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December 17, 2013

Column: Someone tell Thomas Holley

Thomas Holley must not have gotten the memo.

The Rivals.com No. 63-ranked player in the Class of 2014, Holley verbally committed to Penn State's Bill O'Brien Tuesday, finally putting to rest a months-long back and forth among a handful of top-notch programs vying for his services.

To commit to Penn State just two years into some of the harshest NCAA sanctions handed down against a program is one thing. For the No. 3-rated defensive tackle in the entire country to do it while the Nittany Lions' head coach is oozing uncertainty is another thing entirely.

I'm kidding, of course.

Still, for one of the most impressive gets in O'Brien's short tenure at Penn State to come just two days after a Jason La Canfora report claimed the second-year head coach to be "ready for NFL return" is as close as what passes for irony in Happy Valley these days.

For a change, here's something that's not:

While the initial report may be enough to move page view numbers higher and higher, its actual content and the reaction it has generated are both entirely overblown.

Make no mistake, O'Brien is extremely likely to return to the NFL as a head coach before his career is finished, whenever that might be. Through two years, he has made no secret of the admiration he has for his coaching colleagues and the players all working at the next level.

Penn State's big promotional mantra is #NextLevel!

Without the lure of a Big Ten title or national championship to sell recruits or even current players - for now, at least - O'Brien has had no choice but to sell the NFL credentials of his coaching staff, both in experience and the numbers that have excelled there, to compete with the country's top college programs.

With Holley the latest four-star recruit to commit to the Nittany Lions, just 16 months after Mark Emmert laid down a goofy set of laws and feigned moral outrage approaching the ceiling of cynicism, all that can be said of O'Brien's plan of attack is, "so far, so good," regardless of the whispers that have turned into front-page reports for some of the biggest sports sites in the country.

Of course, none of this answers the question as to whether or not O'Brien will return to Penn State for his third season at the helm.

Flatly, I don't believe Bill O'Brien knows the answer to that question.

Though the departures of quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher and longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden were thought to have meant that O'Brien wouldn't even consider offers to change course and take his talents to the NFL, that line of thinking couldn't be further from the truth.

In fact, the very suggestion that O'Brien would put the direction of his program on hold while waiting to learn of his options in the NFL is laughable. Approaching every day with the same goal-oriented mindset that has guided him up the coaching ranks for the past two decades, O'Brien isn't going to abandon those principles now.

If these points reveal anything, though, it's that O'Brien hasn't and won't reveal his thought process regarding the latest maelstrom anytime soon. Grabbing two recruits in the past two days, that end clearly isn't suffering for stability and, closing down ranks in the midst of any and all sensitive times, even some of his most trusted allies know better than to bother O'Brien about what he might or might not do.

It's simply not the way he operates.

For as much as certainty and stability are valued - in some cases becoming a major contributor to complacency - O'Brien has demonstrated that personal decisions are to be considered privately, not openly volleyed about and then dismissed, only to backtrack later.

To crystallize the decision, if and when the time comes for O'Brien to make it, two points stand out.

1) Can he win at Penn State?

Eight months ago, the answer to that might have seemed like a resounding no, even after the Nittany Lions' 8-4 season in 2012. With dwindling scholarships, injuries and uncertainty on the horizon, a guaranteed 7-5 record for 2013 would have been accepted in a heartbeat.

Now, O'Brien wants more, and with the NCAA backtracking on its sanctions and, more important, an absolute stud quarterback in Christian Hackenberg at his disposal, the future at Penn State is considerably brighter. Throw in an absolute indictment on the rest of the Big Ten by beating two Top 25-ranked teams in the conference this season, and the cocksure coach has no reason to believe a level playing field won't produce even more favorable results for his side.

2) If an offer comes, is it too good to pass up?

O'Brien is keenly aware of the fragility of life's decisions and what they'll mean for the future of himself and his family, especially as it relates to the NFL. Jobs don't just present themselves willy nilly, and for him to earn and then pass up an offer to head an NFL team would mean that he'd need absolute confidence that another (read: better) offer will come along in the near future.

Again, with a depleted roster and a guaranteed loser under the NCAA's restrictions, that might have necessitated a jump to the NFL this offseason simply to avoid a future in which he becomes an unattractive candidate and never gets his opportunity.

Confidence isn't an issue with O'Brien. Though the natural pessimism that taints every head coach occasionally affects his outlook, after surviving the 2013 season, with scholarships flooding in and recruiting momentum at his back, he certainly understands the potential for winning at Penn State now and into the future.

Until the offer comes, stacked against his prospects at Penn State, there's simply no way to know whether or not the answer to No. 1 will affect No. 2.

With that in mind, it's a safe assumption that even your favorite columnists or reporters that cover the Nittany Lions, including yours truly, truly have no idea what O'Brien is thinking right now. Coming from the friend, neighbor, relative, student or otherwise that claims to have insight, extend the notion even further.

Does it mean that at some point in the next few weeks, an NFL insider like Adam Schefter or Jay Glazer or Chris Mortensen won't come out with a report that O'Brien or his representation are sitting down with executives? Of course not. In fact, it'd be more of a surprise if that didn't happen.

Beyond the fact that O'Brien thinks its nobody's business, the primary players - Holley included - are moving forward as though O'Brien will remain at Penn State in his current capacity. Last year, the blackout of information and very thought of losing O'Brien led to a major salary increase and, even more important, some major structural changes within the program necessary to its continued improvement. Undoubtedly, there are big hurdles still littering the path O'Brien wants to take in order to do the one thing he came to Penn State to do in the first place: win.

Agree or disagree with the tactic, at this point, with or without the heartburn it might bring Penn State fans, it'd be hard to argue with O'Brien's success in implementing his vision for the program.






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