By Andrew Porter
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Bill O’Brien was introduced as Penn State’s head coach on January 7, 2012. The program was in turmoil, but O’Brien embraced the challenge of rebuilding the image of Penn State football, and in only a year and a half, he couldn’t have done a better job.
In fact, in his first season as head coach at Penn State, O’Brien lead the Nittany Lions to an unexpected 8-4 record, earning Big Ten Coach of The Year praise from the media and coaches, as well as National Coach of The Year recognition from ESPN. Simultaneously, O’Brien was recruiting top players to come to Penn State, despite a limited number of scholarships and a four-year bowl ban due to the sanctions imposed by the NCAA in the summer of 2012, while also fielding interview requests from NFL teams.
One of those recruits was the 6’4”, 212 pound, number one high school quarterback from Virginia, Christian Hackenberg. Hackenberg stayed committed to Penn State, and so did O’Brien. In the eyes of the Penn State fans, students, players, and alumni, O’Brien could do no wrong.
Sophomore QB, Tyler Ferguson, a junior college transfer joined Penn State this summer and is competing with Hackenberg for the starting QB position, highlighted by ESPN’s “Training Days” series that aired last week. Ferguson has more experience with offense because he was able to start practicing earlier than the true freshman, and has taken more reps with the first team offense. O’Brien has given Ferguson the inside track to the starting quarterback position from day one.
“After three days, I would say that Tyler is a little bit ahead, again because he has knowledge of the offense,” O’Brien said.
Yesterday, five days before Penn State’s opener against Syracuse at Met Life Stadium, O’Brien released the depth chart, which displayed the quarterback position as “Ferguson OR Hackenberg.”
Today, four days before the first game of the season, O’Brien addressed the media. Naturally, everyone wanted to know who will start at the all important quarterback position against Syracuse on Saturday afternoon. O’Brien’s answer?
“You’ll find out who the starting quarterback is on the first play against Syracuse.”
And just like that, I found myself questioning a Bill O’Brien decision for the first time since he began his career as head coach in Happy Valley. From energy, to emotion, to leadership, to recruiting, to going for it on fourth down, to winning, to addressing the media, to cadence, to just being an overall genuine human being, O’Brien has been flawless as the head coach at Penn State.
However, his decision to not name a starting QB four days before the first game of the season is flawed.
So why wouldn’t O’Brien name a starting quarterback? One theory is that he doesn’t want to tip his hand to the opposition.
“To me, it’s important going into a first game not really knowing what your opponent is going to do and I don’t think they know what we’re going to do,” O’Brien said today during his press conference.
Both Ferguson and Hackenberg are similar style quarterbacks, around the same size. Penn State’s offense won’t change regardless of which quarterback is running it, and the preparation of the opposition would be unaffected. Seems like a cop-out line from the coach.
To be honest, I have no idea why O’Brien didn’t name a starting quarterback today. It is certainly plausible he is going to go with the true freshman, contrary to leading us into believing Ferguson had the inside track throughout training camp, and O’Brien is simply gun shy about handing the keys over to an 18 year old, true freshman.
Nevertheless, by not naming a starting quarterback, O’Brien is creating even more unwanted attention on a situation already under the microscope by the media, fans, students, players, and even the quarterbacks themselves. The pressure on the starter, whoever it may be, will be even more increased now, and the humiliation for the backup, will be intensified.
From January 7, 2012 to August 26, 2013, O’Brien has been as close to perfect as a coach can get. As fans, he has earned our trust. We owe it to “O’Bie” to let things play out and give him the benefit of the doubt, for sure.
Still, August 27, 2013 raises some eye brows and creates some skepticism within the Penn State fan base, something O’Brien hasn’t had to deal with often.
“The game of football is in many ways for the fans. It’s a spectator sport.,” O’Brien said. “I love the Penn State fans, they’re one of the best parts about this place. I’m not trying to do it to bust anybody’s chops. I just want to do what’s best for Penn State.”
Andrew Porter is the Audio Roadshow Coordinator for SportsRadio WIP, editor and writer for The School Philly, and a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly. You can follow him on Twitter @And_Porter.