Penn State University and the football community had an absolutely dreadful start to the new year in 2012. The Jerry Sandusky scandal was completely broken wide open by January, and more was coming out about the terror he imposed on those children throughout the years. Then on January 22, 2012 longtime head coach Joe Paterno died from complications from lung cancer after a short battle with the disease. Everything that alumni, faculty, current and former players had known was now tattered and seemingly irrelevant compared to the monstrosities the children Jerry Sandusky abused had gone through.
Penn State needed someone to step in and take the reins for a reeling community and football team that still was trying to piece together everything that had unfolded over the previous few months. The coaching staff for the football team had been together for a long time, and assistant coach/defensive coordinator Tom Bradley had taken over for the remainder of the 2011-2012 season. Some alumni and former players gave Bradley praise and ultimately hoped he would be given his dream opportunity to coach the Nittany Lions that he loved, but that wasn't going to happen. Even though Bradley had no direct connection to Sandusky or Paterno's role in the scandal, him being within the coaching staff for almost 20 years with both of them sealed his fate.
The Letterman's Club, which is a group of Penn State football players dating all the way back to the fifties were backing a former player or PSU connection as the next head coach. Some names being thrown out at the time were Al Golden, Urban Meyer (who's daughter attends Penn State), Gary Patterson and others. Even though Penn Stater's realized that their brand and image had forever been changed, they still were hoping a big name coach with the credentials would be willing to come in and restore the program back to its former glory. The Board of Trustees didn't heed much of the information they were hearing from former players, and decided to bring in someone that wasn't even remotely close to the Penn State family. Their decision ended up shocking everyone in the college football industry.
Bill O'Brien was hired as Penn State's 15th football coach in program history and was introduced at a press conference on January 7th, 2012, just weeks before Paterno would pass away. The only connection to anyone in the Penn State family was with Paterno of all people. They both are alumni and former football players at Brown University, where O'Brien played linebacker and defensive end. O'Brien's no-nonsense attitude and positive influence of his players played an important role in the Board of Trustees decision to offer O'Brien the head coaching position.
O'Brien's influence on the players who decided to stay was visible at the very beginning. Nine players ended up leaving the program without penalty from the NCAA, including starting running back Silas Redd and receiver Justin Brown. But other players continued to show their support in Penn State and O'Brien, and spring practice showed that their was much enthusiasm and optimism towards the season opener against Ohio University. Craig Fitzgerald was brought in from South Carolina University as the new strength and conditioning coach, where he received high praise and accolades for his work there. Coupled with a brand new, state of the art lifting facility for the players, many players bought into Fitzgerald and O'Brien's system as summer started.
The season that Penn State produced was surprising, uplifting and an amazing success story considering the penalties and losses they received from the NCAA. They finished the season 8-4 after starting 0-2 with consecutive losses to Ohio University, and a gut-wrenching loss to Virginia by one point. They beat Wisconsin in the season finale at Beaver Stadium in overtime, which capped Bill O'Brien's first season off dramatically, and gave the senior's an everlasting memory to their rollercoaster ride they had over the past year.
Penn State has always been known as a run-happy offense that will grind out yards on the ground rather than opt for a pass-oriented offense. But, O'Brien was coming off of a short but nonetheless positive working experience with future Hall of Famer's Bill Belicheck and Tom Brady. He infused what he learned from his coaching at Duke, Georgia Tech, Brown and the Patriots into the PSU offense, and the results were tremendous. Allen Robinson, who wasn't even on the radar in spring practice as a viable receiving target, led the Big Ten in receiving yards this year with 1018 yards. Zach Zwinak, who was the starting running back for the Nittany Lions after Bill Belton went down with injury, finished with 1000 rushing yards on the season. His thousand rushing yard effort was more than Silas Redd had for the year at his new school, USC.
O'Brien had the offense running nicely after they rebounded from their first two losses of the season, and they ended 5th in total offense in the Big Ten at the end of the year. They averaged 29 points per game and 407 total yards of offense---both much higher numbers than the past couple years. Matt McGloin, a former walk-on for Paterno finished his career at PSU in amazing fashion. He was second in the Big Ten conference in pass yards per game, broke the single season yardage and touchdowns record and won the national walk-on of the year award following the close of the regular season. Not bad at all for a first year head coach and a revamped offensive unit.
The defensive unit under new coordinator Ted Roof played some inspired football led by senior linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Penn State finished first in the conference in sacks and yards allowed per game. Nationally they ranked 20th in the nation in points allowed per game at 19.1. The defense didn't lose many players at all from the sanctions imposed on the program, and under Roof they established themselves as the premier defense in the Big Ten in 2012.
Due to O'Brien's success in such a polarizing time in Penn State with everything that had unraveled, he garnered a lot of rumors at the end of the year regarding his coaching future with the program. Other schools with rich traditional pedigree came knocking, but even today O'Brien has insisted his heart lies in Happy Valley with the Nittany Lions. With all that has happened O'Brien wasn't looking to come in and replace a legend. He was simply trying to come in and be the next role model and mentor for a bunch of players that needed it most in a time of crisis. As the pain and healing continues for the Penn State community, O'Brien is an exemplary example of a leader helping his peers push through the storm.