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Penn State Football: Bill O’Brien ‘Keeping This Place Afloat’

by on August 03, 2012 6:00 AM

The president of the Lettermen’s Club calls him “the face of Penn State” – not just Penn State football.

And his starting quarterback says “he is keeping this place afloat.”

Yet, the man they are talking about has yet to coach a game for Penn State.

Bill O’Brien is just seven months into his new job – but it seems like so much longer. And if it feels that way to you and me, imagine how it feels to him.

He’s handled the never-ending ring of fire better than the firm of Joyner Lubert Nichols Rose & Co. ever expected when they hired him in January.

Now, just one month and one day away from the 2012 season opener, O’Brien is not just the leader of his football team, but also of Penn State athletics and, in some ways, all of Penn State.

Just ask fifth-year senior quarterback Matt McGloin.

“What that man has done in such a short time he has been here,” McGloin said, “most coaches don’t do in their career.”

McGloin, too, has emerged as a positive and outspoken team leader, joining Michael Zordich and Michael Mauti as the voices of the players.

From one fiery, confident and vocal Irishman who wasn’t the original choice to get his current job to another, McGloin gets what O’Brien is all about.

“He is a fearless leader. I would not want to step on that field Sept. 1 with anyone leading us but him,” McGloin said. “He’s kept our team and fans together. He’s fighting for us everyday, which is why the fans and players are staying loyal to him.”

Count the former Nittany Lion players among that group.

Last Friday, O’Brien sent out a message to several hundred football-playing alumni, inviting them to campus on Tuesday, to meet with the coach, get an update on the program and firm up their support.

Nearly 300 lettermen responded to O’Brien’s call, and met with the first-year coach. He didn’t disappoint.

“He was great. Bill O’Brien is a fighter, a competitor and very intelligent,” said Lettermen Club president Tim Sweeney, who with Keith Conlin organized Tuesday’s “Rise and Rally” that drew 2,500 fans.

“Quite frankly, the way that he, his coaching staff and the players have responded to all of this adversity is the silver lining of all that has gone on.”

The past day, the past week, the entire year are unlike anything any coach has ever experienced. There is no playbook for what the man who calls himself OB is doing on a daily basis. Every day is an audible. Against an eight-man blitz.

How does he do it? O’Brien’s tools include a Brown degree in organizational behavior management, 20 years of coaching college and pro football at five stops, a half-decade with Bill Belichick, a smoldering passion, a smart and supportive spouse, a finely-calibrated sense of humor, a hunger for the written word and a focus that is figuratively and literally laser-sharp.

Those who have spent time alone with O’Brien say he’s a very quick and insightful read, who can adroitly assimilate and crystallize information, then deliver a message with a forthrightness and clarity that is both genuine and tinged with a wry view of circumstances.

Translation: Bill knows what's what and he’s not a bull-shitter.

The loyalty O’Brien has gained he has worked tirelessly to earn. Take the past week…please.

Last Saturday, he met with members of the 2013 recruiting class and their parents.

Sunday, he met with current players and their parents.

Tuesday night, he hosted the lettermen.

Wednesday, he had a disappointing (last) meeting with Bye-lis Redd.

Thursday night, he and his wife Colleen hosted an evening reception called “Women Leaders of Penn State” in the Bryce Jordan Center.

And that was just part of it.

We’re not even counting staff meetings and actual football preparations in advance of the season-opener Sept. 1 against Ohio in Beaver Stadium. Or the week before, when O’Brien was in Bristol, Conn., and Chicago to meet the press after a bevy of NCAA sanctions were handed down.

All that now makes the almost-quaint Coaches Caravan – seemingly three years ago, not just three months -- as easy as a quick trip to Sheetz for coffee and a Schmuffin.

O’Brien’s staff is working just as hard. On Saturday morning, for instance, his assistants showed up at work beginning at 5:50 a.m., and by the time O’Brien arrived a bit after 7:30, four coaches were already at their desks.

Think about it: A year ago, O’Brien was in Foxborough, Mass., at the New England Patriots’ summer training camp, getting Tom Brady, Wes Welker and The Gronk ready for another Super Bowl run.

Now, he’s in the midst of not only the biggest coaching challenge of his two-decade career, but most likely the biggest one of anyone’s coaching career.

Gone: bowl games, scholarships, star players, the legendary status of his predecessor.

Remains: Resolve, and it is oozing from every one of Bill O’Brien’s 3.1 trillion pores.

Recent Columns:

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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