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Even This Week, at Penn State Bill O’Brien’s Focus is Still on Football

by on July 22, 2013 1:30 AM

The secret to coach Bill O’Brien’s success at Penn State? Focus.

A meeting this Monday morning with his assistant coaches? First on O'Brien's to-do list is to remind them that while the in-house position-by-position seminars they delivered to their colleagues this summer were good, the lectures are not worth anything if the players don’t understand the lessons.

“It’s not what you know,” O’Brien will tell his assistant coaches, each in the profession for an average of 24.7 years. “It’s what the players know.”

The one-year anniversary of the NCAA sanctions on Tuesday? He’s already met with the team, reminded them to focus on what’s ahead – on the field – and why they’ve been working so hard through the long, hot off-season.

Going to the Big Ten media days in Chicago on Wednesday and Thursday? Put it into perspective: “It can’t compare to what we went through last year,” O’Brien says, with a small laugh. That’s when he, Michael Mauti and Co. went to Chicago to feed a media frenzy just 72 hours after the sanctions were announced in 2012. As ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski put it last July 26: “For every one question about actual football -- and there weren't many -- there were a dozen others about the aftermath of crippling NCAA sanctions levied against the program.”

Going to the office? Make it quick. O’Brien’s drive from his home on the outskirts of State College to the front door of Lasch Building, a quick left off of University Drive onto Hastings Road, takes less than a dozen minutes. And that includes a stop at his beloved Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s not much of a transition at all, but it’s all he has.

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It’s a drive he often makes before the sun comes up, even in the summer.

Focus. Every. Morning.

“The first thing I think about every morning when I get into the office is how we can do things better for the players, as a staff, as a program, as the head coach,” O’Brien said recently. “That has to be my focus every day.”

The love of the game is why he got into coaching right out of Brown, with stops in Atlanta, College Park and Durham. And it’s why he took a huge gamble and grabbed onto a lowly assistant’s job in 2007 with the New England Patriots, where he eventually rose to offensive coordinator. His take-home pay his first year with the Pats was about 2.5% what he will make this year with Penn State. Focus pays off.

Of course, O’Brien’s job description now is a bit different, too. In fact, it’s unlike that which anyone has ever seen in college athletics. It is so vast, so heavy, that it could consume an individual – if not lose him in the black hole of the Sandusky scandal and its never-ending aftermath.

So far, O’Brien has avoided that pitfall. Still, there’s been enough to fill his plate and have enough room for seconds and thirds and more. Let’s see: sanctions, lawsuits, recruiting restrictions, lame duck presidents, athletic directors in limbo, unsold tickets, message board mobs, Ireland road trips and … well, you can fill in the rest of the blanks.

O’Brien’s focus over his first 19 months on the job as Penn State’s football coach has been on all of the above – and more. That’s been out of necessity more than desire. For all his smarts, you have to believe O’Brien would have rather dissected Urban’s new Diamond offensive formation last week than deliver a PowerPoint to a disjointed group of trustees.

The paradigm will soon shift.

After O’Brien returns home Thursday night from Chicago’s Big Ten media circus with John Urschel, Glenn Carson and Malcolm Willis in tow, it will be just 10 days until the second-year head coach holds his first official, full-squad meeting of the 2013 season.

From that point on, the focus will be (mostly) on football.

And if you’re Bill O’Brien – and a lot of Nittany Lion football fans -- you have to be thinking it can’t get here soon enough.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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