Four years later, the word “surprised” still makes Bill O’Brien wince.
Oh, he had plenty of reasons to be caught off guard by events during his two seasons as Penn State’s head coach. Dropped into an unprecedented situation of scandal and sanctions, O’Brien had new causes of alarm to deal with on a daily basis.
But if any of it ever truly stunned him, he never admitted it in public, quickly shooting down any mention of the word.
Fitting, then, that nothing had changed in that regard during his first visit to the Nittany Lions’ Lasch Building headquarters since the start of 2014.
Asked if he was surprised how quickly Penn State was able to rebuild into a national title contender after the NCAA sanctions were lifted, O’Brien reflexively scowled for a moment.
“No,” O’Brien told reporters in State College on Saturday. “I knew that once the sanctions were lifted … I knew that in time, with the support and the type of program that coach (Joe) Paterno had built here, that this place was going to be back. That it was going to be some tough times going through it, but in the end, it was going to be back battling for national championships. You can see it now.
“All of us that were here, players and coaches, we still keep in touch. And we’re all very proud of what’s going on here now.”
O’Brien has kept tabs on the Lions since he left to take over the Houston Texans, where he will return for a fifth season this fall after receiving a contract extension.
So when his successor, James Franklin, asked him to come back to Happy Valley to be the keynote speaker for the program’s annual coaches clinic, O’Brien said yes, coming into town on Friday night to have dinner with alums Matt Millen and Paul Suhey.
“I just told the high school coaches, ‘Relative to college football, this is football heaven.’ … I have great memories here,” O’Brien said. “Nothing but good feelings about Penn State.”
O'Brien, Franklin have long relationship: It helped, of course, that O’Brien has long had a relationship with Franklin, as the two men used to have neighboring offices and houses when they were both assistants at Maryland some 15 years ago.
When Franklin became a serious candidate at Penn State, he dialed up O’Brien to quiz him on the program’s infrastructure, needs and challenges.
O’Brien said he was confident even then that Franklin would be able to build on the surprising success of O’Brien’s 2012 and 2013 squads, winning the Big Ten just three years later and posting back-to-back top-10 finishes.
“Oh, yeah. He was very smart. Very energetic. Had a great energy with the players,” O’Brien said of Franklin. “Smart in a lot of different areas. He could coach, could recruit. Hard worker. Very hard worker. Up early. Stayed late. And a good personality. … And I think he had all those traits. Obviously he started that at Vanderbilt, and what he’s done here has been fantastic.”
History was key: Plenty has changed since O’Brien’s last visit to Lasch, which is still undergoing extensive upgrades that both O’Brien and Franklin had urged.
But for him, it was the program’s history that enabled it all to happen.
“Look, there was a time when the sanctions first came out that they said this program would never come back. There were people that said this program would basically be a Division II or (FCS) program. … And I think we all looked at each other, looked at this (lettermen’s) wall, looked at the All-Americans (portraits) and knew that was never going to happen.
“Something terrible had happened here, but things were going to be moving forward, and we had the right people in place to bridge that gap to where they are now.”
Spring update: As for the 2018 Lions squad, the Blue-White Game is two weeks away. Some position battles are beginning to shake out, while others won’t truly begin until preseason camp opens in August.
►At linebacker, prized recruit Micah Parsons is now working at the weak-side spot to help better acclimate to the switch from defensive end.
“Micah’s doing really well,” Franklin said during the week. “Obviously the position is new to him. He can run, and he has really good instincts. Little things like stance and start, he hasn’t found a stance he’s comfortable in yet. It sounds crazy, but that’s more challenging than you’d think, so you’re not false-stepping.”
“But when he makes a decision, he can flat out run by people. There are times where he’ll backdoor the play and go two gaps back, and you really shouldn’t do that. You’re saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Then he makes a tackle for loss in the backfield, so it’s like, ‘No, no, no … yes, yes, yes.’”
►At safety, the two most veteran players have the early lead in the competition to replace Marcus Allen and Troy Apke. That would be Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor, whom Franklin said would be his starters if they had to play a game this week.
Also in the mix will be converted cornerback Lamont Wade, Jonathan Sutherland and Ayron Monroe, who has been out while recovering from offseason surgery.
►Tight end remains a question mark, as both Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers have spent practices in light-blue limited-contact jerseys. That has led to plenty of reps for redshirt sophomore Danny Dalton and true freshman Zack Kuntz.
►Even more open is the kicking job. With only Carson Landis on campus this spring, the Lions won’t know who will win the spot until a group headlined by scholarship recruit Jake Pinegar arrives in the summer.
“We really don’t have a competition to be honest with you,” Franklin said. “I think we have some competition at snapper even though (Wallenpaupack grad Kyle) Vasey did a very good job for us last year. At kicker, we got Landis. We got one kicker right now. Obviously I think (punter Blake) Gillikin can do it, and he did it in high school, but we prefer not to do it.”