A Case for Bill O’Brien, Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles

by Jerome's Friend

THE PHONE RANG IN VERMEIL’S UCLA OFFICE: Mr. Leonard Tose, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Tell him I’m not interested,” Vermeil called to [UCLA Assistant Coach] Peterson. Now the sprint was accelerating even faster than Vermeil had charted it; he had planned to win a national championship before moving on to number 6 on his list.

Peterson remembers the moment. “Dick said to us, ‘I can’t go now. I want to be an NFL head coach someday, but if I go now, I won’t be able to take all of you. I’d need veteran pro coaches up there.’ He’s absolutely the most loyal man I’ve ever met. We said, ‘My God, Dick, this is financial security. You’ve got to talk to him.’ “

Finally Vermeil agreed to meet Tose on a Friday morning, assuring his assistants beforehand, “I’m not going to take it.” He went home that Thursday night and asked his family to vote on whether or not they should move. Carol: No. Rick: No. Dave: No. Nancy: No.

At noon on Friday he called Peterson. “Well, I took the job,” he said.

~From Gary Smith’s 2007 SI article on Dick Vermeil

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Dick Vermeil was special teams coach for the Los Angeles Rams in 1969 and again from 1971 until 1974, when he left the NFL for the NCAA to become head coach of UCLA. He coached the Bruins for two seasons, winning the Rose Bowl in 1975 before being presented with an opportunity by Leonard Tose to return to the NFL as head coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Dick Vermeil is one of the most beloved coaches in Eagles and NFL history, yet he left UCLA and the players he recruited in order to pursue something for which he was better suited.

There is a reason coaches leave college for the pros. Coaching in the NCAA serves as a legitimate stepping stone for coaching in the NFL. The NFL presents an undeniable allure for the chance to succeed at the ultimate level. However, the NFL is also much different from the NCAA. The game is different, and not just from goal line to goal line. College football coaches are responsible for more than just winning games; they are responsible for recruiting talented young men, grooming them not only for on the field success, but off the field as well. The number of all-conference players, all-American players, or bowl victories may be just as important as graduation rates and career placement, depending on the school and the president. This does not appeal to everyone. Instead, coaching for some is an opportunity to simply demonstrate leadership and strategy. It’s an unmatched game of wits and risk at the highest level. For these men, the NFL is where they must be.

Dick Vermeil was this type of man. He knew he needed to succeed at the highest level and when he was presented with that opportunity, albeit quicker than anticipated, he needed to take it. If reports are accurate (see King, Peter), Penn State Nittany Lion head coach Bill O’Brien has the opportunity to travel a similar path as quickly. The difference is O’Brien’s situation. Consensus says that he has done more to revitalize and return honor to a Penn State football program than anyone has expected in such a short period of time. He has already won the adoration of Penn State faithful, as difficult a task there is in professional sports, especially when stepping into the sizable shadow of Joe Paterno (Sandusky scandal aside). And perhaps more importantly, he won the trust of his players and school administration still mending wounds. This makes his decision to return to the NFL all the more painful. For the sake of Nittany Nation, O’Brien must remain the head coach of Penn State’s Nittany Lions. However, irony may rule the day. These considerable successes at Penn State are what make Bill O’Brien the prime candidate to coach the Philadelphia Eagles next season. Jeffrey Lurie wants as his next head coach someone who is “not only an outstanding head coach, but an outstanding person… [He is] dedicated, has an incredible work ethic, and incredible ability to work with others. “ He is “smart” and will “earn the respect of every individual in this organization.” This is fine, but fans need someone more than a Juan Castillo. The fans want someone who displays emotion, coaching ability, leadership, and potential. They don’t want another Andy Reid. They want another Dick Vermeil. They want Bill O’Brien.

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Bill O’Brien displays Emotion. On December 11, 2011 Tom Brady threw an ill-advised pass into the end zone that was intercepted by Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson. As Brady returned to the sideline, he was approached by O’Brien, who was visibly not happy. The two got into a heated argument and had to be separated. According to reports (see Reiss, Mike), O’Brien was not happy with Brady’s poor decision and had to let him know about it. The emotion and fire on display that day illustrate the fire and desire that Philadelphia fans need from a head coach in place of the even-keeled Andy Reid.

Bill O’Brien displays Coaching Ability. O’Brien’s coaching resume is impressive, highlighted by three years of calling plays for the New England Patriots. But this is not as impressive as what he did for a young quarterback at Penn State, Matt McGloin. Under Joe Paterno, McGloin was erratic and unimpressive, throwing for just 3,000 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in two seasons. In one season under O’Brien, McGloin refined his on-field leadership, his pocket presence, mechanics, and decision making. He finished 2012 by throwing for 3,271 yards, 24 touchdowns and five interceptions, besting his previous two seasons combined. McGloin’s quick growth illustrates the kind of coaching O’Brien could possibly provide to Nick Foles’ promising development.

Bill O’Brien displays Leadership. Once the NCAA placed its sanctions on the Penn State football program, Penn State players were presented with an opportunity to transfer elsewhere. O’Brien brought his seniors together to limit the number of players who left. He instilled a strong sense of pride in his team, the kind of pride that needs to be injected into a Philadelphia locker room where pride and character seem absent. As a result, O’Brien was named the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year and the AT&T ESPN National Coach of the Year.

Bill O’Brien displays Potential. It’s easy to forget that Leonard Tose’s appointment of Dick Vermeil was not popular. It was far from it. But the fond-of-gambling Tose was not risk averse and recognized potential. Jeffrey Lurie needs to as well. If Bill O’Brien leaves Penn State after one year and countless declarations of dedication to the blue and white, he will be scorned and scrutinized by Penn State and national media. It will be difficult for him. It was difficult for Vermeil. But the man who replaced him at UCLA was Terry Donahue, who coached the Bruins from 1976 to 1995. Donahue is the winningest coach in UCLA history (151) and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Vermeil can claim to be none of these things. Then again, some men are better suited to coach in college, while some are born to coach in the NFL. Bill O’Brien is the latter, and the potential is there for anything to happen (see Vermeil, Dick).

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