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‘Penn State’s a special place’: Texans coach Bill O’Brien reflects on time in Pa. ahead of Eagles game

PHILADELPHIA — Like most coaches, Bill O’Brien has led a bit of a nomadic life, with seven stops connecting the beginning of his coaching career as an assistant at Brown in the early 1990s to his current status as Houston Texans head coach 25 years later.

In between, there were stints at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke in college and a couple years with the New England Patriots where he rose to prominence as Tom Brady’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.

But while O’Brien has been coaching the Texans since 2014, he might be most known for the other stop on his career: His two seasons at Penn State in 2012 and 2013.

O’Brien returns to Pennsylvania as a head coach for the second time in his career and first time since 2014 on Sunday when his Texans face off with the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 16 showdown.

“Love Penn State,” O’Brien said Tuesday during a teleconference with Philadelphia media. “My experience at Penn State, my family’s experience there was great. Still have a lot of friends that live there. We made a lot of great, special friends there and follow them as much as we can.”

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O’Brien’s tenure with the Nittany Lions served as a bridge between the end of the Joe Paterno era and the heights achieved by the program under current coach James Franklin. Under O’Brien, Penn State never bottomed out despite the heavy sanctions leveled on the program by the NCAA in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

In O’Brien’s first season in State College, Penn State went 8-4, including a victory over then-No. 24 Northwestern. He stayed on with the program despite interviewing for NFL head coaching vacancies after that season.

His first — and only — full recruiting class featured five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg, four-star tight end Adam Breneman and a handful of other recruits who would become contributors for the Lions, including Brendan Mahon, Andrew Nelson, DaeSean Hamilton and Garrett Sickels.

Penn State went 7-5 in O’Brien’s second season, and then he was off to the NFL, where’s found some success. He has only one losing season in five years, and he hit double-digit wins for the first time this season. The Texans had a nine-game winning streak earlier this season and are in the driver’s seat in the AFC South.

Houston has one of the game’s entertaining young players in quarterback Deshaun Watson, and there’s a significant amount of star power on both sides of the ball, including J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Jadeveon Clowney, Lamar Miller and more.

Now, O’Brien returns to the turf where he spent a brief period of his coaching career. But it’s a place where he had a deep impact, and one he remembers fondly.

“It’s a fantastic place,” O’Brien said. “It’s great to see them having the success that they’re having now. Penn State’s a special place.”

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