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Penn State Football: Pennsylvania High School Coaches Say O'Brien Brings Fresh Look to Happy Valley

by on March 06, 2012 6:00 AM

Tom Wills is a high school football coach in Pennsylvania and a Michigan fan.

Four years ago, he saw Rich Rodriguez step into Ann Arbor and never embrace the values of the program. And then he saw Rodriguez get fired after three seasons and a 15-22 record.

An outside hire can be risky at institutions obsessed with their own kind, as Rodriguez’s turbulent tenure shows. So here was Wills, the head freshman football coach at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., sitting in a ballroom watching Penn State coach Bill O’Brien give a presentation on his vision for the program in front of scores of high school — many from Pennsylvania — football coaches.

The first impression?

“He gets it,” Wills said Saturday at the Holiday Inn and Conference Center in Fogelsville, Pa. “He understands this is his lifeblood. If he gets us on his side, alumni and the student body, he’s gonna have success.”

O’Brien, 42, is a New Englander taking his first go-round as a head coach. He’s tasked with selling himself — and his program — to coaches in the state he pledged to lock down when he first took the job back in January. For starters, O’Brien told all high school coaches in attendance they are welcome to watch Friday practices throughout the spring.

More importantly, he must polish Penn State, restore the shine that some coaches say faded as Joe Paterno moved closer to the twilight of his Hall of Fame career.

Oh yeah, and he’s following in the footsteps of Paterno, major college football’s all-time winningest coach and the patriarch of Penn State.

And there’s five investigations going on at his school in wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

And conference football foes Ohio State and Michigan hit home run hires in Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke, respectively.

“At the end of the day, we have a lot of great programs we’re recruiting against,” O’Brien said. “But all we’re gonna do is talk about Penn State and what’s great about Penn State. To us, we have a lot to sell here.”

Said Matt Bushong, the special teams coordinator at Central Dauphin High School, which won a state championship last fall: “It’s definitely a fresh start, and that’s what I sense from him. They’re coming in and there are some things they have to deal with. He’ll probably be asked questions about stuff that’s been going on up there for the past year, but his main point was we’re moving forward. It’s a whole new birth for Penn State.”

Central Dauphin defensive end Evan Schwan, a two-star prospect according to, is one of 19 members in Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class. Bushong, also the running backs coach, has another talent in linebacker Zayd Issah, one of the top Pennsylvania prospects for the class of 2013.

Getting prospects like Issah to sign with Penn State has been far from a certainty in recent years. Four one-time Penn State verbal commitments switched to play for Ohio State after the Sandusky scandal hit. A fifth prospect believed to be the best talent in state, Bishop McDevitt defensive end Noah Spence, also signed with the Buckeyes after being considered a Penn State lock.

Quarterbacks Terrelle Pryor and Chad Henne and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd are other names that come to mind in recent years.

“You look at Urban Meyer, he’s a rock star,” Wills said. “He comes rolling in and it’s all the pizazz and everything, and that’s not Penn State’s way. Kids are different now. You see that at every level. They’re more attracted to that than ever. That’s kind of hurt them in that respect. They didn’t get the top-end talent.”

“Being a lifelong Penn State fan, yeah, I think Penn State got stale,” said Jeremy Shuler, an assistant football coach with Wills at Liberty. “I think they recruited just on the fact that, ‘We are . . . Penn State,’ and every kid in Pennsylvania would naturally just want to come there.”

O’Brien is trying to change that attitude while sticking to the core values — academics, integrity, tough, smart football — Paterno instilled. He’s made stops in Pittsburgh and the Lehigh Valley, introducing himself and his football philosophies to some of the most influential figures in the lives of his future players.

It appears to be working. O’Brien received three verbal commitments from four-star prospects, and five-star tight end Adam Breneman, from Camp Hill, Pa., is making his decision Friday night. Penn State appears to be the favorite to land Breneman.

“Everything he says sounds really good,” said Tamaqua coach Sam Bonner, a family friend of Penn State quarterback commit Christian Hackenberg. “I’m sure a lot of people are anxious to see what he’s about, and I’m sure that’s why that room was packed. It sounds like he’s been around and he knows what he’s doing.”

He’s not the only one.

Michigan recovered from the Rodriguez hire with Hoke, and he won the Sugar Bowl in his first season. He also just signed the No. 7 recruiting class, according to Rivals.

The only thing more impressive is Meyer signing the No. 4 class.

This is not lost on O’Brien, who is gaining his own respect just two months on the job.

Shuler, the football coach and lifelong Penn State fan, called his wife soon after he heard O’Brien’s presentation.

His message was simple.

“Penn State is in good hands."

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