O’Brien can’t be blamed for choices

Bill O’Brien didn’t sign up to be a liar. He signed up to be a football coach.

He also didn’t sign up to be a savior. He signed up to be a football coach.

Regardless of where O’Brien spends this fall – Penn State, Houston, or somewhere else like Detroit, it’s because he signed up to be a football coach.

At early press time on Tuesday afternoon, he was still officially with Penn State despite ESPN’s report that his joining the Houston Texans was “imminent.”

It’s not O’Brien’s fault, nor anyone else’s in his profession, that the annual time for him to commit to his future is the same time he asks high school football recruits to commit to theirs. But as long as sports teams make changes toward the future at the end of their seasons, with college football openings created at the end of November and pro football openings created at the end of December, all while national letter-of-intent day waits in early February, this contradiction will always exist.

O’Brien, and other college coaches, have no choice but to spend December and January on their heaviest recruiting, even as other schools and teams recruit them. The same goes for assistants. They also ask high schoolers to commit to one place, all while they might get an opportunity to better themselves and their families elsewhere.

Does that make coaches liars if they leave during that process? No. Their job is to sell the school and its program. Of course, they’re also selling themselves, but that’s no different than how these players will be treated after graduation outside of sports.

An 18-year old graduating high school senior committing himself to a college because of the football coach is hardly different than a 22-year old graduating senior committing himself to a job because of the boss. People and situations can change, and risks lurk everywhere.

O’Brien fits into all of this. Just because he has one job doesn’t preclude him from looking for another. He owes recruits and players nothing more than an opportunity to compete at Penn State while he is there. He’s also backed into saying he’ll stay for a recruit’s career, whether he believes it or not, whether he wants to be or not. His competitors in the Big Ten and beyond will not only say the same thing, they’ll use his words against him should he say something else. This sort of game theory isn’t ideal, but it’s the world of college sports and even the most morally sound coach is bound to it.

And what if O’Brien really does want to stay 20 years in Happy Valley? He doesn’t know who will be Penn State’s president or athletic director next year. Dr. Rodney Erickson is retiring as president this year, which he said he’d do when he assumed the job in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The school’s board of trustees still hasn’t announced a replacement. That person may well want another athletic director than Dave Joyner, who hired O’Brien but also assumed the job from the board of directors in the midst of the Sandusky scandal.

Who’s to say a different president and athletic director will show any loyalty toward O’Brien? Sure, O’Brien deserves every ounce of credit for saving the program once NCAA sanctions hit, but the next president and/or athletic director may not view him so favorably.

So who could blame O’Brien for leaving? Who could blame him for staying?

It’s not just the way of Penn State, it’s the way of the world.