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."

A test

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."