Penn State Football: Foundation of O’Brien’s Defense is Good Friend Roof
Ted Roof used to be Bill O’Brien’s boss.
Another time and on another staff, he was the defensive coordinator while O’Brien was the offensive coordinator.
Earlier, both were lowly assistants on the same staff.
And now, at Penn State, O’Brien is Roof’s boss. And more.
“We have a great relationship,” said Roof, Penn State’s first-year defensive coordinator. “He’s the boss – there’s no doubt that I work for him. But he is more than just that. He’s a friend.”
Theirs is a relationship that dates back to 1998, when O’Brien was in his fourth year on the Georgia Tech staff and his first as a full-fledged assistant, coaching the running backs. That’s when Roof arrived from Western Carolina by way of UMass and Duke to coach the Yellow Jackets’ linebackers under head coach George O’Leary.
(Tech is Roof’s alma mater: He was a three-year starter at defensive back and as a senior on a 9-2-1 team in 1985, he was a captain, All-ACC and led the Ramblin' Wreck’s famed “Black Watch” defense.)
In 1999, Roof became Tech’s defensive coordinator and two years later O’Brien was named the school’s offensive coordinator. During their reign, from 1998 to 2001, Georgia Tech was a sterling 34-14 (.708).
“We both climbed the ladder at Georgia Tech to be coordinators and we were competing against each other in practice,” O’Brien recalled last week. “We just had a really good working relationship and a really good off-the-field relationship.”
In 2002, Roof moved on to Duke and became head coach in late 2003. In 2005, he brought in O’Brien as his offensive coordinator. After two seasons and just one win, O’Brien moved to the New England Patriots, while Roof finished out a four-plus year, 6-45 stint as head coach at Duke.
Record-wise, it was the low point of their careers.
“We felt like we did the best we could for Duke,” O’Brien said. “At the end of the day, when Ted left Duke, it was a better football program than when he took the program over.”
So the two, in tandem, have faced adversity. Now, they are reunited with a staff that – absent Penn State holdovers Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden – has fewer degrees of separation than Will Smith. Prior to Penn State, Roof had worked at least one season with every coach on the PSU current staff, save for Johnson, Vanderlinden and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher.
“We all trust each other. That’s a critical element of a successful staff,” Roof said. “Bill has a great staff of guys who know him.
“Mac McWhorter recruited me at Georgia Tech. I recruited Charles London to come to Duke. We worked with Stan (Hixon). John Butler and I worked together in Minnesota. (John) Strollo and I worked together in two different spots.”
This is Roof’s 10th stop on the college coaching circuit, and he’s known success as well. Roof, 48, was defensive coordinator at Auburn in 2010, when the Tigers won the national championship. He was slated to move to Central Florida after the 2011 season, to work for O’Leary, but when O’Brien came calling Roof agreed to pilot the Nittany Lion defense.
He’s instituted an aggressive defense, still playing out of the basic 4-3, but with promises of constant change: “We want to have enough multiplicity so we can keep things confused for our opponents.”
And while Roof is the main driving force of Penn State’s defense, he knows the car keys still belong to the man who used to call him boss.
“Bill gives us latitude, but at the same time he has defined what he wants us to look like,” Roof said. “Still, he’s given us the flexibility and the freedom to give him what he wants. He’s involved in every aspect of the program; he’s not just an offensive guy.”
Despite big changes in the Penn State scheme, Roof has received high marks from the Nittany Lion players after eight months on the job. Like Roof’s history with O’Brien, it’s all about relationships.
Linebacker Gerald Hodges: “Coach Roof came in here and it’s like he’s known us our entire careers. He talks with us like he’s known us forever. He’s fun to be around. From a coaching standpoint, he knows the ins and outs of football. He can improve your football IQ by a lot if you just listen.”
Defensive end Sean Stanley: “Coach is a good guy. He brings a new aggressive style that we’ve all bought into. It’s been a lot of fun going out there and learning new schemes.”
Linebacker Glenn Carson: “He can be an intense, really-go-get-’em kind of guy. But in the meeting room, he’s pretty relaxed. He’s very understanding and patient with us, since his defense can be complex and sometimes confusing.”
Roof has an easy manner, is amiable and has a relaxed countenance, yet possesses a quiet, self-assured way about him. Part of that carries over to the practice field, where the former Yellow Jacket isn’t a big yeller. He often takes a step or three back, peering over his spectacles at a defensive drill or his long list of practice assignments.
He can be fun, too. During special teams drills two weeks ago, he tossed a football with a pair of players sidelined with minor injuries. His throws had some torque on them, and he delighted in explaining – teaching, actually -- his technique.
Roof is taking over a Penn State defense that has typically been a strong point of the team. Under Tom Bradley’s steady direction, the Nittany Lions amassed Top 15 finishes in total and scoring defense in seven of the past eight seasons (2004-09, '11). But following his boss’s lead, Roof prefers to look ahead and not behind.
“The program was successful, you have to have respect for that,” Roof said. “But our job as coaches now is to prepare our players for the jobs they can do, not to ask them to do jobs that they can’t.”
The bond that Penn State’s head coach and defensive coordinator share is one that goes back nearly a decade and-a-half, long before Brady and Belichick. Those roots with Roof mean something.
“We have a great relationship,” said O’Brien, 42. “We’re friends, our families are friends, our wives are very close.
“There's a lot of trust there... He's a hell of a coach and a great friend and a great father, husband, the whole deal. We're really lucky to have him at Penn State.”
Football is the Roof family business. His 13-year-old twin sons Terrance and Michael are on the team at Mount Nittany Middle School, where they play linebacker and quarterback. They’re the best of friends.
One on offense, the other on defense. Great pals.
Hmm. Sound like any other pair you know?