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Penn State Football: Ferentz, O’Brien Are Strong Branches of Belichick Coaching Tree

by on October 19, 2012 4:30 AM

The Bill Belichick Coaching Tree bears beautiful fruit in the college ranks.

In the NFL, it is blighted and full of fungus.

Belichick’s assistants who have become college head coaches win 501 games and three national championships. They earn two of the highest salaries in the sport. And they show great leadership in the midst of college football’s biggest scandal.

His assistants who have become NFL head coaches have been among the youngest, most arrogant and losingest coaches in the pros.

Good Bill. And Bad Bill.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is of the old and successful branch of the Belichick tree. Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien is of the tree’s newest branch. But he acts like he’s the oldest redwood of the old guard.

The numbers, as of this week: Coaching in college, Belichick’s former assistants are 501-350-1. In the NFL, they are 115-167 as head coaches. His college progeny win at a rate almost 50 percent greater than their NFL counterparts.

In all, 10 Belichick assistants have become head coaches – four in the NFL, four in college and two in both. In the persons of Ferentz and O’Brien, 20 percent of that club will be in Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday.

The opposing coaches of the same coaching father are alike in that they both were 38 when they started working for Beleichick. But they’re also different. Ferentz last worked for the guy in 1995. O’Brien reported to him as recently as February’s Super Bowl Sunday.

In the three years Ferentz worked as an offensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns from 1993-95, the team went 23-25 and his boss, at age 42, was canned at the end of the season.

In his five years with the New England Patriots (2007-11), O’Brien worked his way up the coaching ladder, culminating in a stint as the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for a Super Bowl team. His boss, now 60, had a 64-16 record during that time and, overall, has been to five Super Bowls, winning three.

O’Brien and Ferentz are where the Belichick genetic strain shall meet. This is how O’Brien sees the similarities between the two teams, based on the Belichick influence:

“I would tell you that the discipline of the teams, hopefully we're not a very penalized team, we don't get penalized a lot, hopefully we don't turn it over a lot,” O’Brien said this week. “The way we practice, we try to create a physical practice environment and situational football. We really try to work on that quite a bit.”

College teams coached by coaches who coached under Belichick do better. Every Belichick assistant who became a head coach at the college level -- especially those who worked for him with the Cleveland Browns -- has had a career winning record, but one. Take Ferentz, for instance.

Four years after leaving Cleveland, he succeeded Hayden Fry as Iowa’s head coach and last week against Michigan State he won his 100th game for the Hawkeyes. Overall, he is 112-90 at Maine and Iowa. He is paid $3.86 million, the highest compensation of any Iowa state employee.

That’s pocket change for another Belichick Tree-mendously paid college coach. Nick Saban was Belichick’s defensive coordinator with the Browns from 1991-94, then continued his peripatetic career with a head coaching stop at Michigan State. He’s been the Belichick Alumni Award Winner at the college level, earning t(h)ree national titles, a 154-52-1 record and $5.6 million a year. Former Belichick assistant Pat Hill was 112-80 in 15 years at Fresno State. Former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis is 36-32, despite owning a 1-5 record in his first year at Kansas. Only Al Groh, 85-92 in 15 seasons at Wake Forest and Virginia, is under .500.

Then there’s O’Brien, who is 4-2. His story is a meshing of the new and the old.

From the day he arrived in Foxborough, Mass., on Feb. 27, 2007, to work for the New England Patriots, O’Brien pursued the very newest Belichick tree variety, not to be confused with the older Crennel-Weis branch. And O’Brien stuck with it, until the day he picked Penn State.

That meant O’Brien had gone to a prep school (like Belichick).

And then went to a very good, small college in Brown, just like future Belichick Coaching Tree head coaches Josh McDaniels (John Carroll), Jim Schwartz (Georgetown), and Eric Mangini and Belichick himself (Wesleyan).

O’Brien started out at the grunt level, doing tedious tasks for not a lot of money. (Like Belichick again, Mangini, McDaniel and Schwartz.)

He rose rapidly up the coaching ladder, using hard work and long hours and football acumen to go from base level assistant to wide receiver coach to quarterback coach to offensive coordinator in five years. (Similar to many of the guys mentioned previously parenthetically.)

Then, off he went to be a head coach. At a fairly tender age.

And that’s just like Belichick, who when he became head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991 was the youngest coach in the NFL at age 38. When McDaniels, O’Brien’s predecessor as the Pats’ QB coach, left to be the head coach at Denver, he was 33 – the youngest head coach in the NFL. When Mangini left to head the Jets, he was 35 -- the youngest head coach in the NFL. Schwartz, who was a Belichick minion as a kid in Cleveland, took over in Detroit at age 42.

O’Brien was also 42 when he became Penn State’s head coach (although he’ll be 43 on Tuesday; I hear some people are getting him a WhiteOut).

Anyway, here is where O’Brien is O’Different:

Bill went to the college ranks, albeit into what turned about to be the center of the worst college football storm in history – although the 1951 Army cheating scandal that excised 90 football-playing cadets wasn’t too keen, either.

The pros may have been an option, but no New England assistant has had that down pat. Every Belichick assistant who’s become a head coach in the NFL has had a losing record, but one. And that’s a one-year 9-7 record Groh had with the 1990 Jets – before he even worked for Belichick.

The other Belichick assistants who have gone on to be head coaches in the pros are Mangini (33-47), Romeo Crennel (27-46), Schwartz (20-33), Saban (15-17) and McDaniels (11-17).

The bottom line:

Belichick’s assistants transplant well into college, but when it comes to the NFL they just never seem to take root.

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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