By JIM LITKE
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien settled in behind a microphone early in the week for what was, by far, the second most-anticipated talk of the day in and around State College, Pa.
What followed was standard coach’s fare.
“It helps to have a great staff,” O’Brien said at one point.
“You can’t be up-and-down in this business,” he said at another.
The reporters on the other end of the teleconference call wanted more, specifics about how O’Brien engineered a turnaround that drove Penn State to four straight wins and cast him as the early favorite for national coach of the year honors. But he wasn’t biting.
“There’s a lot of great coaches in this country,” he said. “I’ve only coached six games my whole career. That’s the farthest thing from my mind.”
A few hours earlier in a courtroom in Bellefonte, some 10 miles to the north, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison after delivering a rambling, 15-minute speech that sounded at times like a pregame pep talk. He portrayed himself as a victim, instead of the perpetrator, in the child sex abuse scandal that disgraced the university where he worked for 30 years and the coach who didn’t do enough to stop him. With his wife, Dottie, sitting in the gallery, Sandusky said, “Hopefully we can get better as a result of our hardship and suffering, that somehow, some way, something good will come out of this.”
Something already has.
O’Brien took a job that few coaches wanted, and against all odds made the product on the field matter again. The program he inherited from Joe Paterno was undercut by the defections of the team’s best running back, top receiver and its kicker — more than a dozen players in all — and the Nittany Lions will be hamstrung until 2020 by the wide-ranging sanctions the NCAA imposed over the summer. While the debate still simmered over whether they should even be playing, the Nittany Lions opened the season with two disheartening losses.
“I knew a lot of people were arguing, a lot of them didn’t agree with me being the head coach,” O’Brien said over the phone after practice Tuesday evening. “But I never really sat back and thought, ‘How do you go about replacing a coaching legend?’ I knew no one was ever going to replace Joe Paterno. So the only thing I tried to be was myself.”
Most of those people who worried whether any coach could maintain perspective in the midst of that maelstrom had no idea who the 42-year-old O’Brien was. They knew him only as the offensive coordinator under Bill Belichick in New England the past seven years, not as the father of a 10-year-old son named Jack, who suffers seizures when he awakes every morning and has limited motor skills because of a rare genetic brain malformation known as lissencephaly. O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, shared that part of the family’s story with a New York Times reporter just before the season began — not to prove that his priorities were in order, but in the hope that it might provide comfort to others.
“Millions of families go through this,” he told the newspaper. “Hopefully by doing stuff like this, we can help other families feel better about their situation. I don’t want people to think we’re the only family going through this. We’re not saying, ‘Woe is us.’”
O’Brien brought that same attitude to work every day and by dint of hard work, patiently turned the Nittany Lions’ weaknesses into strengths. Instead of an attack that relied on running back Silas Redd, who lit out for USC in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, O’Brien drew on his experience at New England and turned former walk-on quarterback Matt McGloin into a budding Tom Brady. After kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals, including a potential game-winner in the final seconds of a 17-16 loss to Virginia — the previous starter, Anthony Fera, lit out for Texas in the wake of those same NCAA sanctions — O’Brien refused to blame the inexperienced backup. Instead, he had the Nittany Lions try to convert fourth downs in a variety of unlikely situations — 20 times this season so far, including 5 of 6 successful conversions in a comeback win last Saturday against Northwestern.
“We’re fortunate to have the kids and the staff that we do. They committed to us in tough times. Matt McGloin is a very bright kid, he had plenty of experience playing in big games before I ever got here, so you have to give him a lot of credit. To this point, he and everyone else has done everything we asked,” O’Brien said.
“What I try to do in return is be decisive, whether it’s a meeting or a game-time decision. They may be the wrong decisions,” he laughed, “but there’s no hemming and hawing, we just go and make the best of things. I’ve learned that’s half the battle.”
Penn State has a bye week, then resumes Big Ten conference play Oct. 20 against Iowa, the start of what O’Brien calls the “meat of our schedule.” He’s stayed in touch with Belichick throughout, less for advice about X’s and O’s than for guidance on how a rookie head coach should conduct himself.
“He’s a competitor through and through,” Belichick said in an email. “Penn State hired a great person and a solid football man. I’m not surprised in the least at any success he’s had.”
O’Brien, though, isn’t taking anything for granted. He punctuates every other sentence about the Nittany Lions’ success with the words “to this point.”
“When the Penn State job opened up, I weighed the positives and negatives. It offers a great education, great football, a great stadium — those are all things I believe in,” he said. “And even though some tough times had just occurred and there are bound to be tough times ahead, I knew that down the road this could be a special place again.”
Reach at email@example.com or Twitter.com/JimLitke.