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With McDaniels and High School Coaches, O'Brien Has Penn State Football Friends Down Pat

by on March 22, 2013 2:45 AM

Bill O’Brien’s old friend Josh McDaniels is spending Friday on the University Park campus.

So are hundreds of O’Brien’s new friends, too – high school and youth football coaches from around the country, but especially from Pennsylvania.

McDaniels was an important part of O’Brien’s past with the New England Patriots. The high school coaches are one of the big keys to O’Brien’s future.

Together they will meet at Penn State’s annual Football Coaches Clinic on Friday, the first of a two-day clinic, where McDaniels is the keynote speaker. McDaniels and the high school coaches’ circles – concentric in the inclusion of O’Brien and football, if only for a few hours -- cannot be lost on O’Brien.

But before we go any further, it is important to know How Billy Met Josh:

McDaniels, who at age 36 is seven-and-half years O’Brien’s junior, was once OB’s boss in New England. When O’Brien joined the Pats in 2007 as a lowly assistant by way of four college coaching stops, McDaniels was ensconced as Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. In 2008, O’Brien was promoted to wide receivers coach. In 2009, McDaniels left New England and went to Denver to become the NFL’s youngest head coach at the time.

McDaniels was a phenom, a whiz kid, a Belichick wonder boy. The head coach of the Denver Broncos. At age 33. And just a decade removed from being a grad assistant for Nick Saban at Michigan State. In 10 years, McDaniels attained what O’Brien, 43 and heading into his 21st year of coaching, admitted in early January was his dream job was in the NFL.

“My profession is coaching,” O’Brien said back on Jan. 7, “and in my profession, the National Football League is the highest level of coaching. You don't get any higher in coaching than the National Football League.”

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O’Brien has already had most coaches’ nightmare – especially on July 22, 2012, when the NCAA sanctions hit Penn State, just seven months after O’Brien left New England. It was O’Brien’s first season as a head coach, and it wasn’t in McDaniels’ NFL. How bad was it? The Brown alumni magazine, in a lengthy feature story on O’Brien, began its story this way:

“Bill O'Brien ’92 may have the worst timing of any college football coach. Ever.”

You know the rest of the story. So do the thousand or so biology teachers and guidance counselors and phys ed instructors who double as high school football coaches, and who are at Holuba Hall all day Friday and will be watching Penn State scrimmage on Saturday.

Many have already seen O’Brien in their high school halls, at their scholarship banquets, at the national coaches’ convention in Nashville and at the state high school playoffs in Hershey last December. Same goes for his assistants. O’Brien is going places in Pennsylvania where a Penn State head coach has literally not gone for years. Dozens of places. No dig meant at Joe Paterno, but it had been quite awhile since he left campus to visit prospects. So, there were fences to mend – and not just because of the scandal. Tom Bradley was holding down the fort in the western part of the state, but in most of once-fertile PA PSU was only OK.

“I’ve visited 40 high schools the last few months,” O’Brien proudly reported at an off-season banquet stop.

The lifeblood of O’Brien’s walk-on program is getting kids from the Commonwealth to come to Penn State on their own dime – about $28,100 this fall for an in-state student – to fill out the roster. As O’Brien said over the winter, nearly ad nauseam: “…most of our run-ons will come from Pennsylvania. You know, we’ve found out … many of these young men have grown up, these smart young men, have grown up dreaming of playing for Penn State. The bulk of the roster will come from that 300-mile driving distance” from State College.

So, O’Brien learned fairly quickly that Pennsylvania high school football players love Penn State. (Although this 125-pound wishbone-running JV QB didn't.) And, as a roads scholar, what O'Brien also found out is that many of the coaches went to Penn State themselves or frequent Beaver Stadium games and tailgates.

O’Brien knows how to play to the crowd. Coaches across the state have already heard – and will probably hear again this weekend -- a variation of what O’Brien told 500 people at a chamber of commerce breakfast in Carlisle: “When I first got here (2012), right off the bat, the one thing that stood out to me was when you went around Pennsylvania – and it seems to me that I’ve hit just about every area of Pennsylvania; I think I’ve covered Pennsylvania pretty well -- it’s its people who I really enjoy being around.”

You have to figure the people O’Brien enjoys the most these days are the coaches of the 585 high schools that the PIAA says play football in Pennsylvania.

Those coaches, no doubt, will get a kick out of hearing and meeting McDaniels. Even though he’s been an NFL head coach and is a key part of the New England mystique, for many of them he’s still young enough to be their son.

And, as the prodigal son, McDaniels was eventually welcomed back to New England. The return came after a messy divorce with the Broncos that featured an 11-17 record and a $50,000 fine by the NFL for illegally videotaping an opponent’s walk-through. (Yes, he was OC for the Pats when they were fined for the same offense in 2007.)

Now, for a day, old friend McDaniels is at Penn State as a favor to O’Brien.

As O'Brien knows and is trying to build upon again this weekend, a football coach -- especially one whose scholarships are being sanction-siphoned off -- can use all the friends he can get.


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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