Commentary

Bill O'Brien ready for challenge

New Penn State coach making an immediate impact with recruits, looking to the future

Originally Published: January 18, 2012
By Jamie Newberg | ESPN Recruiting Nation

Adam Breneman (Camp Hill, Pa./Cedar Cliff) grew up wondering what it would be like to play football at Penn State. One of the nation's top junior prospects, Breneman, like most of the high school football prospects from Pennsylvania, anxiously awaited to hear who would take over the Nittany Lions.

When Breneman learned it was New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, there may not have been a happier person in the state.

"I am very excited about the hire of Coach O'Brien, knowing what he's done in New England," said Breneman, an Under Armour All-American tight end who has offers from Penn State, Florida State, Notre Dame and many other top programs. "I got a chance to watch them play a few times. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are two of my favorite tight ends. To see the things they do I don't think there's a better hire for me."

If only things could be like that all the time for O'Brien. But being the Penn State coach won't be easy and he knows it. Whether it's the Jerry Sandusky scandal or following coaching legend Joe Paterno or just trying to get recruits to give the program a chance, there is plenty of work to be done.

"It's an exciting time while in a real tough situation," O'Brien said. "The No. 1 thing that everyone must understand is that this staff and this team will be about integrity, honesty and hard work. We will uphold the standards of Penn State. We were not here when that all happened. It's time to move forward. There are people here investigating what happened. We are here to coach a program and win championships the Penn State way."

Some were upset that Penn State went with someone with no ties to the program. Others questioned hiring someone without previous head coaching experience. But O'Brien has worked his way up the coaching ranks, learning lessons from seasoned pros such as Bill Belichick, George O'Leary and Ralph Friedgen. Everyone has to get that first shot, and while O'Brien has come in extraordinary circumstances, it's one he has earned.

"Billy is someone that has worked extremely hard at his trade," said O'Leary, the head coach at Central Florida. "He has been in a lot of winning programs, and I always envisioned him being very successful. He's learned so much from a lot of really good people. But he has some big shoes to fill, and those shoes are Joe Paterno's. It's going to be difficult, especially with the problems up there. That compounds things and it makes it harder. And he's a first-time head coach and he's going to have to make some tough decisions along the way."

But the qualities O'Brien displays are what made him a good choice for the Nittany Lions.

"Penn State is getting a great leader and a guy that has been successful at every level," said Ted Roof, the Nittany Lions' new defensive coordinator. Roof worked with O'Brien under O'Leary at Georgia Tech and O'Brien was the offensive coordinator when Roof was the coach at Duke. In other words, he knows O'Brien as well as anyone.

"He's very articulate and communicates really well with kids. Billy has a real good feel for people and a guy that will be passionate about being the leader of this program. He's the total package," Roof said. "We have known each other a long time and if there's one thing about Billy is that he's genuine and a guy people can trust and believe in."

In recruiting, that's half the battle. He'll need to build relationships and mend some relationships that might have been wounded through the recent scandal. The first recruiting class is always the most difficult to assemble. Add to that the fact that O'Brien is still coaching in New England and there will be some trying times leading up to national signing day.

"I am trying to get ready [for playoff games] and had to put together a brand new staff," O'Brien said. "We are behind and have been here only a few days. We have a lot of work to do. We definitely have to keep the guys we have [committed]. I have watched all their film and like that group a lot. When it's time, we have to get out in the state and get out in the region and work it. We have to let everyone know that we are still in the market for good football players. I love what we have on defense. We need some [offensive] linemen, a quarterback and a running back. We need some guys, but they have to be the right guys."

The Nittany Lions have 15 commits, including their first since O'Brien took over, New Rochelle (N.Y.) Worcester Academy three-star defensive back Jordan Lucas. He committed to Penn State on Monday.

O'Brien and his staff meet every night via conference call. Official visits are going on and his coaches are on the road recruiting. First impressions will go a long way.

"I have known Billy because he recruited our school when he was at Georgia Tech and Duke," said Jeff Weachter, the coach at Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt. "He's a guy that I have always been very impressed with. He's a good guy with a lot of energy. And he's putting together an impressive staff. And remember one thing, they are still Penn State. It's Penn State. I think they will do very well in recruiting in the years to come. And I expect them to be much more aggressive in recruiting than what we saw before."

O'Brien has put together a notable staff, including Larry Johnson, a holdover from the Paterno staff who is one of the nation's best recruiters. In addition, he's bringing in four coaches who have won national championships at four different programs: Roof (Auburn), wide receiver coach Stan Hixon (LSU), offensive line coach Mac McWhorter (Texas) and linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden (Colorado).

And if New England were to win the Super Bowl, a shiny ring on O'Brien's finger wouldn't hurt when it came to recruiting.

"That staff has a track record of winning on the big stage and national championships," Breneman said. "It makes Penn State even more attractive. The only guys I know are Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden. Once I get to meet the rest of the staff I'll have a better feel. From their past track record it's very exciting that they won at different places and won national championships."

Penn State has always been known to play great defense. Now the Nittany Lions have an offensive-minded coach in O'Brien, who has helped New England lead the NFL in points per game, helped Tom Brady to a 5,000-yard passing season and has them one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. Recruits notice that type of thing.

"The Penn State offense hasn't been able to succeed in past years," said Plymouth (Pa.) Wyoming Valley West four-star WR commit Eugene Lewis. "Since he's coming, he'll be able to open up the offense a lot. I think it's a blessing and a good situation. They need guys to make big plays. Now I'm sure that Coach O'Brien will put guys in the right situation. He will put everybody in the best position to make that best play and use everyone's talents the way they should."

Still, that doesn't mean it will be a seamless transition. O'Brien hasn't coached in college since 2006, when he was with Roof at Duke. Lots of things have happened since then.

"I have been in the pros for five years and I can't believe how much recruiting has changed," O'Brien said. "You have different rules and you even watch tape differently. There's YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all that stuff. We didn't have that five years ago. I have to really get caught up with this technology stuff."

And let's face it, not every recruit is going to be excited to have Penn State visit.

"The Penn State coaches are coming down to see me even though I am not too fond of what happened there," said Trotwood (Ohio) Madison safety target Bam Bradley said recently.

But O'Brien insists that all he can do it work hard, build relationships and look to the future. And it's worked well so far.

"The parents have been great, and I have spoken with every commitment," O'Brien said. "There has been no backlash but everyone has to understand that we were not here then.

"I couldn't have asked for a better job and place than this. We have been well received. Sure, it will be a tough transition and I have only really on campus a few days. I know what a special place Penn State is."

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.