O'Brien did his job well enough that Joe Paterno loyalists basically had to keep quiet about O'Brien's lack of ties to the school. That was no given, day one. I'd have bet against it. I remember being in a downtown State College restaurant the night of Paterno's memorial service. At the next table, two Paterno loyalists, insiders by anybody's standard, wondered aloud how this just-hired outsider would be able to operate without the support of Paterno's former players.
I talked to others who were publicly skeptical when O'Brien got the job. "I think people would have been accepting of an outside hire if it was a wow name," said former Penn State running back Mike Guman, whose son also had played for Paterno.
O'Brien overcame that by realizing, from his own coaching experiences, that his true constituency was inside his locker room. By all accounts, he quickly won over Penn State's players.
Did O'Brien owe Penn State more? An interesting question. I'll argue against it for several reasons. First, Penn State got him on the cheap. Nothing wrong with not paying him Urban Meyer money up front since O'Brien had never been a head coach. Let him prove himself. When he did, and he proved the stadium wouldn't be empty on Saturdays, the dollars increased. When O'Brien got leverage, he used it. A fair deal for both sides.
Realize that O'Brien may be an NFL head coach today without Penn State. It might be in Cleveland or Washington instead of taking the more coveted Houston job, but O'Brien already was in the mix for jobs two years ago, with the big negative being that previous Bill Belichick disciples hadn't performed very well as head coaches.
When O'Brien was hired, I wrote that he was taking the hardest coaching job possible, maybe the toughest succession job in the history of big-time college sports.
Maybe O'Brien simply deserves tremendous credit for not looking at the job that way, for not making it bigger than it deserves to be.
Could Penn State have done anything to keep him? Doubtful. O'Brien always said it wasn't about the money, and let's choose to believe him. Could he have had better relationships with higher-ups? Maybe. Could Penn State's uncertain future leadership have been a factor? Maybe. Did the NCAA sanctions that are keeping Penn State from reaching true heights factor in? You'd think.
But the evidence suggests O'Brien preferred the pro experience all along. Recruiting is hard work. Keeping alumni satisfied is hard work. And if you want to work with the best talent on the planet, the NFL is your league.
Today, O'Brien owes Penn State at least as much as Penn State owes O'Brien. He knows how much he owes Mauti and Zordich and all the leaders of last year's team. Yes, he turned Matt McGloin into an NFL quarterback, but some tools had to be there in the first place. O'Brien owes McGloin as much as McGloin owes O'Brien. McGloin's NFL career helped O'Brien get the job he's taking now.
Most of all, O'Brien owes all those Penn State players who had real opportunities to go elsewhere and stayed put. Right now, he certainly owes Christian Hackenberg more than Penn State's freshman QB owes him.
Because O'Brien left so quickly, does that prove the next man should have Penn State ties? It proves this: If the best man has Penn State ties, hire him. But he'd better be the best man. The coach at Ohio State had been a Buckeye only as a young assistant, and the best coach in the country had no Alabama ties.
Let's look at Alabama coach Nick Saban. Forget his current job. Think of his previous college job, at LSU. Do you think LSU fans wish Saban had never stopped off in Baton Rouge and won a national title? Please.
Penn State fans should thank O'Brien for stopping off and doing a most challenging job with skill and dedication and integrity. If there's any criticism that matters, it has to come from O'Brien's true constituency, from within that Penn State locker room.