Commentary

Everybody's coach of the year

Originally Published: November 29, 2012
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Bill O'BrienRandy Litzinger/Icon SMIDespite unprecedented obstacles, Bill O'Brien led Penn State to an 8-4 record that felt like 12-0.

When 10-year-old Jack O'Brien sat in the stands at Penn State this season and heard 90,000 people chanting his dad's name, he thought it was music and danced in his wheelchair.

When Bill O'Brien himself heard it, he wanted to go hide under the bench.

"It's soooo embarrassing," O'Brien grumbles. "I hate it. I wish they'd chant a player's name."

O'Brien will just have to suck it up. Because what he did this season at Penn State will be talked about until the Allegheny Mountains crumble.

Into the teeth of the worst college football scandal in American history, into a sex-scandal mess the National Guard couldn't have cleaned up, Bill O'Brien pulled off a football miracle: He made you forget Penn State was radioactive.

O'Brien went 8-4 in the middle of nuclear winter. He kept popping open umbrellas while it rained bowling balls. He made a numb town feel again. That's why he's either the coach of the year in college football this season or you melt down the trophy.

He hates that, too. "I'd vote for Urban Meyer."

What does Notre Dame's Brian Kelly think? "Absolutely -- it's Bill O'Brien."

Imagine what O'Brien was up against: The town was in flames, its exit ramps clogged with cars, sirens going hoarse, and here was O'Brien, trying to open a fireworks stand.

Former players were incensed that the school hadn't hired a Penn State man. All-American linebacker LaVar Arrington seethed: "If they're done with us, I'm done with them."

Meanwhile, across town, the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse trial was festering.

Welcome to Happy Valley!

"People told me, 'Just know what you're getting into,'" O'Brien says, "but I didn't know the NCAA was going to come in here and do what they did."

Four years: no bowls. Four years: 10 fewer scholarships. Fine: $60M. Twelve players, good ones, bolted before the first practice.

But O'Brien got to work writing his How to Coach in a Tsunami handbook.

First, he convinced "probably about five to eight pretty big contributors" who had their bags packed to unpack.

Then he put names on the backs of Penn State jerseys for the first time in forever. Why? "To let people know the names of the kids who stuck it out."

Then he got college guys to come to 5:30 a.m. workouts. He fixed the weight room and pumped hip-hop into it. He turned a walk-on QB named Matt McGloin into the surprise star of the season. He watched his best player, RB Silas Redd, flee to USC, then won one more game than Redd did. He stuck by his green kicker, Sam Ficken, who had blown the Virginia game, then watched Ficken pipe the overtime winner over Wisconsin on Saturday. It was the Nittany Lions' eighth win in the final 10 games.

All this with a team The New York Times said in July wouldn't be competitive again for a decade. Urban Meyer? Please. Urban Meyer didn't walk into the last day of Saigon. O'Brien did. This man did more rebuilding in one year than Gen. George Marshall.

O'Brien, 43, still thinks Joe Paterno's old office is miles too big -- "You could putt and chip in this thing!" he complains -- but he has filled it. And not just the office -- the job. Imagine that: A legend had his desk for 46 straight years before him, and hardly anybody mentions him now.

No wonder Nittanies started wearing "Billieve" T-shirts. Yeah, O'Brien hates those, too.

"Oh, man. My kids have them, but my wife knows not to let them wear them around me."

But State College P-A believes in O'Brien because he believed in it. It's not lost on anybody in town that it had unwittingly come to symbolize the sexual abuse of young boys. Yet here were Bill and Colleen O'Brien moving to town with their two boys -- severely disabled Jack and healthy Michael, 7.

"We wanted to let everybody know we were comfortable raising two boys here," Colleen says. "We've tried to make a statement that it wasn't the place that was responsible, it was this one sick person. It was one man."

Jack figures into all of this. When he was born, "It was hard on Bill," she says. "Here is this coach, this athlete, who'd love nothing more than to teach a son how to play sports. And that wasn't going to happen. But it's also been great for Bill. No matter if he wins or loses, Jack is just so happy to see him. Jack takes his mind off football."

Maybe that's where all this comes from. Maybe that's how Bill O'Brien sees pots of gold where everybody else sees potholes. Maybe that's how O'Brien became the patron saint of lost causes.

Last week, just before that final game versus Wisconsin, Penn State did something chilling and emotional and real. It put the 2012 Nittany Lions on the ring at Beaver Stadium that honors Penn State's greatest teams.

And why not? O'Brien's Lions are as unforgettable as any, and twice as important, especially to their coach. You could see that after the game, when he could hardly speak.

O'Brien has eight more years left on his deal and, despite what you hear about the NFL, his agent said this week that the coach isn't going anywhere. Somebody cue the chants.

O'Brien might want to plug his ears, but, to Penn State, it must sound like a symphony.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com