- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Speaking on the Big Ten coaches' conference call Tuesday, Penn State coach Bill O'Brien didn't sound as happy as you might expect him to be.
The NCAA had just announced that it would restore scholarships for the Nittany Lions beginning next season, helping put O'Brien and his program back on a more even footing with their peers. O'Brien certainly was pleased with that decision, though it didn't do anything to help him win games this season. Like any football coach, he's focused on preparing for the next game, which will be Oct. 5 at Indiana.
"It doesn’t have any effect on this year, so we’ve got to immediately get back to work on Indiana and try to improve," O'Brien said. "Today is definitely more about the future. It’s about next year, and the year after and the year after that."
That's true. What's also true is that the future of Penn State football is inexorably tied to that of O'Brien. And Tuesday's announcement made it far more likely that O'Brien will be sticking around in State College, Pa., for a while.
Remember, O'Brien took the job before he knew of the crippling sanctions the NCAA would levy against the school. He has been coaching with one hand tied behind his back ever since, with depth issues on his current team and fewer scholarships to offer on the recruiting trail. He has done a remarkable job with what he has been given, but you couldn't blame O'Brien for wanting an easier situation.
His success in the NFL as the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, along with his obvious ability as a playcaller at Penn State in a pro-style system, makes O'Brien a sought-after commodity at the next level. The Eagles and Browns both talked to O'Brien about their coaching vacancies last year, and they won't be the last ones to have his agent's number on speed dial in the offseason.
Eventually, O'Brien is likely to return to the NFL. The money and the opportunity to coach the best players are just too much to turn down. The Eagles are paying former Oregon coach Chip Kelly a reported $32.5 million over five years. O'Brien might have even more leverage because of his NFL background, and despite its many resources, Penn State would have trouble matching that kind of money.
But O'Brien and his family are also comfortable in State College and seem to enjoy the college lifestyle. What Tuesday's ruling does is provide light at the end of the tunnel and more reason to see this job through. Instead of having to wait until 2018 to have a full roster of players, O'Brien can have as many as 80 scholarship players in the 2015 season and the full 85 in 2016. He no longer has to be ultraselective about which players he recruits while scouring the region for promising walk-ons. He can offer more prospects, and Penn State can better survive the inevitable recruiting misses.
There will still be some gaps in the junior and senior classes. But as it stands now, Penn State should at least field a competitive team in 2016, the first year the Lions are eligible for the postseason. And it remains quite possible that the NCAA could reduce the bowl ban and let Penn State play in one as soon as next season, though there are no guarantees.
O'Brien can now see the top of the mountain he must climb. Whether it's 2016 or earlier, the first time the Nittany Lions get to a bowl game will be a special moment that he shouldn't want to miss. Freed from the toughest part of the sanctions, O'Brien could make Penn State a Big Ten and even national title contender again before too long.
The NFL will always be there and it will remain tempting. But O'Brien now has far less reason to jump ship than he did before today.