"I feel like I'm a mentally tough guy right now. I feel like I'm the right guy." -- Penn State head football coach Bill O'Brien on the day he was hired, 1/8/2013
Selecting the recipient of the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award for the best head coach of a given college football season has generally been a pretty formulaic endeavor.
Since the inception of the award in 1986, which honors the late Alabama head coach, every year it has gone to a coach whose team lost no more than two games (including bowl results). In most seasons, the winner has been undefeated or with one loss. Since the start of the BCS Era in 1998, in all but one season (1998, in fact) the winner has coached a team who has gone to a BCS bowl.
In short, the award has largely recognized on-field excellence.
Fans see things like 13-0 or 12-1 and wins in BCS bowls and it's all very easy to process as "excellence." In 2012, however, the definition of the word was recalibrated as the Bear Bryant Award was handed out Thursday night at the downtown Houston Hyatt to Penn State's first year head coach Bill O'Brien.
On the surface, O'Brien's 8-4 record was, by Bryant standards, fairly pedestrian. In fact, the teams coached by the other five finalists all accomplished more on the field than Penn State in 2012:
- James Franklin of Vanderbilt went 9-4 with a bowl win over North Carolina State, Vandy's most impressive season since sometime before the first automobile was manufactured.
- Urban Meyer of Ohio State went 12-0, the only undefeated team in the country.
- Stanford's David Shaw finished with an 12-2 record, a Pac-12 title, and a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
- Bill Snyder of Kansas State led his team to an 11-2 record and a Fiesta Bowl berth.
- Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin finished the season 11-2 in their frist season in the SEC with a resounding 41-13 trouncing of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
Deserving candidates, all of them. However, they all happened to walk into a season where O'Brien accomplished the immeasurable.
Different coaching jobs are difficult for various reasons -- academic restrictions, geography, massive rebuilding, gauntlet level schedules. To evaluate the job Bill O'Brien did at Penn State in 2012 requires drilling well beyond the 8-4 record and wrapping your brain around the following obstacles to success:
- When O'Brien was hired, the school had just begun digging out from underneath the figurative rubble of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal. Right or wrong, the Penn State name, the Penn State brand had become synonymous with corruption, duplicitousness, and (no easy way to say this) child rape. O' Brien was tasked immediately with hitting the recruiting trail saddled with that image of the school.
- Following in the footsteps of a legend (albeit a tarnished one) in Joe Paterno, O'Brien ran into heavy resistance from many of Paterno's old players who were bitter about Paterno taking the fall in the midst of the scandal and who wanted to see a "Paterno guy" hired. Most notable was probably Lavar Arrington, who tweeted: ""I'm done all my PSU stuff will be down before obriens introduction! We are! No more for me!"
- In July, the NCAA punished Penn State for their deplorable cover up of Sandusky's crimes by levying the harshest sanctions since SMU's death penalty on the Nittany Lions, ripping away four years of bowl bids, dozens of scholarships over the next four years, and fines amounting into the tens of millions of dollars. O'Brien was now officially coaching a team who would have no post season hopes until 2016.
- Additionally, the NCAA opened the door for any then current Penn State players to leave for other schools with no requirements to sit out a season. It was essentially open season on Penn State's roster as stories of coaches from other schools hanging out in State College became the norm. In the end, ten players opted to leave, including 2011 leading rusher Silas Redd.
So amidst a fractured community, a sea of civil lawsuits, a depleted roster, and no hopes for a postseason berth, O'Brien set out to chart a course for the next era in Penn State football. After losing the first two games of the season, O'Brien went on to lead the Nittany Lions to wins in eight of the next ten, far exceeding expectations (for many, expectations barely cracked the five win barrier).
After the season, the NFL came calling and O'Brien made a statement about his commitment level to seeing the rebuilding of this tarnished program through to the end (or at least through another season) by returning for the 2013 season.
Next season, the scholarship reductions kick in heavier (going from 10 to 20 scholarships reduced), the sugar high of the first season wears off, and O'Brien's rebuilding and talent evaluation skills will be put to the ultimate test. It's quite possible that for quite some time, years to come, 2012 will be O'Brien's high water mark.
But on Thursday night, for the first time in a long time, Penn State could once again celebrate its football program and be proud of its head coach.
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Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.