Not A Sideshow BOB: The Rise Of Bill O’Brien

Nearly three years ago, I knew very little about current Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien.

Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly enthralled when my alma mater, Penn State, hired O’Brien to be the man tasked with replacing Joe Paterno and popular defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, the man who took over as interim coach after Paterno was fired following the scandal fallout. After all, the only thing most people unfamiliar with O’Brien knew about the guy was that he once got into a screaming match with Tom Brady on the sideline.

While it’s true that the New England Patriots were as prolific as ever with O’Brien as offensive coordinator, to outsiders he was just the guy lucky enough to coach Brady and the talented Pats.

It didn’t take long, however, for O’Brien to win me and countless others over. He made a great first impression in Happy Valley … and just continued to impress time and time again. Under impossible circumstances, with sanctions and defections and scandal all around him, O’Brien held Penn State together. In two seasons, with a shorthanded roster and little depth, he steered the Nittany Lions to an 15-9 record, impressing all the while.

In his masterpiece, he turned former walk-on Matt McGloin — a player with no arm strength who inexplicably has the gunslinger mentality of Brett Favre — into the Big Ten’s most improved player and improbably a professional quarterback. He helped Allen Robinson become one of the best wide receivers in the country and made a true freshman quarterback in Christian Hackenberg look like a future star orchestrating his fast-paced NASCAR offense.

And when the politics of Penn State got to be too much, he got his chance, after just two seasons as a head coach at the collegiate level, taking over as the head coach of the perennially underachieving Houston Texans this year.

Now, four weeks into the NFL season, O’Brien has steered that underachieving squad to a 3-1 record, sitting all alone in first place in the AFC South. This with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick under center and a roster full of talent that had done nothing but disappoint before O’Brien’s arrival.

At not quite 45, O’Brien is the fourth third (thanks, Oakland!) youngest coach in the league. For some, it may seem like a meteoric rise for one of the NFL’s youngest head coaches. However, this has been a lifetime in the making.

O’Brien isn’t some upstart who came out of nowhere to take the National Football League by storm. Far from it. Like most coaches who make it to the game’s highest level, he worked his way up the ranks, from position coach to coordinator, from school to school, from college to the pros to his first head coaching gig to the Houston Texans. This is O’Brien’s life’s work.

After graduating from Brown University, where he played defensive end and linebacker, Bill O’Brien coached two years at his alma mater, first as tight ends coach and then linebackers coach. From there, he began his journey in the ACC, working as graduate assistant at Georgia Tech for three years before becoming running backs coach, then offensive coordinator and eventually assistant coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It was at Georgia Tech where the man who would eventually be known as BOB found his niche as an offensive mastermind.

He then spent two years under Ralph Friedgen at Maryland as running backs coach, where he coincidentally crossed paths with his future successor at Penn State, James Franklin.

After two seasons as Duke’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he finally made his way to the professional ranks, joining the Pats as an offensive assistant. One year later, he became wide receivers coach, finally becoming offensive coordinator in 2011. That year, all the Pats did was go 13-3 and average 32.1 points per game, good for third in the NFL, making it all the way to the Super Bowl. It was under O’Brien’s watch that the Pats redefined the two tight end set, utilizing Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as matchup nightmares in the passing game.

That effort was good enough for O’Brien to be named head coach at Penn State, and there his legend really began to grow. Shortly after taking the job, Penn State was hit with unprecedented sanctions under unprecedented circumstances. That’s when BOB cemented his coaching chops, keeping the Nittany Lions together, keeping the team competitive and getting his players to buy in.

Now, he’s doing the same in the NFL, getting his Texans off to a 3-1 start despite a new, unheralded quarterback and a team saddled with a monkey on its back.

While it’s true that the Texans have had a relatively soft schedule to start the season, beating up on Washington and Oakland and defeating Buffalo, sandwiched by a loss to the Giants, 3-1 is 3-1. We all know how difficult it is to get just one victory in the NFL, let alone three in four tries.

Furthermore, O’Brien is proving he is not a one-dimensional coach. While offense has been his calling card as a head man, it’s the defense, led by J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Jonathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and Brian Cushing, that is carrying the load early on. But you have to figure that before long, the offense will only improve, especially with talents like Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and Arian Foster at his disposal. That’s not even counting talented tight end Garrett Graham, nor backup quarterback Ryan Mallett.

Should Fitzpatrick, a savvy veteran, falter, Mallett, a former third-round pick by the Pats and rookie during O’Brien’s lone season as New England’s offensive coordinator, is waiting in the wings. Mallett should know the offense, and given his pedigree as a highly touted recruit and impressive college signal-caller at both Michigan and Arkansas, there’s more talent for O’Brien to build his offense around. But as this quick start shows, O’Brien isn’t waiting around to win.

So far, Bill O’Brien has done nothing but impress each and every time he’s been given an opportunity. Whether it was becoming an offensive guru in the ACC, orchestrating a new-look New England attack or taking over for a legend amid an ominously dark cloud, BOB has succeeded.

Four games into his NFL tenure, he continues to do the same.

From the moment he turned Matt McGloin into a viable NFL backup, his name was popping up for every vacant job in the National Football League. Now we know why.

Luckily for the Houston Texans, he picked the AFC’s Texas team. The rise of Bill O’Brien has helped the Texans rise from the bottom of the league to the top of the AFC South. And BOB just keeps taking advantage of every opportunity he’s been afforded.

Maybe it’s because Bill O’Brien knows that coaching football pales into comparison to taking care of his son Jack, who suffers from Lissencephaly, a disorder that causes seizures and prevents Jacks from walking, talking, even feeding himself. Or maybe it’s because Jack is such an inspiration to him.

No matter the reasons, one thing we do know is Bill O’Brien is one hell of a football coach, as he’s showing yet again.

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