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Penn State Football: Matt Millen Wants O'Brien to Be Himself

by on March 07, 2012 10:20 PM

Bill O’Brien was standing outside a hotel last weekend, his hand grasping the clasp of his luggage while waiting for his secondary coach to pick him up and drive him to the Philadelphia airport to catch a 7 p.m. flight to Rhode Island.

He scrolled through his phone, still waiting. Anyone could walk up to him. He wore a hat, the brim low on his forehead and a light jacket. When John Butler pulled up in a white SUV, O’Brien loaded his luggage in the trunk, and a voice called out to him.

“My son goes to Penn State,” said the man, his cigar already burned more than halfway.

A few words were exchanged, and then the man offered O’Brien two cigars, one an Ashton. The football coach smiled, reached out and slipped one in his mouth, the plastic wrapper still attached.

“We Are . . .” O’Brien softly chanted before slipping into the passenger seat and driving off.

It was the type of scene few have seen since O’Brien was hired Jan. 6. At his introductory press conference the next morning, O’Brien was guarded, reserved, but said all the right things. At halftime of basketball games on campus he usually reiterated his players were working hard in the offseason to ensure fans will be proud of them in the fall. At THON last month, he guaranteed season tickets to the couple that raised the most money to help fight pediatric cancer.

O’Brien, 42, is still ingratiating himself in Penn State’s culture. But on top of all the changes he’s made just in the two months since taking the job, it’s apparent he’s following the advice of a prominent Penn State letterman.

“One thing I tell him all the time is to just be who you are,” said Matt Millen, who picked up O’Brien from the airport last weekend and drove him to the Holiday Inn and Conference Center in Fogelsville, Pa. for a coaches clinic. “You’re not gonna be Joe Paterno. There’s only been one of them. You don’t have to be him. You have to be Bill O’Brien, and he will.”

For one, Paterno would prefer a glass of Old Grand Dad to a cigar. For another, when’s the last time you would see Paterno standing by himself outside waiting for his driver?

Before arriving at the hotel, the two made a lunch stop, where Millen told O'Brien that “Penn State people will be behind him.”

Millen is as big an endorser from the Penn State football family as any. As a defensive tackle in the 1970s under Paterno, he often clashed with his coach but remained very close with Paterno later on in life up to Paterno’s death Jan. 22.

A four-time Super Bowl champion during his NFL career and current college football analyst for ESPN, Millen introduced O’Brien as speaker in front of scores of high school football coaches, where O’Brien gave his vision for the program.

Millen, sporting a gray goatee and dressed in a black NFL Network track jacket, talked about the need for the coaches seated in the ballroom to support O’Brien, especially in a time of turmoil in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

“I’ve always said, and I told Coach Paterno this right after this broke. We sat in his kitchen for a few hours and I said, ‘Look, it’s going to get worse before it gets better,’ ” Millen said. “That’s the way it is. But the good news is, it’s going to get better. Ultimately, what’s going to help pull all this out is going to be the football team. That’s just the reality of it.

“It will be a rallying point. It will be a source of pride, and it will be the way to go. And I think Bill will help. In fact, I know he will. That’s a big job. That’s no joke, but he knows it.”

Millen called O’Brien a regular guy, someone who breathes football 24/7. It helps he learned under Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Millen said.

O’Brien is already off to a hot start on the recruiting front for the Class of 2013, landing three four-star prospects, according to Rivals.com. Five-star tight end Adam Breneman, from Camp Hill, Pa., is likely to be the fourth big-time prospect to give his verbal commitment to the Nittany Lions when he makes his college decision Friday night.

The car keys have been handed over to O’Brien.

Millen, among others, is excited to see where he drives it.

“They'll be exposed to things they haven’t been exposed to,” he said. ”Just schematically, there’ll be some different concepts. The stuff he’ll be able to do in the passing game, in 1-on-1 coaching, that stuff is going to be as fresh as what’s out there.”

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Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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