Mike Hull finally made his decision. He was gone. Now all he needed was the courage to tell his head coach.
On what he called the toughest afternoon of his career -- Aug. 4, 2012, nearly two weeks after the announcement of unprecedented sanctions against Penn State – Hull spent an hour alone by his locker before gathering the resolve to knock on then-coach Bill O’Brien’s door. "Coach," Hull told him. "I’m not going to stay.”
“I don’t know if I agree with your decision,” Hull remembered O’Brien saying, “but if you've got to go, you've got to go. This is a tough situation. Just sleep on it, and talk to the guys.”
Less than 24 hours later, a day before camp started, he reconsidered.
It was a decision that led to one of the more unique careers in Penn State history, one that spanned a total of five head coaches (two interim, three full time) and one where expectations ranged from a program “as good as dead” in 2012 to a possible Big Ten championship in 2014.
It was a decision that gave PSU a boost for the last three seasons and was responsible -- in part -- for Penn State’s top-ranked rushing defense this season. It’d be difficult to envision that ranking without Hull’s 134 tackles, a full 70 stops more than PSU’s next-leading tackler, a performance that earned Hull the title of Big Ten Linebacker of the Year.
“He’s the undisputed leader and the heart and soul, not just of this defensive unit but the entire team,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “If there’s one guy on defense we couldn’t lose this year, it was him. … If we would’ve lost Mike, it would’ve been a disaster.”
Said former Penn State linebacker and teammate Michael Mauti: “I’m sure he would deflect that sort of praise, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to say they would have made a bowl without him. There are maybe five guys who hung around, defensively, that really kept them in games.”
The Nittany Lions’ defensive MVP was nearly a coin-flip from choosing a different path, an easier road paved with more playing time at Pitt. But he still knew, upon reaffirming his commitment, this wasn’t the Penn State he signed up for.
As a high-schooler, when he plastered PSU posters over his bedroom – with mantras like “All In!” and “Fight On!” – he didn’t dream about playing with fewer scholarships. His mind used to wander between learning from Joe Paterno and playing under longtime assistant Tom Bradley; he never thought he’d play through four defensive coordinators. He expected stability, not the most topsy-turvy time in the Nittany Lions’ 128-year history.
Truthfully, Hull said, if someone told him in high school all that awaited in Happy Valley -- the postseason ban, the Jerry Sandusky child-sex abuse scandal, the number of different schemes and playbooks -- he likely would’ve played elsewhere. Maybe as a linebacker at Pitt or a running back at Stanford. But he stifled a laugh when asked if he ever regretted his decision to remain at Penn State.
“No, no, not at all,” he said, leaning back on a couch in the players’ lounge. “No one would ever want to walk into that situation, but you’re in it. You want to make the best of it. And it’s been as good of a time and a career as I could’ve hoped for -- despite the circumstances.”
Hull wasn’t always so sure, though. No one was. When fans and reporters called to him during a morning pep rally in July 2012, asking aloud if Hull planned to transfer, the linebacker in shorts and a T-shirt simply shot back: “I’m here now.”
He and his father, Tom, who also played under JoePa, didn’t know his next move. They had driven 35 minutes from their hometown of Canonsburg - past suburban parks and the high-rises of Pittsburgh -- to speak with then-Panthers coach Paul Chryst and assistant Bobby Engram. Hull’s mind raced even more after the visit: Pitt’s move to the ACC is good, but the stadium is off-campus and isn’t filled. More playing time is a positive, but I’ll also have to rebuild my reputation. I don’t know really know anyone here and I don’t know the campus, but the facility is OK.
Playing time was the primary selling point, so when Hull met with O’Brien the head man asked Ted Roof, the defensive coordinator at the time, to explain how he planned to use Hull. He wouldn’t start, of course, but he would play. He would be a spark plug of sorts; he would be the No. 4 ‘backer.
After the meeting, Mauti remembered pleading with Hull not to leave: “I was like, ‘Mike, I know it doesn’t seem like it right now. But you’re going to play. We’re going to need you.’ I knew he was going to have his opportunity, and I knew he was going to knock it out of the park.”
Hull didn't need to hear much else. The rest is Penn State history. Thanks in part to Hull – and the decision he made 28 months ago – Penn State has survived, and the program is as stable as it has been since he arrived. The scholarships are back, the postseason ban is over, and the Nittany Lions are trending upward. It might not be the Penn State that Hull expected, but it’s still the one he calls home. It's still the one he's glad he never left.
“In the end I realized that staying isn’t just about me. It’s not about just one player, it’s about a whole program,” Hull said. “It’s about the place I love and always wanted to play for growing up. We stuck together; we brought the best out in each other.
“We helped keep this program alive, and that means a lot to us.”