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Penn State Football Finals Week: Bill O’Brien’s 8 Traits of a Great Teacher

by on December 17, 2012 11:30 PM

It’s finals week at Penn State, but the Nittany Lion football team has already passed its on-the-field exams for the fall semester.

That’s due in large part to the professor they saw for 20 hours a week from August to November – Bill O’Brien.

While the first-year coach has received accolades across the country for his coaching success, let’s not forget that what he accomplished was in a college setting mostly in an open-air classroom with kids aged 18 to 22.

O’Brien did his masters work as an assistant on the practice fields of Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. But he got his Ph.D. in football under that nutty professor, New England's Bill Belichick.

O’Brien needed every one of those 20 years of graduate study to lead 100 Penn State players through Crisis Leadership 520, followed by Kinesiology 365 and then Public Relations 370. What I liked most about O’Brien as a teacher was what he said, somewhat offhandedly but not lightly in mid-season. It showed that he got it -- football was paramount when the group of first- to 10th-semester young men were under his direction -- but they were also both athletes and students (of the game).

“It’s not what I know,” he said. “It’s what the players know.”

He lived it. I saw parts of 11 practices throughout the 2012 season, and albeit for 20-30 minutes at a crack – a decent chunk yawningly spent watching teenagers stretch. As a fellow teacher I was more interested in O’Brien’s leadership style and coach-player interaction than the footwork of the third-string guard on The Dirty Show. It’s all certainly in his wheelhouse: He has an organizational behavior management degree from Brown. And he has the chops: He went toe-to-toe with Tom Brady, the best quarterback in America (ever?) on national television.

With that as a backdrop, here are eight traits that I think make O’Brien an exemplary teacher as well as an excellent coach.

1. Uses Case Studies.

Like any good prof, O’Brien utilizes real-world examples to illustrate his point and stimulate thinking. That makes the subject matter more relatable and interesting to his students. Just so happens a lot of his examples were gained first-hand in Foxboro, Mass.

“Coach O’Brien uses great examples to instill things in our mind,” said record-setting quarterback Matt McGloin, who took to the Patriots’ offense to the point he recited plays in his kitchen at night. “He has so much experience that his stories and lessons made us better players every day.”

2. Is Hands-on.

This was the scene during the last Tuesday practice of the last week before the final game of the season. It was a long year of big hurdles. The players were tired, the coaches were tired. But O’Brien hardly phoned it in. On a passing exercise where the quarterbacks were to throw to the running backs in the flat, O’Brien quietly stopped the drill and grabbed a running back and talked calmly to the group.

“Ideally, guys, when you catch one off of that route,” he said, “you want to be one yard behind the line of scrimmage and you want to stretch the defense.”

Then he stretched his arms to make his point. Really. “One more, then we’re out of here” to the next drill, he said. The pass and catch – one yard behind the line of scrimmage -- were perfect. “Lead him, lead him… There you go…. You have to stretch the defense... All right, line it up over there on the 10!”

3. Gets Their Attention.

Choice words and phrases, more appropriate for the football field and locker room than the classroom, are part of O’Brien’s vernacular. Not that I blame him: I know that in a classroom of 100, it’s difficult to fight Twitter, iPhones, sleep and laptops for students’ attention. Same for the practice field. I’ve personally found the occasional expletive cuts through the clutter.

O’Brien thinks so, too.

“What is it that people don't know about O’Brien?” I once asked center Matt Stankiewitch after a game. Stank smiled: “Well, he has a colorful vocabulary, let’s just say that.”

4. Watches Like a Focker Father-in-Law.

Just like the ex-CIA operative Robert DeNiro played in the Focker movie trilogy, O’Brien’s players know that their head coach will “be watching you.”

Take, for example, the late-season practice when running back Zach Zwinak was on a hot streak, but holding onto the ball like it was an ice cube. As he does for part of every practice – and like his predecessor, Joe Paterno -- O’Brien often stands at the 50-yard line of the practice field and takes in every drill, regularly rotating his view. On this day, 30 yards to his left, the running backs were carrying footballs on a tether, as Nittany Lion teammates tried to yank the ball from their arms.

“That’s the most important drill you’re doing today…” Pause. “Zwinak!” Pause. “Yank it out of there, Curtis (Dukes).”

Zwinak, a Nervous Nelly, said later: "Every time I mess up I feel like I'm done."

5. Teaches His TA’s.

That’s Teachers’ Assistant. And while there are number of former head coaches on the PSU staff, and seven of his nine assistants are older than he is, O’Brien has had to teach his schemes and philosophy not only to the players, but his teaching surrogates. Homework has been de rigueur, even for experienced vets like Ron Vanderlinden, a former top boss at Maryand and an assistant at Penn State for a dozen years.

“It was a challenge for all the coaches,” Vanderlinden said. “Any time you have a new system you all have to learn it. Coach (Larry) Johnson and I had to learn it. I remember going home during spring ball and taking my playbook along. I’d take a tape of practice home every night.

“It’s just like you study for a course – that’s what it was like for me. Every day we put in new things. We put in the checks, the applications, the adjustments, watching it on tape, taking notes. It was a real learning experience for me – and the entire coaching staff.”

The proof was in the pudding. In addition to Penn State’s five-game winning streak, the Nittany Lion offense averaged 9.8 points more per game in 2012 vs. 2011, and the defense – led by Ted Roof -- allowed only two first-quarter TDs and ranked 23rd nationally in rushing defense and 26th in pass defense efficiency.

Tight end coach John Strollo had one of the tougher tasks, coaching tight ends, seemingly named from A to Z. “Coaches teach habits and teachers teach ideas,” said Strollo. “If you do it right, you’re teaching both habits and ideas.”

6. Has Respect and Credibility.

Students in every class every semester at Penn State have the opportunity to anonymously evaluate their professors and instructors. The multi-question online form is called the SRTE – the Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness.

For O’Brien, I used an SRTE EZ. At the end of the season I asked two football players – a freshman and a junior – for some adjectives to describe their head coach. I told them their comments would be unattributed, in hopes of eliciting honest responses. Here’s what they had to say, the answers in the same order as they gave them to me:

Freshman: “Determined, brave, exuberant, dedicated to craft, honest.”

Junior: “Honest, intelligent, experienced, trustworthy, down to earth.”

7. Keeps Office Hours.

Once in the pre-Freeh days of mid-summer, I stopped by the Lasch Building. In the lobby were a pair of seniors, waiting to see their head coach. That’s typical. His meetings with players, both one-on-one and in small groups, have been integral in keeping his team together. From freshmen to fifth-year seniors, he solicits their opinion on matters from discipline to uniforms.

A lot of critical teaching gets done in these settings, out of the classroom and off the playing field. After spring practice, O’Brien sat down with every single player in his office and gave them an honest assessment of where they stood. And his off-season plans are the same.

O’Brien can be blunt. (I find that with teenagers, whether my three at home, dozens in the classroom or one trying to b.s. me in my office, that works best.) As Paterno used to say, admittedly borrowing a phrase from a New Jersey high school coach, “Don’t let our friendship get in the way of my honesty.” As an educator, that’s O’Brien’s dictum as well.

8. Is Innovative.

Teachers must be forever vigilant about staying current and relevant with trends, technology and pedagogy. And, at times, be the one on the cutting edge as well.

O’Brien, all of 43 years and eight weeks old – and by way of the New England Patriots, and now working on his fifth major college campus -- fits the Bill. And given the sanctions of the coming years, he’ll probably be stretched more than the other 4,297 professors and instructors on the University Park campus as well. He's off to a good start.


Recent Columns:

Penn State Football: What Can O'Brien Do Without a Deep Bench?, Dec. 13, 2012

Penn State Football: Unmasking 10 New Identities for 2013, Dec. 2, 2012

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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