Like Kelly, O'Brien escapes college rat race

Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien celebrates with the student section after a 39-28 win against Northwestern on Saturday, October 6, 2012, at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Christopher Weddle/Centre Daily Times/MCT)
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien celebrates with the student section after a 39-28 win against Northwestern on Saturday, October 6, 2012, at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania. (Christopher Weddle/Centre Daily Times/MCT) (MCT)
Posted: January 03, 2014

It's no wonder they became friends, growing accustomed over the years to bouncing ideas off each other in text messages and phone calls. Chip Kelly and Bill O'Brien came up through the same small-college pipeline in New England, a pair of beautiful football minds who shared two things: their background, and a belief that the demands intrinsic to the college level were never the truest test of a coach's acumen.

Kelly grew up in New Hampshire and coached at UNH for 14 years before running his own program at Oregon. O'Brien was born in Massachusetts and spent two years at Brown University as a low-rung assistant, then really started climbing: a Division I-A assistant and coordinator, the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the head coach who shepherded Penn State's program through its first two years after the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the death of Joe Paterno.

Now O'Brien is leaving Penn State for the Houston Texans, the NFL's worst team this season, liberating himself just as Kelly did in January when he accepted Jeffrey Lurie's offer to coach the Eagles.

No more glad-handing boosters. No more interrupting a film-study session to take a call from parents threatening to have their son transfer if his playing time doesn't increase. No more of the obligations that steal time and opportunities for a coach to immerse himself in the intricacies of his sport.

There are two ways for a college football coach to thrive. He can be a terrific salesman, or he can be a brilliant tactician. The former quality doesn't matter much in the NFL, since coaches don't recruit players there. The latter is everything, and it has helped Kelly lift the Eagles to their surprising 10-6 record and home playoff game Saturday against the New Orleans Saints.

That was the wisdom of Lurie's decision to pursue and ultimately settle on Kelly. Lurie recognized that Kelly was a gym rat first and a salesman second, and that's the key question for any coach making the transition from college to the pros: How do you fill those open hours now that you don't have to fly to west Texas to scout a 16-year-old quarterback phenom? You'll have more free time in the NFL, and you can't afford to spend too much of it on the golf course.

In each of Kelly's four seasons at Oregon, for instance, at least 28 days passed between the Ducks' final regular-season game and their postseason bowl appearance, and recruiting is so essential to a college coach's survival and success that Kelly couldn't use that time to focus solely on Oregon's opponent. He had to make sure the following season's talent pool was replenished.

"You've got to recruit during the week, then come back and practice on the weekend," Kelly said Wednesday. "We usually went Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and then we gave our guys off Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. It was four-day-week-practice, three days off, four-day-week-practice, three days off. . . . We could go on for a while on this one."

Kelly told a group of reporters in June that at Oregon he would set aside at least an hour each day to handle recruiting matters - sometimes four or five hours. And that was just when he was in Eugene. If he was traveling to recruit, his responsibilities might occupy eight to 10 hours of his day. The difference, now that he was with the Eagles, was too great to be measured.

In fact, to hold that particular interview, Kelly had to leave a meeting in which he and his coaches were examining the third-down tendencies of the Washington Redskins' offense. Think about that. Not the Redskins' general tendencies. The Redskins' third-down tendencies. In the middle of June.

"Football. Football. All football," Kelly said then. "It's a lot more preparation from a football standpoint."

It's safe to say O'Brien, whom Lurie also interviewed before hiring Kelly, will welcome that kind of change. He had to do so much just to keep Penn State respectable and viable, and it was the best thing for his pro-coaching prospects. After NCAA sanctions left the Nittany Lions in ruins, had players fleeing for other schools, he took that empty husk of a program and coaxed a 15-9 record out of it.

Win in that environment, amid those circumstances, and rebuilding around Arian Foster and J.J. Watt looks like cake. It looks like a dream come true. Yes, Bill O'Brien gets his chance to put football first now, just as his old friend Chip Kelly has begun making the most of his.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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