Penn State Should Pay Bill O’Brien Before Somebody Else Does

Against tremendous odds, football coach has made PSU relevant again, and saved the program.

Penn State's Beaver Stadium

(FULL DISCLOSURE: The author is a proud graduate of the University of Michigan, and he wasn’t very happy Saturday night.)

Let’s face it; any time a team loses to Indiana by 20, it’s not a good thing. But a Vegas sharpie knew something in advance of Penn State’s remarkable, four-OT marathon victory over Michigan Saturday in Delirious Valley. The betting line opened at Michigan minus one, an extremely small number for an unbeaten team–albeit a squad that almost lost to Akron–against a rival that had dropped two of three, including the aforementioned double-sawbuck debacle against the Hoosiers.

But when the “White Out” had lifted, and the Wolverines’ kicker had stopped missing field goals, PSU had earned the kind of victory that can catapult a maturing program into the national discussion. Or, in Penn State’s case, into the national discussion again.

The biggest thing to come out of the victory, other than Michigan’s crying need to upgrade its special teams, is that Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner must find another couple million dollars (a year, if necessary) to stuff into coach Bill O’Brien’s pockets. Once the next NFL coaching replacement festival begins, the former New England offensive coordinator and QBs coach is going to be a pretty popular guy. O’Brien resisted all entreaties after last year, but unless he is compensated like an SEC emperor–or Ohio State overlord Urban Meyer–it’s entirely possible that he might conclude that his work at PSU is finished and head back to the big leagues.

No one in State College could possibly be angry with O’Brien for making such a move. If he left, his two-year tenure would be always remembered with great fondness, and he would have a place of honor in the school’s football tradition. But just imagine if he stays another two years. Or six. Or 10. It’s becoming more and more apparent that O’Brien is a great leader and top-notch football mind. He has taken a program that was kicked in the teeth by an asinine NC2A probationary sentence and created a sense of purpose and excitement around it. Again, getting walloped by Indiana wasn’t exactly part of the script, and losing at home to UCF didn’t make the alumni smile. The important thing is that through the highs and lows, O’Brien has kept the whole thing moving forward. That is evident.

Now, it’s time to keep the momentum going. When shoe, camp and TV/radio dough is considered, O’Brien is earning about $3.2 million this season, a pretty good number. Thanks to a quirk in the new contract he signed last summer, his compensation drops next year, before it rises in 2015 and ’16. In all, he’s getting about an average of $3.2 mil a season from 2013-16, according to That’s good, but it’s not as much as Meyer makes ($4.4 million per) or Brady Hoke earns ($3.25 mil annually) at Michigan. It’s even less than what Kirk Ferentz is making in Iowa, and when was the last time the Hawkeyes mattered?

If Penn State wants to keep O’Brien around, it will have to get him up into the $4 million per year range. Some may balk at the idea, since losing by 20 to Indiana isn’t usually the kind of thing that gets you a raise. Dropping a home decision to UCF doesn’t generally send one’s boss scrambling to the safe to find some extra cash, either.

O’Brien’s value to the Penn State program can’t be measured in just wins and losses. His steady stewardship has allowed fans to be proud once again of their program and school, and the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium Saturday was as wild as any during the school’s top-five days. That’s something that transcends the record. Sure, O’Brien can’t lose to Purdue and Illinois moving forward and expect everybody to stay happy, but he certainly has built something from the rubble of the Sandusky scandal that has helped the school rehabilitate its image, both within its own community and throughout the country.

The win over Michigan wasn’t pretty and certainly could have been a loss if the Wolverines’ kicker would have made one of the three potential game-winners he missed. But he didn’t, and Penn State made the plays it had to, forcing overtime with a great last-minute drive, converting a fourth-down play in the last overtime period and stuffing Michigan’s suddenly conservative offense to force the ill-fated placement attempts.

O’Brien’s task now is to keep some momentum going. The school’s job is to make sure he wants to stay around. Doing that is going to take more money, more years on his contract and better bonus incentives. There are other coaches out there who could come in and be successful if he left, but O’Brien has transcended conventional methods of measuring success.

Penn State has to recognize that and act accordingly.

And fast.

Sucker Punches

• That Nick Foles is one sharp passer, eh? He looked great against the Buccaneers, but let’s not forget that in the two games he played in 2012 against playoff teams, he completed 46.8% of his throws and tossed one TD pass against three interceptions. He’ll likely get the start Sunday against Dallas, while Michael Vick’s cranky hamstring heals some more, and it will be interesting to see how he fares against a team that isn’t going to fire its coach in a couple weeks. (Cowboys owner False Face will likely wait until after the season to dump Jason Garrett.)

• Well, that decision to fire Peter Laviolette three games into the season has paid handsome short-term dividends for the Flyers, hasn’t it? The offense has sprung to life, and the Metropolitan Division is quaking as new coach Craig Berube’s eighth-place club flounders. The team’s problems couldn’t possibly be due to the ill-advised deals made by GM Paul Holmgren, who has Sergei Bobrovsky’s 2012-13 backup in goal and a collection of forwards that has managed all of five goals in six games, could they? Nahhhh.

• You have to love what Jadeveon Clowney is doing at South Carolina. The defensive end, thought by some to be the top overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, didn’t play last week in the Gamecocks’ win over Kentucky, due to strained muscles in his rib cage. That sparked a firestorm fueled by comments by many, including USC head coach Steve Spurrier, about his commitment to the program. Spurrier backed off last week, and Clowney played in the ‘Cocks’ rout of Arkansas, but the junior’s strategy here is great. Since he is getting a disproportionately small cut of the pile of cash he is generating for the school, he’s going to play when he feels like it. Why should he risk his future for something that doesn’t reward him fairly for his contributions? He’s a pioneer in college athletes’ quest for fair compensation, and let’s hope his actions spur the kind of change necessary for a more equitable distribution.

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