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NFL Calls Again for Bill O'Brien: What Robert Frost, NASCAR and 'Blink' Have to Say

by on December 15, 2013 10:45 PM

Penn State’s no-huddle, up-tempo NASCAR offense is only the start.

Since Bill O’Brien stepped foot on the Penn State campus nearly two years ago, it’s been a NASCAR life.

Not hyper-fast and not (usually) furious, but always in overdrive. And almost always in sweats.

That’s been the case since his first day at Penn State, on Jan. 7, 2012. (O’Brien was on the job for all of three days when his new boss, Rod Erickson, announced his retirement. (That always makes you feel good about your new workplace.)

Still, since that time, O’Brien has followed the coaching advice of fellow New Englander Robert Frost: “…and miles to go before I sleep.”

Like at 5:07 p.m. Sunday afternoon, when he hurriedly departed ahead of the crowd at the State College Quarterback Club’s senior banquet as the event was concluding with a 2013 season highlight video. Minutes before, he had praised his team and staff and coaches – including departed assistants Ron Vanderlinden and Charlie Fisher – to hundreds of Nittany Lion boosters at The Penn Stater.

Then he apologized. On short notice, the event had started 30 minutes early and proceeded along at a brisk pace. That was so O’Brien and a few of his assistants could dash through the snow to University Park Airport, where they grabbed a Penn State plane to suburban Harrisburg and then raced to HersheyPark Stadium.

“I appreciate you bearing with us and the fact that this a fast banquet…” O’Brien said, then quipped to the crowd’s great delight: “…this is a NASCAR banquet, that’s what this is."

O’Brien’s goal was to make the 6 p.m. kickoff in Hershey for the AAAA state championship football game between Pittsburgh Central Catholic and Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s. The game was postponed from Saturday due to snow throughout the state. O’Brien said there were players on both teams he wanted to see. Ryan Snyder, the Rivals.com analyst covering Penn State and Maryland, said St. Joe’s John Reid was a prime target.

“Reid’s a defensive back in the Class of the 2015 and he was the top kid to look at in that game,” said Snyder. “He already has 15-20 offers and he’s only a junior.”

(St. Joseph's won, 35-10; Reid caught a 59-yard TD pass; there were photos of O'Brien with little kids all a-Twitter -- "Casually making friends with Penn State's football head coach," read one Tweet; and the coach appeared on PCN, all bundled up.)

Over the past week or so, O’Brien was also in New Jersey for a high school football playoff game and a football banquet, and he was at Yankee Stadium watching much-sought-after recruit Thomas Holley -- a defensive tackle from Abraham Lincoln High School playing in only the 21st football game of his life -- in the PSAL championships.

The last time O’Brien saw football on campus was over Thanksgiving, when the Nittany Lions were practicing for their season-ending road contest at Wisconsin, a 31-24 upset. The game was true to form. Penn State has been an underdog since O’Brien succeeded Joe Paterno as head coach. A long shot, even. Almost from the start, OB has been playing with house money, albeit a very short stack. A lot of the goodwill that Penn State, and Penn State football, had built up over decades was spent. Just like that.

QUICKLY YET DELIBERATELY

In refilling the larder over the 101 weeks since then, O’Brien has had to act quickly yet deliberately. Sometimes, in a controlled fury. He has had to make football and personnel decisions that he – and every other Bear, Nick and Woody -- has never made before. As much as coach, O’Brien is decision-maker. Sunday proved that. No way he was going to miss that state title game. So he made decisions – start the banquet early, figuratively and literally fly right out of there – and stuck with them. As his predecessor used to say, you win with the Johnny’s and Joe’s, not the X’s and O’s. That’s Johnny’s, as in Reid.

The multitude and speed with which O’Brien has had to make decisions from the get-go is ginormous. Juggling the Super Bowl and putting together a new staff at a scandal-torn campus. Taking his team to the funeral of his predecessor. Rallying when the sanctions hit. Recruiting without bowls and with fewer scholarships. Rebuilding with a skeletal crew at times and at places.

Those decisions had to come quickly, sometimes without time for planning or foresight. O’Brien is the master of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” – decisions made quickly, distinctly, yet expertly. Yet O’Brien, most assuredly a product of the halls of One Patriot Place, Foxborough, MA 02035-1388, is also a guy who loves to create structure, foster professional discourse and, above all, game plan.

As the head coach of scandal-torn Penn State and also an offensive play-caller, O’Brien is the same. And, we are seeing, what he does best. Plan like crazy, so that when circumstances jump up – like slashed scholarships or a fourth-and-5, down 24-14 in the third quarter -- you have the wherewithal to think quickly and act faster. The NASCAR offense is built on hours of practice and repetition, as are the NASCAR mind and The Football Life of Bill O’Brien.

Here’s what Gladwell says about Blink and maybe Bill: “It’s thinking – it’s just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with ‘thinking.’”

So, while his agent may be talking the calls, O’Brien is thinking about his future too. At Penn State and not at Penn State. That’s not a secret. He’s done so since, at least, he was offensive coordinator at Notre Dame for a week in 2001 and then quickly contemplated a career in the NFL. This is a guy who quit a fairly cozy, mid-stress-level, six-figure-paying position at a midway-decent college team for a gopher’s job in the NFL at half his salary but twentyfold his career options. This was a guy who by the Fourth of July in 2012, before the sanctions broke, had Penn State's offensive game plans for the first three games already set.

OB IS OF TWO MINDS TOO

Which leads us to Texas or Minnesota or Washington or maybe even New York(s). One report by CBS Sports and a separate one by John McClain of the Houston Chronicle say at least the first two NFL franchises have come a’calling.

O’Brien has planned for that too. Or, really, two.

Since this time last year:

O’Brien has a new agent. He has a new contract. He has a new, smaller NFL buyout. He has a $935K bonus already in the bank. He has a $836K paycheck, counting bonuses, due at month’s end. He has another season of stature and respect, with wins over ranked Michigan and Wisconsin. He has a walk-on quarterback in the NFL and a first-year quarterback who was the Big Ten Freshman of Year. He knows he’s good enough to be a head coach in the NFL.

Since this time last year:

O’Brien is on the cusp of three new coaches of his choosing (No. 1: Anthony Midget, who was hired last winter when Ted Roof left). He has new team doctors. He has Tom Brady Jr. He has an advocating associate AD to help with finances and logistics. He has a marketing firm selling football. He has (re)new(ed) scholarships for more and better players. He’s constructed a recruiting machine. He thinks Penn State can be good enough to again win a national championship.

Kate Upton meet Mila Kunas. Lucky Bill.

All credit to Bill, BTW. Both sets of circumstances are of his doing. Both aspirations are achievable, but eventually you have to pick one. Sunday night, O’Brien was worried about John Reid and Co. The fruits of that short-term decision (recruiting flight vs. saying booster good nights) for Penn State won't see the field -- at least -- until Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015.

O’Brien, the architect of a top-notch recruiting machine, no doubt knows this as well: Penn State’s game that 2015 opening day is against Temple, and it’s being played at The Linc – located just 6.1 miles from Reid’s high school, St. Joe’s Prep. Know this too: The best part about coaching, for O'Brien, is the kids.

It’s that kind of prep, while simultaneously flooring it in NASCAR fashion since he arrived in a-not-so-happy valley, that has given O’Brien the ability to fast-track any decisions about his future. When that times comes, not if. O’Brien, all of 44, will head to the NFL no doubt, just maybe not now. Meantime, he’ll retool his staff, fly off to Hershey and yell at the Rec Hall refs with equal parts urgency and joy.

A FROST-Y SITUATION

As it is now, as it will be every winter until he eventually leaves Penn State, O’Brien will be faced with the dilemma confronted by over-achievers everywhere, this one too outlined by Frost:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both … I shall be telling this with a sign, somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

He’s already got that last line covered.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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