Bill O'Brien Ready to Become Penn State Football's Father
He emerged from the back door and stood with his hands folded in front of his waist, his eyes, awash in blue, looking out toward a packed room of reporters, photographers, fans, administrators, donors and alumni.
This is the moment Bill O’Brien joined the Penn State family. His first words when acting athletic director Dave Joyner introduced him: “This is unbelievable.” And then, not a minute into his opening statements Saturday morning at the Nittany Lion Inn, those blue eyes shifted down to his son, Michael, wearing a Penn State cap and blue No. 25 PSU football jersey, and his wife, Colleen, who graduated magna cum laude from Boston College and top five in law school.
“Obviously, I have a pretty good idea how to recruit,” O’Brien quipped.
With that, it was off, a new regime at Penn State, one O’Brien pledged won’t drift afar from everything Joe Paterno spent nearly 46 years building. There will be subtle change, yes — one man (O’Brien) calling offensive plays from the sidelines — but the values, traditions and pulse of a program and university hit hard by fallout of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal the last two months won’t be extinguished.
O’Brien signed a five-year contract worth about $2.3 million a year -- a $950,000 base salary, $1 million from radio/TV, $350,000 from Nike -- plus a maximum of $200,000 in incentives. Trustee Ira Lubert, the financial behemoth who helped bring wrestling coach Cael Sanderson to Penn State, said the deal is on par with other Big Ten coaches and is a little less than what Paterno earned.
Ah, yes, Paterno. There is that whole business of following in the footsteps of major college football’s all-time winningest coach . . .
“I’m not here to be Joe Paterno,” said O’Brien, dressed in a black suit with a Nittany Lion pin poked through his right vest flap. “There’s only one Joe Paterno. We’re gonna show respect for Coach Paterno and what he did here and we’re gonna move forward into a new era of Penn State football and hopefully he’s proud of it at the end of the day.”
That process is already starting. O’Brien hopes to finalize his coaching staff in the coming days. Larry Johnson Sr. is the only current member of the coaching staff confirmed to be retained by O’Brien, who will meet with each member of the staff this weekend to discuss their future.
Johnson, who said he had other coaching offers, will coach the defensive line. Ron Vanderlinden is another likely candidate for retention. When asked if former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen would be offered a job, O’Brien said he planned to talk with Friedgen.
O’Brien needs his staff assembled in time for the final recruiting push of the year, which opens Jan. 13, because O’Brien will be limited in access to recruits as he stays on as New England Patriots offensive coordinator through the remainder of the season. The Patriots have a bye this weekend but will host a playoff game next weekend and could play through Feb. 5, the date of the Super Bowl.
Johnson will meet with O’Brien on Saturday afternoon to finalize a schedule and blueprint for how to approach recruiting while O’Brien is coaching in New England. Johnson will be the main liaison for recruiting over the next three weeks.
“I’m not concerned about signing this many kids in the next three weeks,” O’Brien said. “I’m concerned about the next 10-20 years here. The best thing I can do is show our team the loyalty and commitment that I have for the Patriots.”
O’Brien plans to reach out to as many former football lettermen as he can to gain insight on why Penn State was such a meaningful experience for them. He hopes that will clear the air on any objectionable discernments they may have with a new regime at a place chock-full in tradition.
Some traditions aren't going anywhere. Jerseys? O’Brien said he's gotten a million inquiries about the jerseys.
“We’re not changing the uniforms,” he said.
So, Penn State has its man. O’Brien was hired 40 days after Joyner announced a six-person search committee tasked with finding Paterno’s permanent successor.
Joyner came under intense fire for the drawn out, secretive process, one he backed again Saturday saying it was designed that way out of respect for the candidates. One committee member said former interim coach Tom Bradley was a serious candidate for the position despite an assumption by fans and media the committee would clean house.
O’Brien has no ties to Penn State, a school in the midst of multiple investigations on the Sandusky scandal, but here he was stepping up to a podium and addressing his new family.
“When I walked up on the stage, I’m not gonna say I thought it was bigger or less than [what I thought],” O’Brien said. “But I just thought it was pretty cool to have a lot of people here that have that much interest in Penn State football.”
He will learn more about that over time. He will see more than 100,000 fans flood Beaver Stadium in his coaching debut Sept. 1 against Ohio. He will learn more about the man named Joe Paterno, also an alumnus of Brown. He will learn the words of the alma mater. He will eat ice cream at the Creamery, and maybe one day he will have a flavor named after him.
He will eat breakfast at the Corner Room, lunch at the Deli and dinner at the Tavern. In another month, he will walk into the Bryce Jordan Center and see a rainbow of students dancing and smiling and crying, trying like hell to end childhood cancer. Not soon after, he will see his Irish roots come through and witness a horde of drunk students parade downtown in green on a day they call State Patties’ Day.
But that will all come later. For now, Penn State football has a new father.