Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Bill O'Brien is leaving Penn State less than two years after replacing Joe Paterno and returning to the NFL with the Houston Texans to coach the worst team in the league.
Two people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press that O'Brien reached an agreement with the Texans on Tuesday night. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement hasn't been made.
O'Brien bolted Penn State and a slew of players who pledged commitment to a team in its darkest hour for an NFL team that ended the season on a 14-game skid and 2-14 record.
O'Brien, a former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, took on perhaps college football's toughest job in January 2012, joining a school rattled by the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Despite a lack of scholarships, a bowl ban, an overall sense of doom and player defections from the late Paterno's roster, O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to two winning seasons (8-4, 7-5) while restoring some tempered enthusiasm in Happy Valley.
But the Nittany Lions are back to the drawing board this week after losing O'Brien in circumstances similar to those of last year. After his debut season, O'Brien interviewed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, among others, only to stay in State College.
But the Texans' job was too good to pass up some 12 months later. While the Browns and Jaguars were in the midst of overhauls, from the front office to the locker room, Houston is viewed as one of the best jobs in the NFL. There is plenty of talent on the roster — especially on defense — and the AFC South is a division seemingly up for grabs every season.
The NCAA penalties in July triggered a clause in O'Brien's contract that extends his deal the length of any sanctions given to Penn State. That means O'Brien's deal now runs through 2020. O'Brien received a restructured contract last year after he decided to stay. Though the contract was set to run seven more seasons, a buyout clause will kick in to allow his exit.
But in the eyes of Nittany Nation those are all details now. What O'Brien will make elsewhere, and what he's inheriting at the game's highest level, mean little to a fan base and community that wrapped its arms around not only him but his family as well.
O'Brien met the challenge of succeeding Paterno with ferocity and passion. He changed the culture by, among other things, placing names on the backs of the jerseys, playing loud music during practice to fire up players and overhauling the offseason weight training program. All along, he was lauded.
At the same time, though, he always paid homage to Paterno and his legacy. He said and did the right things, and made the most of his 24 games at Penn State.
In the end, that made him even more marketable to the NFL.
Of course, that is little consolation to Penn State. The Nittany Lions need to prepare for an expanded Big Ten next season and now need a coach. While Penn State is still a destination job, the roadblocks are still considerable in the post-Sandusky era:
—Though there is talk that this may be reduced at some point, Penn State's bowl ban has not been lifted yet and runs through the 2015 season.
— While some scholarships have been restored, there is not the full allotment that other Big Ten schools — including new members Rutgers and Maryland — have at their disposal.
—Recruiting season is in full swing right now, a time when high school seniors may cross the Nittany Lions off their list.
— The trials of former Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president for finance Gary Schultz — all accused of trying to cover up the scandal at the time — are still to be completed.
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