- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Nearly seven months ago -- or maybe it was a lifetime -- when New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien thought about taking over for legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno, he embraced the vision he had of Nittany Lion football.
"All the old Penn State teams," O'Brien said. "I can remember wanting to coach guys like that: tough guys, disciplined guys. Guys that didn't say a lot. They just went out and played."
A coach who knows O'Brien well described him as "a fighter, an Irish guy from Boston." A quarterback who knows O'Brien described how he dealt with being handed the keys to the New England offense two years after he arrived as an entry-level assistant.
"He's now calling plays for me and Randy Moss and Wes Welker and coaching for Coach [Bill] Belichick," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. "He had to take that challenge head-on as well. It's not like he was here for 10 years and moved up. Coach Belichick said, 'Billy's the guy to lead us.' He has those qualities about him. He's a tremendous leader. He has great rapport with players and a feel for the team. That's probably what attracted Penn State. You follow guys like that."
O'Brien's former boss in New England listed coaching qualities that will serve O'Brien well as he attempts to put out one fire after another in the coming days.
"He's really tough," Belichick said Tuesday night as he drove home from Patriots rookie camp. "He's a strong guy, very loyal. He's got great presence. He thinks quickly on his feet. He's just done a great job of making good decisions, draft decisions, on the field. He's personable and has a great competitive side to him."
In a 30-minute interview in his office Tuesday, O'Brien met questions with the same feistiness that he is employing to steer his Nittany Lions through the worst NCAA violations any FBS school has received in the quarter-century since SMU was served the death penalty.
He said at least three times, maybe four, that Penn State still offers the same education it did before the sanctions, and that the Nittany Lions who stay still will play before 108,000 fans in Beaver Stadium.
"OK, we got hit with some sanctions yesterday," O'Brien said. "Are they good? No! I'm not an idiot.
"But we're playing football. We're on TV. We're going to deal with them head-on."
O'Brien has rolled up his sleeves. If he has to ball up his fist, fine. O'Brien served up notice to the Penn State fans and student body Tuesday.
"In my opinion, you're either in or you're out," he said. "I expect everybody in. They believe in this university. They believe in what we are trying to do here. It's a new era. It's a totally new era. That's just the way it is."
Here's O'Brien on the incoming high school seniors who have committed to Penn State. O'Brien may sign only 15 next February. They already have nearly that many commitments.
"The one thing I tell our guys that do commit," O'Brien said, "is that when you shake my hand and you look me in the eye and you tell me you're coming to Penn State, the way I was brought up, that means you're coming to Penn State. That's as good as a signature. I still feel really good about where we are in recruiting. I've had a bunch of positive calls from recruits in the last few days and their parents. But I know there's a long period of time before the signing period."
And there's O'Brien on the Nittany Lions' ban from the postseason.
"OK, I understand, there are some things that have changed," O'Brien said, "and I know there are some guys who want to compete for championships. But who's to say you can't go out there every single year and compete for the division in the Big Ten that you play in and win it? And who's going to tell me we weren't the champion of the Big Ten? You? Nobody's going to tell me that."
O'Brien said all of this with excitement but no belligerence, commitment but no anger. O'Brien deals in a direct manner with everything life puts before him.
"I can tell you honestly, without a shadow of a doubt, I don't regret taking this job. Everything is challenging. If you know anything about my family situation, you know that nothing compares to the challenge my wife faces every day," O'Brien said.
Colleen O'Brien is the main caregiver for their two boys, 9-year-old son Jack, who has a congenital brain malformation, and 7-year-old son Michael.
"He's wheelchair-bound," O'Brien said of Jack. "He's dependent on my wife for everything. We feed him. We bathe him. We change him.
"It's funny. You go through the NFL season. You got a good team. You 're winning. You go to the Super Bowl. You think you're this great coach. In the offseason is where I try, like every coach in America, is where I really try to be a better husband and father. That's what brings you back to what life is all about. Life's all about my wife and my kids and having to, which I try to do as much as I can in the offseason, help my wife with the bathing and the feeding and the therapy and all the things I help with Jack. And being as good a father as I can to Michael."
O'Brien is a former defensive lineman, but it's clear that if he had played tailback, he would have run north-south.
That's how O'Brien does it. He is ready to hit the hole and make it bigger, even as it looks as if there won't be a hole for Penn State to run through for years to come.
"Is it an easy time?" O'Brien asked. "No. That's what life is all about. At the end of the day, we line up on Sept. 1. We're going to play football."
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