They showed the new guy Texas hospitality at its cheesy best, welcoming Bill O'Brien with a red carpet, two rows of cheerleaders and a pep band. A stoic New Englander by birth, O'Brien could have turned around right then and run for the quiet hills of central Pennsylvania, but instead he kept on walking, right into a future he couldn't pass up.
O'Brien admitted Friday that he missed coaching in the NFL during his two years at Penn State -- missed the professional players, the strategy involved in preparing a game plan each week at the game's highest level and the painstaking processes of the draft and free agency. But culturally, personally, for a Brown-educated man from Boston, would Houston be a good fit? Ultimately, it didn't seem to matter.
"I tell you, I have a real passion for the NFL," O'Brien said.
And that was just it. For Penn Staters, there really wasn't anything they could have done to keep this from happening. If it wasn't the Houston Texans, who went 2-14 this past season but hold the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, it would have been another team.
By the end of his introductory news conference, O'Brien was joking about going out to buy his first pair of cowboy boots, garnering some chuckles from the friendly Texans. Everyone knew he was kidding, but O'Brien probably would have entered the building wearing a ten-gallon hat and chaps to get this opportunity.
Still, he wanted to thank Penn State, and he made sure to do it at the end of his opening statement.
"I love the players at Penn State, and I respect their toughness and their resiliency, and everything they demonstrated on a day-to-day basis," said O'Brien, who went 15-9 in two seasons under extraordinary circumstances. "I do regret not being able to continue with the great kids on that team. Again, while I tried to never mislead anyone, I understand if some people feel let down."
Those players are now the responsibility of Larry Johnson Sr., Penn State's defensive line coach since 1996 and the freshly anointed interim head coach. Johnson said Friday that he and O'Brien shared an emotional phone conversation and that O'Brien had attempted to speak with every remaining Penn State player.
It has been up to Johnson to make overtures to the 19 high school seniors who have verbally committed to play at Penn State in the fall, and he said he has spoken with all of them.
"We always tell kids in recruiting, you would like to commit to a coach, but you want to come for the place," Johnson said. "You want to come to Penn State University and get a great degree. That's still there. It's a great place, a great institution, and they get a chance to play football at the highest level."
It was an up-and-down day for Penn State in recruiting. NJ.com reported that four-star quarterback Michael O'Connor will not enroll in January at Penn State as planned and that he is seeking a stable situation. Whether O'Connor stays with Penn State remains to be seen. But four-star wide-receiver De'Andre Thompkins said on Twitter that he will honor his commitment to Penn State without knowing who the new coach will be.
Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner made it clear Thursday that the goal is to make a hire within days. And sure enough, the buzz was loud Friday, with multiple reports saying Penn State has serious interest in Miami coach Al Golden, a former Nittany Lions tight end, and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who is from Langhorne, Pa., and played quarterback at Division II East Stroudsburg.
Johnson said that, like in 2011, he would apply for the position.
"Why not? Why not Larry Johnson?" Johnson said. "I've been here 18 years. I think I know the lay of the land very well. But right now the focus is not about me, it's about our players, our future players. I'm worried about keeping this program moving forward."
Johnson expects Penn State true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to be back in University Park on Jan. 13 for the first day of the new semester. Hackenberg's father, Erick Hackenberg, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday that Christian would wait to see who the new coach is before making a decision on his future.
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