Bill O'Brien handles double duty
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- By the time you read this, Bill O'Brien will be the head coach at Penn State in name only. As of Thursday morning, he immersed himself in his role as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, trying to dissect the New York Giants' defense in preparation for Super Bowl XLVI.
"I owe everything to the New England Patriots to put everything I have into trying to win the Super Bowl," O'Brien said. "You only get so many chances in your life to win a Super Bowl. This is our shot."
The challenge that he will pick up on Feb. 6, the one he agreed to tackle a month earlier, is the number of people who forever will see him as the Penn State coach in name only. He is not Joe Paterno and never will be, although, like Paterno, O'Brien played football at Brown.
"He came down to speak to the athletic community at Brown. I think I was a senior," O'Brien said. "I think it was '92, and he spoke to the whole athletic department. And then we had the chance as football players to meet him. I took a picture with him, with a guy who was playing offensive line for us, Rene Abdalah."
His face lit up.
"I think I still have that picture somewhere," O'Brien said. "I've got to find that."
At 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, he is beginning his third hour in his office at the Lasch Football Building, the office Paterno used to complain about for its opulence. While at Penn State, O'Brien worked his Patriots job vampire-style -- after the sun came up, he wore his Penn State hat. Next to his desk, the Giants' defense was queued up on the screen. It is an upgrade from Paterno's VCR. Other decisions about what to change at Penn State won't be so easy.
Tommy Bowden used to say he didn't want to be the guy who replaced his father, Bobby Bowden, at Florida State. He wanted to be the guy who replaced the guy who replaced his father.
"You don't think about who necessarily you're replacing," O'Brien said. "You think about the place, the opportunity that you have at Penn State to win football games and graduate guys. Obviously, I'm following a coaching icon who will go down as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, if not the greatest. And he did it in a way that people really believed in."
You don't think about who necessarily you're replacing.You think about the place, the opportunity that you have at Penn State to win football games and graduate guys. Obviously, I'm following a coaching icon who will go down as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, if not the greatest. And he did it in a way that people really believed in.” -- Bill O'Brien
It is O'Brien's stock answer, and, really, it is all he can say. He is 42, born on Oct. 23, 1969, two days before Paterno's Nittany Lions extended their unbeaten streak to 25 games by defeating Ohio, 42-3. When O'Brien leads Penn State onto the field for the first time on Sept. 1, the Nittany Lions will play Ohio.
He understands that he will never be the man he replaced. On top of learning how to be a head coach, O'Brien must deal with how well the Penn State community and the outside world understand that, too. And, even if they understand it, how well they accept it. On Tuesday morning, Paterno's former players stood in line in 35-degree weather for two-plus hours to attend a private viewing. They reconvened that afternoon at the Football Letterman's Lounge at Beaver Stadium.
O'Brien went over there, too. If nothing else, the minute he walked in he proved he is a competitor. At an hour when the former players' feelings about Paterno couldn't have been more tender, O'Brien went in and began to try to forge relationships. It is the kind of gesture that quickly is placed on a slide and examined under the microscope. He said he felt a lot of support in the room.
"We know that support is not going to be there if we're not winning," O'Brien said. "We understand that. At least initially, I feel a lot of support from those guys. At the end of the day, it gave us a chance to earn their respect by watching us work, how we do things."
If you are a football guy, there is a lot to like about O'Brien. He is the protégé of three successful head coaches: George O'Leary, Ralph Friedgen and Bill Belichick. O'Leary had a buddy from Long Island named Jim Bernhardt who was the defensive coordinator at Brown when O'Brien played.
"George called Jimmy," O'Brien said, "and said, 'You got anybody smart enough to get into Georgia Tech graduate school and dumb enough to want to be a coach?"
Bernhardt, who will be O'Brien's right-hand man after spending the past three seasons on O'Leary's staff at UCF, said, "Oh yeah, I got a guy."
O'Brien went to Georgia Tech as a graduate assistant and stayed on O'Leary's staff for eight seasons.
"The best thing I learned from George is his ability to organize," O'Brien said. "Number two -- probably 1A, 1B -- is his ability to create a mentally tough football team. We practiced hard there. He was so demanding on those guys, both on and off the field, that when we played on Saturdays, we played tough."
O'Brien left Georgia Tech in 2002 and went to work at Maryland for Friedgen, who had been offensive coordinator with the Yellow Jackets.
"Ralph was a really good teacher," O'Brien said. "He took the time to teach you what he was thinking, how he saw things. Ralph was a very demanding coach to work for and work with, but he made you better. When you worked for Ralph, you really had to know your stuff because, if you didn't, you were going to be embarrassed as a coach and as a player. That was something that really stayed with me."
O'Brien has worked for Belichick for five seasons. He took a low-level job with the Patriots and worked his way up to running the offense.
"There are so many things I've learned from Bill," O'Brien said. "his ability to get a team ready to play from week to week versus a different type of opponent. How he has the ability to boil things down and keep it simple so that the players can play fast. Give them bullet points of what they have to do to win the game. And then his ability to put together a team; he has the unique ability to understand what a team needs at each position, what type of player we want there. What type of character we want there.
"Bill is so smart," O'Brien said. "He reads a lot, knows so much about the history of football, in addition to the X's and O's of football, that it's very easy to talk to him. He's a great listener. That's one thing I learned from Bill. He has a great ability to listen to what you have to say and obviously make his own decision on which direction to go, but he's a very easy guy to talk to as a boss."
O'Brien intends to be the same. He encouraged the former players to come to practice when the Nittany Lions begin in March. He wants them to see that his coaches know what they're doing, even if they do it differently than Paterno.
He deflected a question about the changes he will make because he wants to talk them over with his staff. Because of recruiting, O'Brien has yet to have a face-to-face meeting with the eight assistants he has hired. The uniform on the field won't change -- that would be like removing the Yankees' pinstripes -- but the uniform in the office will.
"We are going to dress nicely," O'Brien, wearing a V-neck sweater and slacks, "but I'm not sure we're going to wear a coat and tie every day here."
For the next nine days, O'Brien will remain on the Belichick dress code -- sweats are de rigueur -- and focus on winning a Super Bowl ring, which glitters so nicely in the home of a recruit.
If O'Brien doesn't win a ring, he'll have something else to show the recruits: a photo of him with Paterno.
O'Brien might not know where he has stored his copy, but Abdalah, his former teammate who is an insurance underwriter in Connecticut, keeps his in a special album.
According to Brown sports information, it was taken in May 1993.
"It is one of my most prized possessions," Abdalah said. "I cannot tell you how proud I am to have played with Bill and to have met JoePa. Coach Paterno represented what all Brown football players aspired to be. And, specifically for Bill, as I've followed his coaching career, it marked a moment that I'm sure guided his ambition, dedication and passion for the game of football."
Twenty years ago, Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign released a film clip of a teenage Clinton shaking the hand of President John F. Kennedy, and Democrats went all gooey inside. You couldn't blame O'Brien if he used the photo to soften up Penn State.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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