Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Football [Print without images]

Sunday, January 1, 2012
Updated: January 3, 9:49 AM ET
Sources: Bill O'Brien is top candidate

By Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen
ESPN

Penn State has identified New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien as the coach it wants to succeed Joe Paterno, sources told ESPN. The two sides are expected to meet this week to try to work out a deal.

With New England getting ready to head into its bye week before the AFC divisional playoffs, and with Penn State's season finishing up Monday against Houston in the TicketCity Bowl, the school is expected to intensify its efforts to hire O'Brien.

Last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak was the school's choice to succeed Paterno. Munchak responded to the report saying he wasn't leaving Tennessee. On Saturday, sources told ESPN's Joe Schad that Munchak was torn about reconsidering that stance.

Penn State has been eyeing, scouting and honing in on the 42-year-old O'Brien throughout the past month, sources said. He fits the profile of the head coach Penn State has been seeking. O'Brien is well-schooled and has a mixture of experience at the college and pro levels. In an odd coincidence, O'Brien even attended and played football at Brown, as Paterno did.

O'Brien is in the last year of his contract as the Patriots offensive coordinator.

"Bill is focusing on another Super Bowl run," O'Brien's agent, Joe Linta, said Sunday. "However, if an NFL team or Penn State seeks permission from Bill Belichick, then Bill will speak to them."

At a Penn State pep rally Sunday outside the Cotton Bowl, acting athletic director David Joyner cut off a reporter's question about the report and said, "No, don't believe anything you read in the newspapers. I was taught that long time ago."

He answered "No," when asked if anyone could be classified as a leading candidate.

"We haven't hired anybody yet, the search committee is still working on it," president Rodney Erickson said at the pep rally. "We're taking our time in a very deliberative kind of fashion."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick wouldn't comment on O'Brien after his team's win on Sunday.

"We were just trying to beat Buffalo today and we're moving on to whatever's next," he said. "I don't have anything to say about any other situation other than the New England Patriots."

Tom Brady said he has a "great relationship" with O'Brien.

"He's been a great coach and friend. ... We have a great relationship; probably a very unique relationship in that we communicate all the time," the quarterback said. "I always enjoy working with him and he's done an incredible job with this team and this offense. He expects nothing less than our best. ... I don't know what's going to happen. I hope he's here for a long time and I told him that too."

New England has a recent history of grooming its offensive coordinators for head coaching jobs. Charlie Weis went from Patriots offensive coordinator to Notre Dame head coach, Josh McDaniels went from Patriots offensive coordinator to Broncos head coach, and O'Brien succeeded McDaniels in New England and has developed a tremendous reputation in league circles.

Penn State has attempted, and largely succeeded, to conduct its head-coaching search at the highest levels of secrecy. What can be confirmed is that, at the outset of the search, Penn State failed to land some of its top choices for the job. Former Colts head coach Tony Dungy and Boise State head coach Chris Peterson all received interest from the school, and each relayed to Penn State that he was not interested in leaving his current job at this time.

San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman has also interviewed for the Penn State job, an NFL source said.

Adam Schefter is ESPN's NFL Insider. Chris Mortensen is ESPN's senior NFL analyst. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.