STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Strolling through Penn State’s Lasch Football Building on Saturday afternoon, there were new sights to behold for Bill O’Brien.
The Nittany Lions’ wall of All-America honorees featured fresh photos, and the state-of-the-art nutrition bar next to the team’s weight room didn’t even exist when O’Brien last stepped foot in Happy Valley.
Much has changed since O’Brien left Penn State over four years ago, but Saturday marked O’Brien’s first return back inside the football building since he left to become the Houston Texans’ coach in January 2014. As he walked in the building ahead of taking in a spring practice, the memories of his two seasons flooded back.
“I just told the high school coaches, I said relative to college football this is football heaven,” O’Brien said. He was at Penn State as a guest speaker for the program’s annual chalk talk. “You come through this building, you see the lettermen wall, you see the guys coming out of meetings, all the changes that James [Franklin] has made in the building are incredible. … This is what it’s all about. I have great memories here.”
No players on the current Penn State roster played under O’Brien, and the program’s trajectory, complete with a Big Ten title, Rose Bowl appearance and Fiesta Bowl victory skyrocketed since he helped hold the program together during its darkest days.
Bill O’Brien on his return visit to Penn State: pic.twitter.com/JdhS7Xp8WE
— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) April 7, 2018
Keeping Penn State afloat during the sanction era is something O’Brien will always be proud of and the “2012” plastered on the facade below the suites inside Beaver Stadium is a permanent reminder of the players and the coach who defied the odds to keep Penn State football alive.
Many of those relationships, both with players, coaches and personnel, are ones O’Brien still maintains. Players such as quarterback Christian Hackenberg and tight end Adam Breneman, ones whose commitments helped reaffirm that top prospects would still stay at Penn State despite scholarship limitations and bowl bans, have reconnected with O’Brien whether at NFL events or in Breneman’s case at the Senior Bowl.
Figuring out how to build those relationships during his first head coaching job is something O’Brien learned at Penn State and took with him to Houston.
“The other thing I learned here was about character,” he said. “I learned about if you have guys who have great character who are mentally tough, who are physically tough that love the game, love to practice, you’re going to win games. I think that’s something that I’ve tried to carry into Houston. Having guys with high character and maybe a guy runs a 4.2 and this guy over here runs a 4.4, but this guy who runs a 4.2 is always in trouble, but this guy who runs a 4.4 is a guy that works hard, wants to try and get better every day, that’s what we had here. That’s what we had here. We had a bunch of guys that loved to practice, that loved Penn State.”
Penn State’s quick return to national prominence in the post-sanction era is something O’Brien watched from afar since his departure from college football. The man whose office was next to his during a coaching stint at Maryland ushered Penn State into a new era without missing a beat.
Franklin reached out to O’Brien ahead of accepting the Penn State job, and O’Brien gave him the lay of the land in terms of where the program stood with personnel and what challenges still remained. The coach whose high energy and tireless work ethic stood out to O’Brien in 2003-2004 when they worked together at Maryland ended up being the perfect fit at Penn State.
“He was very smart. Very energetic. Had a great energy, was good with the players. Smart in a lot of different areas,” O’Brien said of Franklin. “Could coach, could recruit. Hard worker, very hard worker. Up early, stayed late and a good personality. I think whatever your personality is you have to have something to be able to be a head coach and I think he had all those traits and obviously he started that at Vanderbilt and now what he’s done here has been fantastic.”
Seeing Franklin continue to build upon the foundation that O’Brien and so many of the names of All-America honorees etched on the walls of the football building worked to try and hold together is something O’Brien kept tabs on from afar.
The success that’s quickly followed here, for a program that has been referred to as a “sleeping giant” didn’t shock O’Brien.
“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, a Division I-AA program, whatever the word is for that now,” he said. “We all looked at each other that were here and looked at this wall and look at the All-Americans and knew like that was never going to happen. … We had the right people in place to bridge that gap to where they are now.”