But it went beyond just the wins and losses. O'Brien, a players' coach if there ever was one, developed bonds with his roster, but never let that get in the way of the task at hand. He needed to grow college football players into Penn State players, and in many cases, he was successful. At a time when the program he inherited was undercut by the defections of the team's best running back, top receiver and its front-line kicker — more than a dozen players in all — he just kept working with what he was given.
When Silas Redd took most of Penn State's running game with him by transferring to Southern California, O'Brien drew on his experience at New England and turned former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin into an NFL-ready one. After kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner, O'Brien refused to blame the inexperienced backup and instead had the Nittany Lions try to convert fourth downs in a variety of unlikely situations. His players loved that, and returned every show of loyalty in kind.
"When those things first happened, Coach told us flat-out we wouldn't come out on the other side of the experience unscathed," said John Urschel, a fifth-year senior and All-Big Ten guard. "But the other thing he promised us was an experience we'd never forget."
It's safe to say most of the fan base will never forget O'Brien's tenure either. Whether or not they forgive him for leaving, is another story. But for now, the focus in Happy Valley needs to be on moving forward with someone new, maintaining a sense of calm inside the program, and preparing for unexpected change.
In other words, exactly what the program did just two years ago.