- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The moment came for Penn State coach Bill O'Brien in the first week of spring practice. That moment comes to anyone who upends a successful career to take on a new challenge. You know -- the oh-my-god-what-have-I-done moment.
For the previous five seasons, O'Brien had coached the best that American football has to offer. O'Brien worked his way up the org chart of the New England Patriots until he ran the offense. Tom Brady played for him. So did Rob Gronkowski and Logan Mankins and Wes Welker. NFL players are the best in the world at what they do, and O'Brien coached more than his share of the best of them.
O'Brien knew there would be a difference. He coached college football for 14 years before he decided to put that career on a shelf and start as an "offensive assistant" with the Patriots, the NFL equivalent of a job in the mail room. He went back knowing that his roster would be filled with guys who won't get any closer to an NFL locker room than your grandmother. His quarterback would have neither won three Super Bowls nor married a Brazilian supermodel.
It is one thing to know it. It is another to experience it.
"When you coach pro players," O'Brien said, "they've played football for so long, and they have very good instincts. In New England, a lot of those guys have been there for a long time, so you were more into X's and O's than you were into teaching them how to throw the ball, and what foot to step with on this block, or how to control this gap."
That brings us to the first week of spring practice. When O'Brien blew the whistle, his brain expected to see linebackers run like sprinters and linemen move buildings.
"You've been around the best of the best for five years, and so you have to train your eyes that these are college kids," he said. "And a lot of it was, early on, that they were thinking instead of playing because everything was new for them."
And O'Brien? What were you thinking?
"Yeah," O'Brien said, laughing. "I'm not going to tell you what I was thinking."
Different age groups and skill levels exercise different coaching muscles. O'Brien has had to deal with some soreness over the past four months.
"Recruiting is out of shape," O'Brien said. "It's like riding a bike, but I hadn't done it in a while. It's changed a lot, with all the different, the Internet sites, Facebook and Twitter. There's so much information out there. The one thing I've found about recruiting is that if you are yourself and you're honest with the prospect, then you have a great shot with that prospect."
He must have gotten into shape pretty fast. Penn State has gotten raves for the commitments it has received for the class that will sign in February.
The best thing about the first week is that it turned into the second week. And the third. The Nittany Lions began to grasp what their new coaching staff taught them. They didn't grasp all of it. But their Sylvanias began to flicker with light. As they learned more, O'Brien recalibrated his coaching mind.
"Things got easier for them," O'Brien said. "Then you could see where, oh, this guy can run really well, or, this guy does catch the ball really well, or, this guy is more explosive than I thought he was. That was more my eyes being trained on the college athlete as opposed to the pro athlete. That was an adjustment I had to make the first week or so."
O'Brien made sure to provide the coaching disclaimer. He likes his team. He liked how hard the players worked. He liked the toughness they showed. When spring ball concluded last week, he began going over the video. He wanted to know what they did well, and he wanted to decide whether what they did poorly could be saved when preseason practice begins in August or should be tossed aside.
"We have a long way to go," senior quarterback Matt McGloin said. "We have shown flashes in practice. This offense can work. It's just a matter of putting it all together."
O'Brien will serve as his own offensive coordinator. He has several years of Patriots practice and game video to show his players. It is a resource no other college teams have. On the other hand, think about it: You're 22 years old, and your coach expects you to do what Tom Brady does.
"To be honest with you," McGloin said, "I don't think anybody can do what Tom Brady does."
The Nittany Lions are adjusting to their new coaches. O'Brien forbade them from answering questions comparing the new staff to the old. But he can't forbid them from thinking about the former coaches. The players came to Penn State for the same reason that football players came for the last 46 years. They came to play for Joe Paterno. He's not there. Tom "Scrap" Bradley is no longer running the defense.
"Getting to know the new staff wasn't hard," safety Adrian Amos said. "It does feel different, looking to the sideline and not seeing Scrap call plays, Joe standing there."
O'Brien had no concerns about whether his players would adjust to the new coaches. Players are resilient, he said. They are conditioned to doing what they are told. Adults are not as resilient. They can be set in their ways. Many members of Paterno's support staff are no longer working in the football office.
In fact, other than assistant athletic director Fran Ganter, a former player and assistant coach under Paterno, the support staff is almost entirely new. Marketing guru Guido D'Elia is gone. Operations director Tom Venturino works in the Bryce Jordan Center on campus. There is an interim video coordinator.
In a 30-minute interview, O'Brien never measured his words more carefully than here.
"I just wanted guys who are all on the same page with me," he said. "And that's what I think I have here now. That's all I wanted. I just wanted a bunch of guys who were working as one team."
O'Brien is his own man. He wore a sweatshirt on the sideline during the spring game. On the new staff's first weekend on campus, with recruits coming to town, defensive coordinator Ted Roof went to the equipment room to get a Penn State golf shirt. There were none. Paterno expected his coaches to wear coat-and-tie when representing the school.
Now, the new coaches have their golf shirts. The weight room has new equipment. The training room has a new weightless treadmill. And the players have new plays in their playbook.
"I definitely think of making sure that people that came before me here, whether it's Coach Paterno's family, or the guys that played here, or the guys that coached here, understand that we have a lot of respect for what they did," O'Brien said. "But there's a balance that I'm trying to find between showing respect [and] moving forward to the vision that I see [for] this program."
O'Brien has finished his first spring practice. Change is in full throttle at Penn State.
Bill O'Brien, a longtime Patriots assistant, is getting used to college players again. He's also trying to strike a balance between respecting the past and moving forward at Penn State.