Bill O'Brien era begins at Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- New Penn State coach Bill O'Brien may be a disciple of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but he also subscribes to the wisdom of another famous Boston figure. Nearly a century ago, the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," to encourage transparency in government.
When O'Brien took on the task of replacing Joe Paterno last January, he steeled himself for the difficulties associated with following a legend. He understood those difficulties would be magnified by the child-abuse scandal that engulfed the university. But neither O'Brien nor anyone else could have known that the NCAA would mete out sanctions in July that would cripple the program for years to come.
Given the notoriety and scandal attached to the Penn State name, O'Brien invested in solar energy. He wants the sun to shine on his Nittany Lion program. "I want people to see how we do things," he said. "I want them to know what kind of kids we have."
O'Brien offered ESPN.com week-long access inside the Lasch Football Building for his first game week as head coach. O'Brien and his assistants opened every door, from 6 a.m. training sessions to 7:30 p.m. staff meetings, as Penn State prepared to play Ohio University.
As the Penn State coaches began to prepare for Ohio, they did their utmost to counter the effects of the last 10 months, from the lost players to the bowl sanctions to the emotional toll on the Nittany Lions.
Midway through the first defensive staff meeting of the first game week, coordinator Ted Roof set aside the burgeoning outline of his game plan against Ohio. It's not the X's and O's that concern him as much as the emotions that will surge through his own locker room.
"We're going to come out sky-high," Roof said. "They [Ohio] are going to try to run us east and west and gas us. That's what I want to talk to our guys about. Not to be negative but just to prepare them. There's so much adrenaline pumping. We could get gassed quick. That's something each one of us needs to address."
Throughout the week, O'Brien tried to tamp down the role that emotion will play in the game Saturday. At the team meeting Tuesday, he warned his players: "When they [the media] ask you what it's going to be like when you run out for the game, well, just like every football team in America that's playing their first game of the year, everybody's going to be jacked up at the beginning of the game. It doesn't mean that we're going to be any more jacked up than any other team."
No, but every team in America won't have nearly 100,000 fans screaming for them, fans who are tired of being scapegoated en masse, who have seen their beloved university become a symbol of a horrific scandal. The silent majority of Penn State fans need an emotional release. The community already has rushed to support the athletic program. On Aug. 24, a crowd of 5,117 -- nearly double the largest crowd in the Penn State women's soccer history -- went to see the No. 9 Nittany Lions lose a heartbreaker 3-2 to No. 1 Stanford.
Take that emotion and enlarge the scale to fill Beaver Stadium. The coaches are doing their best to prepare the players for it. Coaches know a vulnerability when they see one. They know Ohio coach Frank Solich will sniff it out.
Roof made a list for his defense of the five keys to win the game that he handed out Monday. No. 5: Manage Your Emotions.
This will be the most emotional run out of the tunnel in the history of college football.” -- Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof
"I'm worried about it," Roof said. "This will be the most emotional run out of the tunnel in the history of college football. There is so much pent up in these guys. Not to be negative but to be realistic."
The players have been buffeted by a scandal that they had nothing to do with. They have seen teammates leave them behind. If nothing else, linebacker Glenn Carson said, the game Saturday represents a return to the norm.
"I think the most important thing about running out of that tunnel is that we're finally just going to go out and be able to play football," Carson said. "There's been a lot of distractions around here and a lot of other stuff going on, with the media coverage on outside things other than football. I think a lot of these guys are really just ready to do what we came here to do, which is play a football game. Once we run out of that tunnel, a lot of that is just going to be lifted off our shoulders and it's just going to be all about football."
If Carson is right, lifting that burden may mean the Nittany Lions will fly onto the Beaver Stadium field. That's not what O'Brien wants.
"You want to get them to the gate," O'Brien said. "I'm just trying to get them to the gate."
The unique dilemma in which Penn State football finds itself -- unhappy players can leave without penalty of sitting out a year -- has made O'Brien sensitive to the tone and mood of his locker room. O'Brien wants each player to feel as if he is contributing to the good of the Nittany Lions.
O'Brien doesn't want Penn State to have a scout team. Oh, he wants a practice squad to show his starters the opposing team's formations and favorite plays. Scout teams have done that since the first coaches exchanged the first film. At Penn State, the scout team used to be known as "the foreign team." It was known as the foreign team because that's what Paterno's predecessor, Rip Engle, called it.
O'Brien wants to give his starters the information that a scout team provides. He just wants to give it a little juice. Goodbye, scout team. Hello, "Dirty Show."
"I don't want a line outside my office [of] guys who are transferring," O'Brien said at the 7:30 a.m. staff meeting. "I don't want a scout team. This is not what you guys have been dealing with for 35 years. I don't want Mike Yancich coming in here and telling me he's going to Pitt."
O'Brien doesn't want to attach that name to Yancich, a fifth-year linebacker, or any of his players. He doesn't want his young players to feel stigmatized, not when the NCAA has given them an open-door policy to transfer without penalty.
Once Penn State classes began, the Nittany Lions players no longer were eligible to play for another FBS team this season. But for the rest of the academic year, they still may transfer without having to sit out next season.
O'Brien and the staff went over each position group. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson volunteered Brent Smith, an active duty Marine with two tours in the Middle East who is attending Penn State as part of the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program.
"He just wants to hit somebody," Johnson said.
"He just wants to blow somebody up -- literally," defensive coordinator Ted Roof cracked.
Sounds like a guy for the Dirty Show. But what's with the name? O'Brien borrowed it from his former employer, the New England Patriots, where linebackers coach Pepper Johnson is "without a doubt, the best scout team coach ever," O'Brien told the staff.
"Every day, they had a different chant," O'Brien said. "They would intercept [Tom] Brady and spike it in his face. Pepper called it the Dirty Show. We'll call both sides of the ball the Dirty Show. "
The staff comes up with 33 players to take a role in the Dirty Show. Some players will swing between the "twos" -- the backups -- and the Dirty Show. To O'Brien, that also will lessen the blow.
"Make it a fun deal," O'Brien said, "not, 'You guys stink and you're going to the scout team.' We've still got to get more reps and you guys are going to help us get more reps."
So how do the Nittany Lions really feel about the players who left in the wake of the NCAA sanctions?
Just days before preseason practice began, the NCAA declared open season on the Penn State roster. Hey coaches, want a Nittany Lion? Make your pitch.
O'Brien and his players responded with magnanimity. For O'Brien, the ability to divorce his emotions from his reaction to the departure of 11 players came with ease. He spent the last five years in professional football.
"Look, cutdown day was a very tough day in the NFL," O'Brien said. "It was a cold day. The guy who was just sitting there, that you had bonded with for 20 minicamp [sessions], the next day he was out. That was just the way it was."
The Penn State players continue to say that they hold no grudges against the players who transferred to play elsewhere (O'Brien considers only five players to be "sanction transfers." The rest, he said, either were looking to leave or had been asked to leave). For instance, defensive tackle Jordan Hill told the media Tuesday that he spoke with tailback Silas Redd, his former roommate now at USC, just the other day.
"He was wanting to know how I was doing, how the team was," Hill said.
And yet, painted high on the wall of the training facility, there is a comment from a former Penn State football player that raises a question about how the team really feels.
O'Brien invited Rick "Hawk" Slater to speak to the Nittany Lions shortly after practice began last month. Slater, a Navy SEAL, is based in San Diego. He flew in one night, spoke to the team, and flew out the next morning.
"I felt like this was a guy who would have a very good message to the football team about loyalty and commitment, and working as one team," O'Brien said. "He just did a great job. He was just very straightforward. You could tell he had put a lot of thought into what he was saying. Everybody in the room was just riveted on this guy and had total respect for him."
Senior linebacker Mike Mauti asked Slater for a copy of his talk. Strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald gauged the team's reaction and, with Slater's permission, had the crux of the talk painted on the wall of the training facility.
LOYALTY -- A BOND FORGED BETWEEN A GROUP OF MEN AT THE HARDEST TIMES WHEN THE WEAKEST CHOOSE TO RUN. YOU STAY AND MOVE FORWARD BECAUSE YOU KNOW THE MAN TO THE RIGHT AND TO THE LEFT WILL MOVE FORWARD AND ATTACK.
Slater told the team that when a Navy SEAL team radios back to his headquarters that it has encountered a problem, the return message is "Charlie Mike." That is military-speak for "Continue Mission." That message is also painted on the wall.
"The players were writing 'Charlie Mike' on the dry-erase boards," Fitzgerald said, "so I said, 'Let's put it up there.'"
Inspirational? No doubt. But Slater's message is difficult to reconcile with the latitude the Nittany Lions granted their former teammates. Good luck, we love you, even if you are among the weakest who choose to run.
"After guys transferred, with all due respect to those guys, these were the guys who stayed," O'Brien said. "These were the guys who were loyal to the mission of Penn State football. That's kind of what that statement means. I don't think it's so much, 'Screw the guys that left.' But it's more about, 'We stayed. Let's finish the mission.'"
Hill actually had two roommates transfer -- Redd and wide receiver Justin Brown, now at Oklahoma. They remain his friends. But he handles how he feels simply by not going there.
"I just stay away from football when we talk," Hill said. "I give them a hard time about their teams. But I don't get serious."
At every turn, O'Brien raves about his senior class. He says the same thing to the team that he does to the media. The leadership provided by the seniors kept together a team that otherwise might have torn apart. They took the high road, not that it will make the trip any easier. They seemed to see the bigger picture, a cue they may have taken from O'Brien.
When the NCAA walloped Penn State with the a series of sanctions worse than any school has received since SMU suffered the death penalty a quarter-century ago, O'Brien didn't succumb to self-pity. Parenthood taught him and his wife Colleen that a decade ago.
The oldest of their two sons, Jack, has a congenital brain malformation, lissencephaly, that resulted in limited cognitive skills. He is unable to care for himself and subject to daily life-threatening seizures.
"My wife and I are pretty uncomfortable with people knowing a lot about our family," O'Brien said. "I definitely have perspective on this whole thing. At the end of the day" -- his voice softened -- "it's about football and going to school and doing the best you can. If it doesn't work out, then hopefully the next guy can come in here and do better."
At the end of this day, when O'Brien returned to his office after practice, where his younger son Mikey ran up and down the sideline catching passes from himself and others, the coach found Colleen sitting at his conference table, feeding Jack dinner. Jack sat in his wheelchair, head hanging down.
"He's tired," Colleen said. "This was his second day of school. They wore him out."
"He'll sleep well," Bill said. "One thing he does is sleep well."
You don't have to be a coaching genealogist to unearth which coach had the greatest effect on O'Brien. Just watch him coach -- and listen.
Jimmy Bernhardt is O'Brien's consigliere. He coached O'Brien at Brown. He recommended him as a graduate assistant to George O'Leary at Georgia Tech. Bernhardt serves as sounding board, éminence grise, and doorkeeper to O'Brien.
"He worked for George and Ralph [Friedgen]," Bernhardt said of O'Brien, "but the guy I see in him is Belichick."
O'Brien didn't reference his boss at the Patriots in every meeting or every talk to the players. But when O'Brien plucks an anecdote out of his past to illustrate a point, Belichick usually serves as leading man.
As O'Brien watched the Ohio defense with his offensive staff, O'Brien told a story from 2008, his first season as a position coach with the Patriots. O'Brien handled the wide receivers.
He said, "Bill used to tell them, 'You got two jobs -- get open, and catch the ball. I don't give a f--- whether you block.'
"And then," O'Brien said, laughing, "[I'd] have to go in there and get them to block."
As a former honors student at Belichick University, O'Brien has pounded into his players' skulls the fundamental rules that he learned in New England. They are:
1. Know your role
2. Do your job
It's difficult to convince a 21-year-old who works as hard as college football players work, and as eager to please their coaches (and NFL scouts) as most players are, that coming out of the game isn't a measure of weakness.
Fifth-year center Matt Stankiewitch would rather cut a finger off with a rusty saw than rotate to the sideline. When he conveyed that sentiment to O'Brien this week, O'Brien saw more selfishness than desire.
O'Brien told the staff that Stankiewitch said, "I read in an article that you said you were going to rotate your offensive line. I don't want to come out of the game."
"Matt," O'Brien replied, "don't read the article."
The topic sat as a burr under O'Brien's saddle until he addressed it at the team meeting Thursday.
"He worked for George [O'Leary] and Ralph [Friedgen], but the guy I see in him is Belichick."” -- Assistant Jimmy Bernhardt on O'Brien
"When we take you out for a series, we're doing it for the good of the team," O'Brien said, triggering the warning light on his intensity level. "We're doing what's best for the football team, not what's best for you. We're doing what's best for the team to win the football game. When someone comes in to give you a break because its 82 degrees, take the break so that, in the fourth quarter, you will be fresher."
Point made, but still worked up, O'Brien pivoted to shore up his team's confidence.
"I see a lot of good f------ players," he said, "and we have been through a lot in the last two months. Nobody begged you to stay. Nobody begged me to stay. You guys have conditioned and practiced your asses off, and you do everything we've asked you to do. Keep understanding what's important, so that when we get into that locker room after the game, we are celebrating a win. Is everybody on the same page?"
The meeting adjourned. After an hour of meetings, the Nittany Lions conducted what one coach described as the best practice of the week
The influence Belichick had on O'Brien as a tactician became evident in practice Friday. For most of the 90-minute "walk-through," the Nittany Lions performed reps in key situations. O'Brien gave the formation, the down, the yard line, and, if germane, the time left.
"Plus-35!" he yelled, meaning the opponents' 35-yard-line. "Twenty-five seconds to go in the game. We need a field goal to win. No timeouts."
McGloin took the offense into the end zone.
O'Brien put the punt team on the Penn State 1 and had them practice taking a safety.
He put the offense on the Penn State 20, needing to go 80 yards for the winning touchdown on the last play of the game.
"In the NFL, every game is a close game," O'Brien said, "It doesn't matter who you're playing. It's going to come down to five or six plays, who does the best on third down, who does the best in the red area, who can score in two-minute I just thought Bill was the best at simplifying things for the team."
Former Penn State All-American tailback Curt Warner watched the walk-through from the sideline.
"I was impressed," Warner said. "In the middle of a game, sometimes, you're not paying attention, and things happen."
Everyone on the staff searched for little things that might make a difference in the game. Bernhardt created a time chart for O'Brien to use to determine when Penn State safely could take a knee and run out the clock.
Fitzgerald, the strength coach, had his own "little thing" for each player -- a recovery suit. The form-fitting tops and leggings, known as compression wear, constrict muscle movement and increase circulation.
"Regen and recover," Fitzgerald told the team during Wednesday lifting. "From a week of practice and lifting, we want to get ourselves feeling as good as possible on Saturday."
He held the suit up and instructed the players to wear it from the time they put on their travel suits Friday night until they awaken Saturday.
"It's kind of a massage, compression deal where it's moving blood throughout your body while you wear it," Fitzgerald said. "Cutting-edge s---. I don't care if it's uncomfortable when it's first on. When you come down to training table, you're going to be feeling like this," whereby he skipped like a grade-schooler.
Redshirt sophomore guard Miles Dieffenbach, all 6-foot-3, 300 pounds of him, squeezed into his suit looking like an Escalade in a space marked "Compact Car Only."
"It was a bit of a struggle," Dieffenbach said with a smile. "It makes me feel all cuddled up tonight. Makes me look ripped."
The benefits may be as much psychological as physical. But that was OK with Fitzgerald. Nearly every player wore his compression gear at the team hotel Friday night.
There may have been 20 minutes before the team meeting began but most of the coaches already had arrived. O'Brien sat in the front, hunched over, his notes and a Diet Pepsi close at hand. No one spoke. Even as the rest of the team filed in, the noise never rose above a collective murmur.
The head coach spoke for four-and-a-half minutes. Here are the highlights:
But you know as well as I do, if we play our game, if we play physical, we play the way we're supposed to play, that we should win the game.” -- Bill O'Brien, the day before the opener versus Ohio
"Guys, here are a couple of things I want you to remember for tomorrow. No. 1 is, I want you guys to play -- listen to me now, pay attention to what I'm saying -- I want you guys to play with confidence. You guys have put in so much time over the last eight months. In the weight room, on the practice field, in training camp, in spring practice -- all of those things need to show up tomorrow. Because you deserve to go out there and play with ultimate confidence.
"Now, in my opinion, and I'm sure in your opinion, and I know in the staff's opinion, we're the better football team. We're the more physical football team. We're the smarter football team. We're a team that's playing for a big damn cause. It's our day to go out there and put it all together. That's No. 1.
"This is a good football team coming in here. I'm not taking anything away from them. This is a team that won the MAC last year, was in the MAC championship game. This is a team that won 10 games, won their first bowl game in the history of their program last year. They're returning a lot of players.
"But you know as well as I do, if we play our game, if we play physical, we play the way we're supposed to play, that we should win the game.
"The team that makes the least amount of mistakes tomorrow is the team that's going to win. That's the team that's going to win. That's going to be this team that's sitting in this room right here. Play with poise. Control your emotions at the beginning of the game. Control your emotions. Celebrate with your teammates. Don't celebrate by yourself. We've come together as a team. We are one team. We're led by a great senior class. The senior class has a lot to do with the strength of this football team. So go out there tomorrow and lead us."
Curfew was at 10 p.m.
Penn State fans wanting to move on from the scandal have waited for this day since January. Bill O'Brien has waited for this day for his entire professional life.
O'Brien let the team know Thursday that he wanted a game-day locker room long on focus and short on distraction. That might have been easier had the Nittany Lion fans not been six deep at the barricades -- and 10 deep on the hill behind the barricades -- as the team's four blue buses arrived at the tunnel entrance in the south end zone at 9:25 a.m.
After that momentary eruption of love and support, the players returned to their cocoon. In each locker hung a blue jersey with a name on it -- a first in Penn State history.
O'Brien, who wore a sweatshirt and warm-up pants to the spring game, honored his opener by wearing slacks and a white quarter-zip golf shirt over a blue long-sleeved shirt. He couldn't remember the last time he got that dressed up for a game.
He said he controlled his nerves by putting the game in perspective.
"It is not life or death," O'Brien said. "I think about my son [Jack] a lot. I do picture his face and what's he doing right now. My wife and my other son [Michael], too. That definitely helps. The players are nervous. The coaches have to be calm. We're the adults."
Maybe so, but leading up to the game, the 16 men who dressed in the coaches' locker room made about 1,600 trips to the urinals in the adjacent bathroom.
Fifteen minutes before kickoff, O'Brien said, "This might be the longest two hours of my entire life."
Worse than the Super Bowl last January?
"Oh, God," he said. "That was painful."
Big Ten teams are not supposed to lose to teams from the Mid-American Conference. Against the 13 teams currently in the MAC, Penn State had an all-time record of 19-2. There had been the 24-6 loss to Toledo in 2000, and a 10-0 loss to Buffalo 100 years before.
But Ohio didn't represent the typical MAC team. The Bobcats went 10-4 last season, when they won the MAC East. Ohio's offense had nine fourth- or fifth-year starters playing for a coach in his eighth year. Solich, with a career record of 108-59 (.647) at Nebraska (1998-2003) and Ohio (2005- ), is well respected among his peers, including those on the opposite sideline.
"On second and short they are not a 'Take a shot' team," Roof said earlier in the week. "They are a 'Move the chains' team."
Added linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden, "He plays winning football. He is not trying to win the press conference. He's trying to win the game."
O'Brien gathered the team around him in the middle of the locker room. He spoke for fewer than 40 seconds, hitting the same themes he had hit at the hotel the night before, but with much, much more emotion in his voice.
"Not everything is going to perfect," O'Brien said. "Play the next play! Play fast! Play hard! Take care of your teammates, and let's f------ go!"
The team herded itself into the tunnel. The last two players out, roommate and roommate, quarterback and center, McGloin and Stankiewitch, held hands.
"I want to let him know I will protect him wherever he goes, on the field or off," Stankiewitch said. "Walking through the tunnel, I want him to have that security, that his offensive line is going to protect him."
The Nittany Lions played fast. Lord knows, they played hard. But they didn't follow the rest of O'Brien's script. It was not that they made mistakes, although they did. Starting running back Bill Belton fumbled away the opening possession at the Ohio 21. It was that Penn State had this game in their grasp and let it get away.
Despite that opening fumble, the Nittany Lions ground out a 14-3 lead at the half. Two offensive drives had also reached midfield. O'Brien didn't like that he had passed the ball twice as much as he had run. He liked his no-huddle and two-minute offense all week, yet didn't use them as much as he planned.
"Guys, you gotta get out of this mentality," he said to the offense. "You guys, I don't want you to be overconfident, but just listen to me. I'm telling you -- you're f------ good! We gotta take the ball and drive it down the field! We can't turn it over. We gotta catch the ball on third down. We got good plays! We just gotta finish drives. Really, in my opinion, we should have 28 points."
O'Brien has been put in an impossible situation. A young man who has never been a head coach and never had to live out his career in the media spotlight has done so almost flawlessly. At his Tuesday press conference, he gave thoughtful answers to four questions about the NCAA sanctions, revealing his irritation only by beginning each answer with the word, "Again "
But standing with his team in his locker room in his stadium, O'Brien said what he feels without the filter of a news conference microphone.
"Guys, play with confidence! And remember this word: finish. I don't give a f--- what's happened here in the past! We're here now! You're here now! Let's finish drives and let's finish these sonofabitches this half. We gotta take care of the ball and string plays together."
Ohio took the second-half kickoff, and chipped away at the Penn State defense. On third-and-7 at the Penn State 43, it appeared as the Nittany Lions would hold. Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton threw into the middle of the field, right at two Penn State defenders. The ball sailed through the hands of safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, whose fingers tipped the ball straight to Bobcat wide receiver Landon Smith. He sprinted into the end zone, and just like that the momentum of the game shifted.
In the end, Penn State couldn't match Ohio's experience. The longer the game went on, the shorter yardage that Ohio had on third down. Ohio moved the chains, converting 11 of 12 third downs in the second half. Ohio strung plays together, keeping the ball for 18:08 of the second half.
O'Brien never realized his hope of balancing the run-pass scale in his offense. Penn State ran the ball 22 times and threw it 48 times. It didn't help that the Nittany Lions had to play catch-up. It really didn't help that Belton sprained his left ankle late in the third quarter. Ohio pulled away to a 24-14 victory, outscoring Penn State, 21-0, in the second half.
The locker room that began the day quiet got quiet again. But this was not an expectant quiet. This was a quiet of disappointment.
"One game," O'Brien told his team in the locker room. "That's all it is. I gotta do a much better job. We gotta coach better, we gotta play better, and we've got to stick together. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Nobody ever said anything was easy. That's one game. We learn from our mistakes in that game, and we move on to Virginia. We keep doing things the right way."
There was a cough here, a sniffle there.
When Belton emerged from the training room on crutches, several players stopped by his locker to ask about his ankle. It didn't hurt as much as his pride. He had the role of replacing the most high-profile of the sanction transfers. Belton rushed for 53 yards on 13 carries, lost a fumble and missed the fourth quarter.
"Obviously, we were the better team," Belton said. He gave Ohio credit for the victory but that wasn't what he felt in his heart. "They got their confidence up. We play this game on another day, 10 times out of 10 we're beating this team."
O'Brien's answers at his news conference indicated he learned something else from Belichick -- his media wrangling. Six times, O'Brien rebuffed questions by saying that he and/or his staff had to coach better.
After he showered, after he and Roof sat in O'Brien's dressing room and quietly discussed the loss, O'Brien emerged with one bag over each shoulder.
"I really think that we're going to turn that film on and see that we did some good things," O'Brien said. "We didn't lose to a bad team. It's certainly not good. But it's going to be OK. We got a long way to go. We didn't start the way we wanted to. We're 0-1. But it's our first game together. There's going to be a lot of improvement from Game 1 to Game 2. It's not the end of the world. I just know we're going to turn that film on and see we did some good things."
O'Brien arrived at his office before dawn Sunday.
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