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Penn State Football: Crimson Ideas for Bill O’Brien’s Blue and White

by on December 06, 2013 3:00 AM

Nick Saban and Bill O’Brien are two acorns who haven’t fallen far from the tree. The Bill Belichick NFL Coaching Tree.

Alabama’s Saban was Belichick’s defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns in 1990-94.

Penn State’s O’Brien was Belichick’s assistant from 2007-11 for the New England Patriots, ascending to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Saban is the best head coach in college football, winning three BCS titles for Alabama the past four seasons, and a fourth title with LSU in 2003. Saban doesn’t rebuild, he reloads -- even though sometimes that means shooting himself in the foot with a 57-yard field goal attempt while tied with one second left in regulation.

If you want to be the best in college football – and O’Brien does now, more than ever – then the No. 1 thing you can do is dial The 205 and pick Nick’s brain. And that’s what O’Brien does. He’s often asked to name the college football programs he admires the most, and O’Brien routinely names both Alabama and Iowa. He loves to cell them, especially ‘Bama.

Here’s why OB is nuts about the Hawkeyes: They’re home to another acorn. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz was an assistant under Belichick for three years with the Browns in the 1990s. And his son, Brian, is an Iowa assistant and coached at New England with O’Brien. The two are good friends.


O’Brien and Saban have that one degree of separation thing, too, thanks to Belichick. Early last year, just two months into his Penn State job, O’Brien and Saban connected at a Nike event in Allentown. They’ve been in touch ever since.

Saban is the best person there is to provide O’Brien with sage advice about dealing with NCAA sanctions and vacated wins and storied traditions with sad chapters. Saban knows whereof he speaks. The Tide was drowning when Saban came aboard in 2007, salvaging a 7-6 record. But, over the next six seasons, Alabama has had a 72-8 record and three national titles.

Alabama’s recruiting was a mess and the Tide was getting pounded in-state, out-of-state and in the SEC due in part to the Urban (Meyer) renewal efforts right next door. Sound familiar? Up north, past the Glen Mason-Stan Hixon Line, the sanctions weren’t O’Brien’s only albatross. Penn State’s recruiting program was outdated and undermanned – on the road, in the living room, in back-office support, using high-tech and emphasizing high-touch.

O’Brien saw that immediately. In January 2012, he had barely a month to hire assistants, decide to believe in the old staff’s recruiting coordinator, save commitments, source new prospects and send a team of coaches who barely knew the commonwealth out to eschew the common and find the wealth. And oh, by the way, try to win a Super Bowl.

That done – sans Super Bowl victory – he then had to build a recruiting eco-system. And fast. (All the while caravanning and sanction-fighting and fun stuff like that.) For help, he turned to Saban. And from one Billumni to another, Saban showed him the keys to the kingdom. Using Alabama’s turnkey recruiting program as a guide, O’Brien created a whole new recruiting infrastructure at Penn State.

Another Bill-Nick connection: The aforementioned current Penn State assistant head coach and wide receivers coach Stan Hixon was the associate head coach and wide receivers coach for LSU in 2000-03. His boss there? Nick Saban.


So, given all that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if O’Brien went back to Saban to nick some advice about staffing. Not that Saban had anything to do with the recent PSU shake-up; the point is that O’Brien digs org charts and while he was pondering what to do, he may have looked Saban’s way for an idea or two. Either way, the departure of Ron Vanderlinden and Charlie Fisher certainly wasn't hatched on the victorious plane ride back from Wisconsin. Witness this pair of prescient comments:

1. The Monday before Thanksgiving, after his weekly radio show, O’Brien taped his Wisconsin pre-game comments with Steve Jones; the comments aired on the Penn State Sports Network on Saturday shortly before kickoff.

“I think our passing game has been up and down offensively and that’s a big area of improvement in the offseason,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got to be a better passing team because we can be. We’ve got a really good quarterback and we have some really good tight ends and receivers who can go up and catch the ball. We’ll look to improve there.”

2. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, at his last weekly press conference of the season, Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror asked O’Brien about his off-season priorities.

“Right away, when the Wisconsin game is over, we'll meet as a staff on Sunday and head out on the road recruiting,” O’Brien replied. “So what I think is important is that certain decisions you have to make right after the season, depending on what those decisions are. But other decisions, kind of like the ones you're talking about, you can sit on a little bit and evaluate and think about, and not rush into those decisions whether it's moving a guy's position or, you know, a recruiting decision or whatever it might be. But there are certainly some of those decisions that need to be made, and we'll look at that pretty closely.”

Back to Saban.

What would a coach who lost six times in the last five seasons know about making changes on his staff? With Saban – plenty. The Alabama head coach loses assistants who move on to bigger jobs with more money and responsibility (unless your name is Kirby Smart). And he also loses assistants because he tells them it’s time to leave. The result? You get a former rising star like ex-Florida International head coach Mario Cristobal coaching your offensive line.

On Saban’s coaching staff in 2013, of the nine full-time position assistants allotted by the NCAA, three are in their first year on Alabama’s staff, two are in their second year and one is in his third. (Although a couple of those left and are back for another go-around.)

So, yes, to Saban it is a business. A very lucrative one that will pay him a handsome $5,545,852 this year, according to USA Today. He has company. With a one-time signing bonus this past July, O’Brien is slated to make, at minimum, $4,218,058 in Penn State’s fiscal year 2013-2014.

And now, O’Brien is in the business of filling two coaching positions. Together, Saban and Ferentz have 285 victories as head coaches. So while O’Brien may be a smart guy himself, he also knows which older, more successful smart guys to ask for advice. (Rich guys, too – says Ferentz is slated to make $3,985,000 in 2013.)

Here’s how two of the head coaches O'Brien said he admires most – Saban and Ferentz – have their assistant coaching staffs organized in 2013. You may want to note that both schools have one person coordinate special teams, as well as a combo offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.



Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks – Doug Nussmeier

Running backs/associate head coach – Burton Burns

Offensive line – Mario Cristobal

Wide receiver – Billy Napier

Tight ends/special teams coordinator – Bobby Wiliams


Defensive coordinator/linebackers -- Kirby Smart

Outside linebackers – Lance Thompson

Defensive line – Chris Rumph

Secondary – Greg Brown




Running backs/special teams – Chris White

Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks – Greg Davis

Offensive line – Brian Ferentz

Wide receivers – Bobby Kennedy


Defensive coordinator/secondary – Phil Parker

Defensive line – Reese Morgan

Recruiting coord./asst. defensive line – Eric Johnson

Linebackers – Jim Reid

Linebackers -- Levar Woods

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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 His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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