Bill O'Brien's brief time with Terps helped him prepare for the challenge ahead
As Patriots offensive coordinator and Penn State's new head coach, O'Brien is smack in the middle of the two biggest sports stories in the country
Bill O'Brien is the focus of much attention as he takes over the football program at Penn State and prepares the New England Patriots' offense for Super Bowl XLVI. (Abby Drey, McClatchy-Tribune / January 8, 2012)
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Then, a roar.
"I knew," he said. "The stadium told me."
Billy Cundiff had missed his 32-yard field goal, giving New England a 23-20 win over the Ravens in the AFC championship a week ago.
O'Brien — who on Jan. 6 became the unexpected answer to a question people have been asking for decades by being named Joe Paterno's successor at Penn State — swears that in that moment he, too, exhaled. Despite bouncing between two jobs that happen to be at the center of the two biggest sports stories going, the former Maryland assistant speaks like any coach; O'Brien talks reverently of opponents past and challenges ahead.
"We know we got away with beating a Ravens team. We respect the hell out of them," O'Brien told The Baltimore Sun in a phone interview a day after the game. "There's a lot that could be said about how we played that game and what we need to fix. But, look, in the end we beat a damn good football team."
On Monday, O'Brien, 42, was excused from the Patriots' early Super Bowl planning so he could tend to his other job. In State College he began looking for a new home, checked in with his staff on the status of recruiting and was briefed on all of the plans for honoring Paterno, who had died hours before the game Sunday.
This is O'Brien's life now, trying to balance his part in the world's greatest sporting spectacle with the responsibility of replacing a legend whose firing amid a sexual abuse scandal rocked one of college football's most successful programs. The Patriots have assigned him his own administrative assistant to help with the transition, and his staff at Penn State — all but two are new hires — has handled the bulk of the recruiting and advance planning.
As he very publicly shifts from a cog in one of pro football's most proficient franchises to the face of a football team at a university defined by its old coach, he'll rely on many lessons learned during two years spent coaching the Terps.
Bright, intense, competitive
Nine years ago, O'Brien came to College Park as a mostly anonymous part of Ralph Friedgen's coaching staff at Maryland.
The two had met at Georgia Tech when O'Brien, a grad student, picked the new offensive coordinator up at the airport.
"He was bright and intense and competitive," Friedgen said this week. "Nothing has changed."
With the Yellow Jackets, O'Brien had been Friedgen's eyes in the sky. He was the man on the other end of the headset, charged with quickly relaying formations and calling out substitutions. Even then, just six years removed from his career playing linebacker at Brown, he had uncanny vision and understanding.
"His was a natural feel for the game," said Friedgen, who was dismissed by the Terps in 2010 after a 9-4 season. "Lots of guys can study film and eventually figure it out. With Billy, it was more natural. He put two and two together, made it better. The things I see him do now, I'm intrigued."
O'Brien served as Maryland's running backs coach for just two seasons (2003-04), but he had broad influence over the offense and left a lasting impression.
"You could tell that Coach O'Brien was really one of Coach Friedgen's guys," said Kyle Schmitt, an offensive lineman for Maryland who is now the head coach at Atholton. "He had to understand every facet of the offense, and he did. He could coach any of us. There weren't many people who understood every single part of the offense that way."
O'Brien credits Friedgen with preparing him for the job of being a head coach.
"He was such a patient teacher, and a guy who could really see every part of the program," he said.
Running back Josh Allen, who ran for a total of 1,455 yards in O'Brien's two years, spent long hours watching film with O'Brien during position meetings. Upon spotting a mistake, O'Brien's temper — made famous when a shouting match with New England quarterback Tom Brady was captured on video earlier this season — would begin to flare.
"I think anyone who has been around Coach O'Brien, the thing they remember, the thing that haunts them, is that stare," said Allen, a personal trainer who lives in Silver Spring. "When he gets going, he's fired up and saying a lot of things we can't talk about in the newspaper. But that stare, that's the calm before the storm. He locks on you with those blue eyes, just stares you down."
Tight end Jeff Dugan, who played seven years with the Minnesota Vikings but was cut prior to this season, said he and his teammates at Maryland related to O'Brien passionate, no-nonsense style.
"You could tell he cared," he said. "And that's what players want. Yeah, he'd yell. But he was telling you exactly what he wanted. He harped on every detail, and that's what you want as a player. He did everything he could to make you better."
O'Brien knows that, given the extenuating circumstances, it's unlikely that the entire Penn State fan base will be quick to accept him. They've questioned whether a man with no head-coaching experience is ready for a role that is as much figure head and CEO as it is football coach.
"There are always going to be people who don't agree with the decision, or with our decisions," he said. "But we're going to try to get to know the Penn State fans and what they expect and do right by them."
O'Brien did have a short conversation with Paterno — the two share an alma mater — after accepting the job.
"It was an honor, just to hear him talk about what he built and what he hopes can carry on," O'Brien said.
While former Maryland players said O'Brien has always been a leader — "You realized pretty quickly that he's a guy who earns respect, whatever his position is," Dugan said — Allen said it's fair to "wait and see" how O'Brien deals with the pressures of his new position.
"We'll have to see how that goes," he said. "He's a guy who is always going to be straightforward. But this isn't going to be a normal job. Fixing the university is going to come first, and I'm sure he's up to that."
Said Friedgen: "He's got a big job there, replacing a legend and dealing with the situation they have and the reaction of the former players who wanted a Penn State guy. He can handle it, but it will be a test."
Dugan, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, where Penn State football was "a way of life," thinks O'Brien can live up to the Paterno legend.
"He's a throwback coach," he said. "That's really what he is, to the core. He knows the game, but he's about more than that. He's tough, hard-nosed, wants to do it right."
Great man, great coach
When Schmitt was a senior, his younger brother — officially Andrew, but everybody called him Dewey — walked on to the football team. He wasn't invited to camp — meaning he wasn't one of the top 105 players on the team — and instead served as a manager for a few weeks.
"Coach O'Brien, I think he noticed that Dewey was having trouble with the other guys on the team once the season started," Schmitt said. "They only wanted to view him as a manager."
Early during the week of Maryland's third game, at West Virginia, O'Brien pulled Schmitt aside and made him a promise: Dewey would make the trip, giving their family — which lived in Western Pennsylvania — an opportunity to see both boys suit up together.
"Sure enough, the end of the week comes and Dewey is named scout player of the week, meaning he gets to go," Schmitt said. "That's just something I'll always remember. It says a lot about Coach O'Brien as a leader."
Allen tore up his knee in the final regular season game of 2004. One day a few weeks later, O'Brien came to visit.
"I'd been laid up in my dorm, couldn't really go anywhere," Allen said. "And here's Coach O'Brien, come to tell me that he's going to Duke [to be the offensive coordinator] and explaining his decision and asking if I had questions. I was hurt, might never play again, and he's taking the time to do that, telling me I could call him whenever I need him.
"Whatever other people might think, that's the mark of a great man, a great coach."