Rumors of O'Brien's potential departure from Penn State swirled for a few weeks, but really gained steam Saturday, when ESPN reported that O'Brien, a former New England Patriots offensive coordinator who spent 5 years under Bill Belichick, was the "overwhelming favorite" to land the Texans job. He will take over a Houston side that won the AFC South in 2011 and '12 and has a core group of talent that includes defensive end J.J. Watt and wideout Andre Johnson. But the team scuffled to a 2-14 record in the 2013 campaign, fired coach Gary Kubiak and earned the No. 1 overall pick in next April's draft.
O'Brien leaves a lot of questions behind him in Happy Valley.
He toyed with the idea of bouncing to the pros last year when he was in talks with the Cleveland Browns and the Eagles, and made it clear he had intentions of becoming an NFL head coach at some point in his career. The timing - coming after two dozen games at Penn State - puzzled fans, and possibly some players, as well. O'Brien has not made any public comments since the Nittany Lions' season finale Nov. 30.
Many Penn State players expressed well wishes for him on social media. Defensive end Deion Barnes, from Northeast High, tweeted, "One thing OB taught me was that this is a business, and u should do what's best for you. Texans are getting a good coach, I wish him the best" minutes after the news broke. Barnes and any other player who has been on Penn State's roster since 2011 will be looking at the third head coach in their collegiate careers.
Of Penn State's 19 recruits for the class of 2014, two affirmed their commitments on Twitter. Mark Allen, of DeMatha High in suburban Washington, and Marcus Allen, of Upper Marlboro, Md., said they would remain at PSU.
The big question for Penn State and athletic director Dave Joyner now is: Who will replace O'Brien?
Names such as James Franklin, Al Golden and Greg Schiano have already been floated, but the university has made no mention of O'Brien leaving, nor a search for a new coach. Multiple outlets reported defensive-line coach Larry Johnson would serve as interim head coach as he tries to keep the current team and 2014 recruiting class together. And while it appears Johnson will stay, it's unclear how many assistants from the Penn State staff O'Brien will take with him to Houston.
While O'Brien's tenure at Penn State was short-lived, it was anything but boring.
O'Brien landed at Penn State in January 2012, as the man who replaced Joe Paterno. Barely 6 months after his hiring, the school and program were hit with harsh NCAA sanctions as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse program. Penn State had a 4-year postseason ban and a loss of scholarships (some of which have since been reinstated), and players were able to transfer wherever they pleased without having to sit out a year.
Even without ever playing for O'Brien in a game, all but nine Nittany Lions stayed to see the start of the 2012 season, and the Lions shook off an 0-2 start to finish 8-4, and O'Brien reaped multiple coach-of-the-year awards.
O'Brien brought in his first recruiting class in February, one that featured blue-chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who started every game in 2013 and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Penn State again finished above .500, as a victory over then-No. 15 Wisconsin sealed a 7-5 season.
But it would be the last game O'Brien coached on the Penn State sideline.
Here are some possible coaching candidates for Penn State, as compiled by the Daily News:
* JAMES FRANKLIN: He has been the head coach at Vanderbilt for 3 years and has a 23-15 record, 11-13 in the SEC. Vandy is his first head-coaching job. He was the third African-American head coach in the SEC. He had been a college assistant coach/coordinator since 1995 and was the Green Bay Packers’ wide-receivers coach in 2005. He was born in Langhorne and went to Neshaminy High. He was a quarterback at East Stroudsburg State. He is 41 years old.
* AL GOLDEN: The former Temple coach is now the head coach at Miami, and the Hurricanes’ NCAA sanctions are lessening. Golden played tight end at Penn State from 1989-91. He was a captain for the Nits. He was the head coach at Temple from 2006-10 and had a 27-34 record. He went to Miami in December 2010 and is 22-15 in three seasons. He is 0-2 in bowl games and 49-49 overall. The Colts Neck, N.J., native is 44.
* MIKE MUNCHAK: He just completed his third year as the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. He is 22-26 with the Titans and has not made the playoffs as a head coach. He had been an assistant coach for the Titans/Oilers franchise since 1992. He played guard for the Houston Oilers from 1982-93 and was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001. He played at Penn State from 1978-81 and was the eighth overall selection in the 1982 draft. A Scranton native, he is 53 years old.
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