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Two New Year’s Eves that changed PSU, Pitt football

The same thought goes through my mind every New Year’s Eve: Please don’t let any major news happen tonight.

When you’re in the media, you have to be prepared for breaking news at all times — holidays, birthdays, every day — and anyone who’s been in this business a long time realizes that’s just part of the deal.

Two huge stories that dramatically changed the courses of the Penn State and Pitt football programs both occurred on New Year’s Eve. You can make a strong case that the Nittany Lions benefited from what happened to them, and that the Panthers still have never recovered from what happened to them.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

New Year’s Eve, 2013

It was no secret that second-year Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was considering leaving for the NFL in December of this year. His name had been coming up for jobs late in the year, and then things happened very quickly on New Year’s Eve, a Tuesday evening.

We were having a small get together at my house that night, and I spent most of the evening hanging out in my kitchen trying to track down whatever tidbits of information were available while also trying to enjoy the night with my wife and 1-year-old twins.

Then the news broke that O’Brien was getting hired by the Houston Texans.

This is part of the story I wrote for the Altoona Mirror:

Social media sites erupted with discussion late Tuesday night when ESPN first broke the news about O’Brien’s departure. It occurred on New Year’s Eve, and many people rang in the New Year tracking down whatever information they could find on the Internet and Twitter about why O’Brien is leaving and who will be Penn State’s next coach.

As is often the case on controversial news stories, many Twitter users used the platform to vent their frustration toward O’Brien. He’s been a popular, well-received coach throughout his brief tenure at Penn State, but angry Twitter users called him words like “traitor” and even “scumbag,” while others compared him to Benedict Arnold.

The anger stems from the notion that many fans believe O’Brien owed it to Penn State and the players to stick around longer, given that his players made a commitment to stick it out at the school even with severe NCAA sanctions.

 

It still bothers me to this day that a lot of Penn State fans trashed O’Brien like they did — and some even still do. The view here has always been that O’Brien prevented the ship from sinking at Penn State in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, and he should be considered a legend for all that he did, regardless of the fact that he left after only two seasons.

And hey, O’Brien leaving when he did, I believe, turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened to Penn State.

O’Brien’s departure paved the way for James Franklin to take over the program. And my feeling is that Franklin turned PSU back into a national power quicker than O’Brien could have had he stayed a few more years.

That certainly can be debated, I know. But I just don’t believe O’Brien was suited to keep dealing with all the nonsense he had to deal with as Penn State navigated its way out of the sanctions. He was spent mentally already with the situation and the detractors, notably those he labeled “the Paterno people” in the famous column by David Jones of PennLive.

O’Brien did yeoman’s work at Penn State. But Franklin came along at the right time, had the right energy when it came to recruiting, landed superstar Saquon Barkley and made the greatest hire of his tenure in Joe Moorhead, all of which led to the remarkable 2016 renaissance season and Big Ten championship.

We could not have known during that wild New Year’s Eve in 2013 how things would turn out for O’Brien and Penn State. The Lions have made out well — regardless of this crazy 2020 season — and  O’Brien had a nice run with the Texans, winning four division titles and compiling a 52-48 record before getting fired earlier this year.

All I can say is please, please let this New Year’s Eve pass without hearing any kind of major news about Franklin or Penn State football.

New Year’s Eve, 2010

Shocking news broke late on this Friday night when newly hired Pitt football coach Michael Haywood was arrested in South Bend, Ind., on charges of domestic violence.

This threw the Pitt football program into turmoil, and a decade later, you can’t help but shake your head about the sequence of events that unfolded for the Panthers both before and after this New Year’s Eve bombshell.

I was in Tampa, Fla., covering Penn State in the Outback Bowl, a game the Lions would lose the next day to Urban Meyer and Florida. We were having dinner in the hotel with some friends when news broke on social media about Haywood’s arrest.

It became immediately clear that this was going to be really bad for Pitt and that there was really no chance the Panthers could keep Haywood, who had been hired just two weeks earlier.

The next day — Jan. 1, 2011 — Pitt fired Haywood.

Let’s backtrack a moment here. On Dec. 7, 2010, Dave Wannstedt resigned as Pitt’s coach under heavy pressure. Wannstedt had gone 9-4 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009, then slumped to a 7-5 record in 2010.

Wannstedt had gone 42-31 in six seasons at Pitt. He was doing a good job. He did not deserve to be forced out, and you truly have to wonder what would have happened to the Panthers had he stayed on a while longer.

Instead, Pitt hired Haywood, and that blew up in the Panthers’ face. Then they hired Todd Graham, who went 6-6 in his only season there before infamously slimeballing his way out of town by sending his players a text message with the news.

Paul Chryst followed Graham and went 6-7, 7-6 and 6-6 in three seasons before leaving for Wisconsin.

Pat Narduzzi came next, and he’s been mediocre for six seasons. He has gone 8-5 three times and has had some great upsets, but he’s also proven to just not be a very good coach in many situations, including trying a field goal on fourth-and-goal at the 1 down seven points with 5 minutes to go last year against Penn State.

There’s no telling what would have happened to Pitt had it kept Wannstedt, or not hired Haywood, or if Haywood had not gotten in trouble, or if it had not hired Graham, or if Graham would have stayed longer. And so on. And so on.

It all goes back to that bad news on New Year’s Eve 10 years ago.

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