O'Brien previously was named the Maxwell Football Club and ESPN Coach of the Year. He also was a finalist for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year and the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He also was a finalist for the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year. O'Brien was named the Big Ten's Dave McClain Coach of the Year (media) and Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the Year (coaches). The Brown University graduate was just the seventh first-year head coach to earn the Big Ten-Dave McClain Coach of the Year in the 41 years it has been awarded.
Named Penn State's 15th head football coach on January 6, 2012, O'Brien led the Nittany Lions to victories in eight of their final 10 games, earning an 8-4 overall record and a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten, with the only losses coming to division winners Ohio State and Nebraska. Penn State capped the season with a 24-21 overtime victory over eventual Big Ten Champion Wisconsin on Senior Day. O'Brien's eight wins are the most by a first-year Penn State coach in the 126 years of the program.