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Penn State Football's Biggest Competition? Butler vs. O'Brien

by on August 11, 2013 8:00 PM

Ask Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler about his competitive streak and he goes on a streak all right -- mostly blue and a little bit white:

As in 11 mentions and variations of the words “competition” and “challenge” in the next 104 seconds. 

And Butler, who talks fast and with a controlled fury, is so competitive that he’d probably tell you no else could crack a dozen in that same time frame. Maybe not even his boss, head coach Bill O’Brien. Although given their relationship, O’Brien might try.

“I’m very respectful of Bill. He’s the head coach,” says Butler, who like O’Brien is in his second year at Penn State. “But I also think we have a fairly unique relationship. … we push the envelope. We go back and forth. I’m not going to cross the line, but I’m also not going to cower down to him.”

O’Brien also runs the offense, so every day of this summer’s training camp is a bit of mano y mano between the two coordinators.

“When you go against each other in practice like that, you’re competitive,” O’Brien said. “You want the offense to do well, he wants the defense to do well, and every time you walk off the practice field, usually one side of the ball feels better than the other side of the ball. It sets the tone for our team, and they see that and they enjoy it. They get probably a little bit of a kick out of it, and it’s just fun to coach against each other.”

Starting center Ty Howle, a fifth-year senior, can vouch for that. After the offense and defense went head-to-head Saturday during the first summer practice with pads, Howle told Tony Mancuso of that he relishes the opportunity to bang heads with the guys across the line.

“That’s super-fun,” Howle said. “We have guys competing and it turns into a competition of offense vs. defense. We really get better when we do things like that.” 

Butler and O’Brien are close in age, and their wives are friends. They are fairly close off the field. But that doesn’t stop them a bit from competing on the field. In hopes of adding fuel to the pair's already strong fire, we did a little historical comparison of our own:

Age: O’Brien, by three-and-half years (43 years, 10 months vs. 40 years, 4 months).

Years coaching: O’Brien, 21 to 19.

Coaching stops: Butler, 8 to 6.

Career head coaching victories: O’Brien, 8 to 0.

Career overall coaching victories, assistant and head coach: O’Brien, 154 to 112.

Championships won the past 12 years, hometown pro sports teams (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL): O’Brien (Boston), 9 to 1, over Butler (Philadelphia).

Winning percentage, as a college football player: Butler, Catholic University, 1991-94 (.450, 18-22) over O’Brien, Brown, 1990-92 (.111, 3-27).

More hair: Butler.

Butler is in his first season as the D-coordinator after spending 2012 – his first year with the Nittany Lions – as the secondary coach and special teams coordinator. Butler was O’Brien’s first choice to succeed last season’s defensive coordinator, Ted Roof, when Roof left in early January for the same position with Georgia Tech.

It wasn’t a tough decision to promote Butler, O’Brien has said, despite having three former head coaches on his staff. That includes longtime Penn State linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden, who also was a head coach at Maryland and a defensive coordinator at Northwestern. It took less than a day and only a few hundred steps down the hallway for O’Brien to find his right-hand man. There was Butler, who had twice before been a defensive coordinator, at Catholic University (his alma mater) and at Midwestern State in Texas.

“He's one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around,” says O’Brien, who spent five years as an assistant coach with the NFL’s New England Patriots, in addition to stops at Brown, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke. “He’s a quick-minded guy. He’s tough. The kids really respect him. He’s a great communicator. It’s a competitive practice because he and I are very competitive people. So it’s been a great thing for our program.”

Butler says his propensity for intensity and focusing on winning has been a lifelong attribute. As a kid he didn’t watch much TV, shied away from books, was “the worst video game player ever” and spent the bulk of his time outside playing sports. He was – and is – emotional about it. His fits of crying after losses and getting ticked off while playing youth sports as an only child in suburban Philadelphia often drew the ire of his father. 

“That’s just who I am,” he says today. That’s why coaching football -- the only real job Butler has ever had – is the perfect profession for him: “When I’m asked about why I’m so happy with my job here, the big reason is the competition.”

Coaching comes with its other demands and rewards as well, especially when dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds.

Butler says that “we tell our players all the time, ‘Take everything in life personally because our competitive environment here is how the world works. Somebody’s trying to take your position or your job; they want to replace you and me.’ ”

For now, though, Butler feels secure his in job. Fairly secure, anyway.

“Bill lets you do your job,” Butler says. “He provides the guidelines and expectations – and I think I’m smart enough not to cross them.”

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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