By Spike Eskin
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Penn State’s football team has performed well above expectations this season, and most of that credit has to go to its head coach, Bill O’Brien.
Aside from the obvious negative publicity the Penn State has endured over the last year, the program was slapped with crippling sanctions from the NCAA, and lost many of their best players before the season even began. O’Brien has coached the team to respectability, along with a 6-4 record that many expected would look much worse.
There is speculation that the job O’Brien has done will make him a prime target for NFL teams in need of a coach after this season.
New Jaguars owner Shahid Khan was very impressed with O’Brien last year — O’Brien was New England’s offensive coordinator at the time — and sources said the job could have been his. O’Brien took on a unique challenge at Penn State instead, stepping into the turmoil of Joe Paterno’s firing at the scandal-filled program. He has galvanized that community both by his steadying presence and by turning around what had been a much-maligned offense before his arrival.
Some wonder if O’Brien would leave the school so soon. But it’s worth noting that while assurances were made to O’Brien upon his hiring that the team would not face any NCAA discipline, the program was instead hit hard. Penn State was banned from postseason play including bowl games for four years, will lose 10 initial scholarships given to first-year NCAA athletes for four years beginning in 2013 and will drop its total number of scholarships from 85 to 65 for four years beginning in 2014. The university was also placed on five years’ probation. O’Brien’s contract was extended in the aftermath of those sanctions. But with Jacksonville (1-7), among many others, possibly exploring new coaching options, several executives said privately they would not be surprised if NFL teams reached out to O’Brien again.
Along with Jacksonville, Cleveland, Kansas City, Carolina, Dallas, San Diego, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Buffalo and Arizona are among the spots that prospective coaches and general managers are analyzing for potential firings, and there are only so many qualified candidates to go around. The quality of resume that both Kelly and O’Brien would bring to the table is seen as very attractive to NFL power brokers.
The opportunity to bring Penn State back to what it once was is a great one for O’Brien, who could have a job for life if he’s able to finish what he started. But the NFL is the NFL, and it’d be difficult to believe he wouldn’t at least listen to what teams had to offer.