "I wouldn't grade it an A‑plus or something like that. I'll evaluate that at the end of the year. But Ohio State, we've certainly got to get healthy and develop and recruit and get going. There's a lot of holes that need to be filled and enhanced."
The winner of this week's game could have a leg up in the Big Ten coach of the year race. O'Brien remains the favorite and will likely take it home if Penn State finishes strong, just because of everything his team has had to endure. But if Meyer can lead Ohio State to an 11-1 or 12-0 record a year after it went 6-7, he'll make a very strong case as well.
Regardless of who wins that honor, they both rank as the top offseason hires in college football. And neither team would trade its coach for anybody else right now.