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Penn State Football: Bill O’Brien’s Behind-the-Scenes ‘Supa Seven’

by on January 28, 2013 1:00 AM

The six-pack of Penn State underclassmen known as the “Supa Six” includes some of Bill O’Brien’s biggest go-to guys on the field:

Amos, A-Rob, Barnes, Belton, Carter and D-Smith.

But much less known are the seven members of O’Brien’s team who do much of their work behind-the-scenes. Much, but not all. On occasion, one of OB’s “Supa Seven” makes himself known for his baring his chest, barking orders or co-starring with the coach on YouTube.

Overall, though, they form the core of the Penn State head football coach’s closest associates, colleagues, assistants and – in one case – roommate.

Most of the group would hardly classify as a modern-era Guido D’Elia – a colorful fellow Italian image-maker from Altoona, D’Elia was Joe Paterno’s consigliere in the coach’s final eight seasons. Still, they no doubt provide input to O’Brien in myriad areas, but most specifically in their areas of expertise.

In addition to the Supa Seven, over the course of the past 13 months O’Brien has gained a reputation for reaching out to his players – most notably his seniors – in areas as diverse as player retention, uniforms and scheduling.

But make no mistake. Whether it is current players or experienced staffers with decades of NFL experience, it is The O’Brien Show. He is both DeMille and Spielberg, director and producer. But when they roll the credits for the end-of-the-season Penn State highlight film, the following names are critical to Penn State’s success, now more than ever given that Penn State is really heading into the jaws of the NCAA sanctions.

The group is rooted in Penn State, Pennsylvania and family. Five of the seven are PSU or PA people. Three are Penn State grads; two are Philly guys who were high school buddies with a prominent Penn State football player; one actually coached O’Brien in college; and the last one – well, she actually married him. That said, here are Bill O’Brien’s Supa Seven:

JIM BERNHARDT, aide de camp

His official title is special assistant to the head coach/director of player development. In some ways he is Radar O’Reilly to O’Brien’s Col. Potter. Bernhardt coached O’Brien at Brown, and went on to coach at high schools on Long Island and in Florida. He’s also coached at Central Florida – maybe not-so-coincidentally a new Penn State opponent in 2013. Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com describes Bernhardt this way: “Jimmy Bernhardt is O'Brien's consigliere. He coached O'Brien at Brown. He recommended him as a graduate assistant to George O'Leary at Georgia Tech. Bernhardt serves as sounding board, éminence grise, and doorkeeper to O'Brien.”

TIM BREAM, trained for a homecoming

As a native of Gettysburg, Bream has followed PSU football since birth. And as a senior at Penn State, Bream was a trainer for the 1982 Penn State national championship team. It took awhile – including the previous 19 years with the Chicago Bears (most of them as head trainer) -- but Bream returned to Happy Valley last winter. In addition to serving as head athletic trainer for football, Bream has a broad scope of duties -- and power -- as Penn State’s director of athletic training. As such he oversees all 31 varsity sports for about 750 athletes. Bream’s duties in football are wide, as O’Brien – who also has pro experience – believes in Bream’s deep NFL experience.

JOHN BUTLER, D-Coordinator

When Ted Roof resigned as defensive coordinator a few weeks ago, it took O’Brien hours not days to offer the job to Butler, the boisterous secondary coach and special teams coordinator in 2012. That OB bypassed Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden for Butler says a few things, including that in his absence he trusts Butler do things the head coach’s way. That loyalty is key. As offensive coordinator and de facto QB coach, O’Brien spends much of his time with the offense.

Butler is close friends with Craig Fitzgerald, head of the Penn State strength program (see below) and that must play into the staff dynamics and structure. The two graduated from La Salle College High School in Philadelphia in 1991 and were in each other’s wedding. Prior to Penn State, they worked together for Steve Spurrier in South Carolina, and also at Harvard. They went to high school with Keith Conlan, an All-Big Ten tackle for Penn State and co-host of a Penn State football podcast.

CRAIG FITZGERALD, building strength and (he is a) character

A colorful enthusiastic guy who has grabbed national TV time for leading the Lions in frigid pre-game warm-ups sans shirt, Fitz is the one who drives the Penn State players during the long offseason. So his impact, as director of strength and conditioning for football, may be greater than anyone’s. O’Brien has given Fitzgerald almost carte blanche to remake Penn State’s S&C philosophy, program and facilities. Fitz is tight with his boss, and worked with him at Maryland. His experience also includes a five-year stint as head of the strength and conditioning program for all 41 varsity athletic teams at Harvard. That mantle may fit at Penn State as well, similar to the broad range of responsibilities – and power – Bream has.

CHRISTINE LAUR, savoir-faire is everywhere

Laur is a Penn State grad with a B.A. in French, so you know her smarts fit the Bill. She is in the office from dawn to dusk and – speaking from personal experience – she’s fast, thorough and funny, yet professional, as a representative of Penn State football with requests via email and other such things. She previously worked in Penn State men’s and women’s basketball offices, so she knows the lay of the land of PSU athletics. And she’s loyal; she was a frequent visitor to O’Brien’s Thursday night radio show.

TONY MANCUSO, embedded with The Boss

A 2008 graduate of Penn State with a degree in public relations, Mancuso worked for PSU’s sports information for four years. He is now an assistant athletic director for communications and responsible for football videos, parts of the Penn State website, GoPSUSports.com, and all kids of gridiron digital. He’s a gem, so much so that O’Brien has him embedded inside Lasch, while the rest of the sports info staff is inside the Bryce Jordan Center. Mancuso frequently interviews O’Brien for video releases (often breaking news and minor “scoops”), pens the “Nittany Lion All-Sports Blog” and has thousands of Twitter followers @GoPSUTony. O’Brien trusts Mancuso’s advice on all things digital and lots of other media matters as well.

COLLEEN O’BRIEN, wife and A.D.

Last, but not least; in fact, this O’Brien is the most influential when it comes to that O’Brien. When she entered law school, she had the goal of becoming an athletic director. That never quite happened, but in many ways, her experience is still wide-ranging. She earned her undergrad degree from Boston College, where she worked in the sports information office for three years, did stats on game day and spent time in both the athletic department’s finance and marketing departments. Oh, and she graduated magna cum laude. She started law school at Wake Forest, and after meeting future husband Bill she switched to Georgia State, where she earned her law degree after graduating top 5 in her class.

So we know this, for sure:

The in-house counsel at the O’Brien household in Boalsburg is a lot smarter than that at the NCAA headquarters.

 



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. 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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