Bill O'Brien, who took over a Penn State program that appeared headed to oblivion and steered the Nittany Lions to a surprisingly successful season, was named coach of the year Wednesday by the Maxwell Football Club.

O'Brien, then the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, was hired as Joe Paterno's successor in January, two months after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal broke and a month before Paterno's death.

He took a demoralized team, diminished by harsh NCAA penalties and the transfers of several key players, and despite an 0-2 start transformed it into one of the Big Ten's best. The Nittany Lions, bowl-ineligible, finished 8-4, second in the conference's Leaders Division with a 6-2 mark.

Those achievements were unimaginable in July, when, as a result of allegations about Penn State's response to Sandusky's crimes, the NCAA slapped the university with a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, and the loss of 80 scholarships over that span.

Before the 2012 season, several players, including running back Silas Redd and kicker Anthony Fera, departed. Things looked even bleaker when the Nittany Lions began O'Brien's inaugural season by dropping their first two games, to Ohio University and Virginia.

But, relying heavily on senior leadership, O'Brien not only held together a team most expected to finish with a losing record, but inspired the Nittany Lions to win eight of their final 10 games.

"Coach O'Brien has engineered a tremendous season . . . while overcoming obstacles that many considered insurmountable," Mark Wolpert, the Maxwell Club's executive director, said in a news release.

The club will honor O'Brien at its annual dinner March 1 in Atlantic City. The Nittany Lions will also be recognized as recipients of the organization's Brookshier Spirit Award.

O'Brien, a 43-year-old Massachusetts native, graduated from Paterno's alma mater, Brown University. Earlier this offseason, he was named coach of the year by the Big Ten and ESPN.

The Associated Press Wednesday named Notre Dame's Brian Kelly as coach of the year, with O'Brien second.

While O'Brien was engineering an on-field revival, Penn State's football program could not avoid a financial hit. In part because of reaction to the scandal, average attendance fell below 100,000 a game, and the value of the school's once-pristine brand declined sharply.

According to Forbes magazine, Penn State fell from No. 3 in 2011 to No. 13 on its list of the most valuable college football programs. That value, the magazine estimated, dropped from $100 million to $79 million.

In related news, O'Brien's team reportedly added three recruits Wednesday - kicker Chris Gulla and quarterbacks D.J. Crook and Austin Whipple. Whipple's father, Mark, also attended Brown and played in the NFL.

Contact Frank Fitzpatrick
at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz