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Penn State Football: Bill O’Brien’s Map Quest for Navigating the Sanctions

by on May 27, 2013 7:00 AM

Bill O’Brien has looked down a lot of avenues for direction on how to handle the unprecedented sanctions levied on Penn State by the NCAA.

Books, old bosses, a college professor, a basketball coach and football history – they all are having a role in helping the 43-year-old O’Brien learn how to navigate the most unusual journey in college sports.

Even at that, it’s a course that is largely self-navigated. Forget about fellow New Englander Robert Frost’s road less traveled. O’Brien and Penn State are building one that has never been traversed.

“There is no road map,” O’Brien said earlier this month. “Maybe we can be the road map.”

It is a challenge that is constantly in flux: “That’s why every single day you have to spend -- every chance you can when you are not around your family -- you have to be thinking about the roster, the recruiting, the academics. You have to be making sure you’re on top of this thing every single day. There’s a little vacation in July, but then you have to get back to it.”

For example, last Thursday, that personal map quest took him home – personally and professionally -- to Massachusetts, when he visited the third of the Patriot’s OTA sessions in Gillette Stadium.

Before taking the Penn State job in January 2012, O’Brien was New England’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. While there last week, he no doubt discussed a myriad of issues with his old boss, head coach Bill Belichick, and former co-worker Josh McDaniel, who has OB’s old job after NFL stints in Denver and Kansas City.

There are other outlets, as well, from which O’Brien seeks out information and advice about how to best proceed on the rocky road that lies ahead.


“There are certain people you can talk to, so see what they have gone through,” O’Brien said. “You can talk to (former Wisconsin coach) Barry Alvarez or (retired) coach (Tom) Osborne at Nebraska about their walk-on programs. The great success they had with that.

“Maybe you talk to someone who has been sanctioned, although not nearly expansive as our sanctions – whether it’s Nick Saban at Michigan State or others. There are people you can talk to – not necessarily I have talked with, but have read about them.”

O'Brien says that list includes Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, who took over the Indiana basketball program under a heavy cloud of NCAA sanctions and a roster so depleted it had only two walk-ons who had scored a combined 36 points in their careers. Crean’s first two seasons were pretty grim, with a 16-46 record. But by year four the Hoosiers made it to the Sweet Sixteen and this past season they won the Big Ten.

“There is a lot of written material about those things,” O’Brien said. “And I try to read a lot about it. At the end of the day, we try to do what is best for us and what is appropriate for Penn State. But it changes all the time. You have to stay on top of it.”


“I like to read. My wife thinks I’m crazy,” O’Brien said at a February function in Carlisle. “I have a stack of books next to the bed, so I’ll read like 50 pages of one book and then -- I guess it’s a little bit ADD; all football coaches are a little bit ADD -- I’ll put that book down and start another book. I’ve got all these books going at the same time.

“It doesn’t mean I’m smart, believe me. It means I’m just a little bit off. But I like to read books about leadership … whether it’s Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick or maybe it’s a business leader or it’s a political leader. I really enjoy reading books about leadership. And as I’ve read these books, I’ve started to really determine more and more about what it takes, in my opinion, to be a good leader.”


As an undergraduate student at Brown University, O’Brien studied political science and organizational behavior management. One of his favorite professors was Barrett Hazeltine, a Brown legend who last year was named one of the nation’s top undergraduate professors by The Princeton Review. An engineering professor since 1959, the 81-year-old Hazeltine these days teaches such classes as “Management of Industrial and Non-Profit Organizations” and “Managerial Decision-making.”

“I had a great teacher in Barrett Hazeltine,” says O’Brien, a 1992 Brown graduate. “He’s an amazing guy. He knew football. He actually knew Joe (Paterno). He still teaches at Brown and in that major.

“I took a few of his courses that told me a lot of about organizational structure, especially early on (at Penn State). It think it’s really important when you’re in charge of an organization to make sure everyone knows not only the chain of command, but what a person’s job is. So I learned a lot.”


From Day One, O’Brien has been generous with his praise of former head coaches for whom he has worked. There’s George O’Leary at Georgia Tech; he now coaches at Central Florida, which will play at Penn State on Sept. 14. Then there’s Ralph Friedgen, his boss at Maryland. And also Belichick for five years with the Patriots.

“I draw from everyone I worked for,” O’Brien said on the Coaches Caravan. “George O’Leary taught me a lot about organization – organization of a program, organization of a practice. Ralph taught me a lot about offense.

“And then, obviously, Belichick taught me about organization, team building, strategy and situational football.”

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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