Penn State Football: 100 Weeks Later, Bill O’Brien Cut-Blocks Sanction Talk
On Tuesday, it was 100 weeks since Joe Paterno’s last mid-week press conference. Ever.
And it was 99 weeks after what would have been his final press conference was cancelled.
On Tuesday, when Penn State head football coach Bill O’Brien met the press in the media room of Beaver Stadium, the focus was on football. Almost totally and completely.
Time and a slate of reduced NCAA sanctions will have that effect. So will the firm resolve of a guy who has stayed on message and on point for most of his 625 incomparable days on the job.
On Tuesday, only one of the 30 questions that came O’Brien’s way during his regular mid-week press conference, with 40 or so reporters on hand and another dozen on the line, were about the NCAA. Or its sanctions. Or transfers or Sandusky or Paterno or the BOT or JoeBOTs …
Only one. Almost Freeh at last.
On Tuesday, that one question was Question No. 16, and it came from Willie Jungels of ComRadio, the Penn State student radio station. “Bill,” said Willie, a senior by class and already a beat veteran by shoe leather, “what has the reaction been among recruits since the sanctions have been reduced?”
The sanctions had been reduced all of a week. And yes, the previous week O’Brien had answered 10 questions on an already-regularly scheduled Big Ten conference call hours after the reductions were announced. But this past Tuesday was O’Brien’s first live “meet the press” since.
Jungel’s was the only query even remotely connected to the press conference that never happened 99 weeks ago. Not an indictment of the media in the least. (Full disclosure: I asked zero questions the other day.) No, more like a bellwether of how far Penn State football – and Penn State – have come in the past 23 months. How far O’Brien and a few others have taken them.
On Tuesday, O’Brien spoke 3,360 words while answering those 30 questions. He needed only 73 to answer Willie. That’s 2.1% of Bill’s total output. The question and answer lasted all of 33 seconds in a press conference that went on for 26 minutes and 51 seconds. That’s also 2%.
If the numbers tell the story – and in this case I think they do – then this is Penn State’s New Math. It’s so simple, you don’t have to be a John Urschel to figure it out. Here’s how the tally of questions went: Injured players 5, Indiana’s offense 5, bye week 3, tempo 3, O’Brien’s TV viewing habits 2, scrimmages 2, road games 1, graduate assistants 1, Miles Dieffenbach 1, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong 1, Deion Barnes 1, Mac McWhorter 1, Big Ten 1, Little League baseball 1, recruits/sanctions 1 and cut blocks 1.
Cut blocks?! Yes, really. O’Brien himself used the words “cut block” three times.
On Tuesday, the press conference was remarkably normal. Not new normal. Old normal. Like 15 years ago normal, before Penn State was changing quarterbacks like underwear or the focus – by the media, the public and by Joe staying on – wasn’t on Paterno’s age or his injuries or a run of losing seasons or some magnificent milestones. Normal, like my first Penn State football press conference, 34 years ago.
On Tuesday, the focus was on football. It was a veritable chalk talk, a midweek-coaching lesson – the kind that Paterno used to give to groups of six and eight who attended his mid-week pressers in the 1970s and early ’80s, as well as his Friday night off-the-record sessions.
Back when press conferences were on Wednesdays – immediately following the State College Quarterback Club at Toftrees -- I saw Joe tear apart a Collegian reporter who asked the coach why he didn’t throw “the bomb” more often. After Paterno read the kid the riot act, he broke down the question, step-by-step. (The reporter, Greg Loder, said it was tougher than the night years later when he had to phone his boss, a guy by the name of Sen. Bill Bradley, at midnight and let him know he hit a deer with Bill’s car.)
Only this past Tuesday, it was O’Brien talking football. Teaching it, even. Man, was he in his element. It wasn’t quite Satchmo scatting, but this – after 90 weeks on the job and literally hundreds of public appearances and press conferences often spent biting his lip so hard I wondered why it didn’t bleed – this was the real Bill O’Brien.
On Tuesday, his very first answer included this bon mot: “a ton of X plays … explosive plays.”
Followed by this, seemingly straight out of The Big Bang Theory: “Certain protection schemes involve what we call slide protections, where you have double teams across the line, or at least two double teams, and the two guys that are singled, but they have to win their one-on-one battles.”
Uh, excuse me, Mister O’Brien, will this be on the final?
Then there were “a slip screen,” “cross-over films” and doing a “good job of getting those guys out in space and creating space plays for them.” He then threw in one of his all-time favs, “complementary football,” just to keep everyone honest.
Finally, he shared what his graduate assistants like to share with their boss, to wit: “ ‘Hey, look, Coach, you better be careful on this P and 10’ – that’s what we call the first play of the drive – ‘you’re always doing this.’ ” To cap things off, there was an answer and then a question, and then an answer about the aforementioned cut blocks.
Then, when all was said and done on Tuesday, O’Brien stood up, and with nary another word exited stage right. Not quite a Snagglepuss – a pink mountain lion, by the way – but an insightful and very welcome 26-minute and 51-second glimpse into the X’s and O’s World of OB The PSU HC, nonetheless.
Not that any of this is any news to O’Brien, his staff or the Penn State players. Internally, it’s always been about football. But when The Sanctions bat just 1-for-30 at a Penn State news conference of any sort, well, that’s news.
A few weeks ago, I incorrectly postulated that the “new normal” at Penn State – with a full slate of sanctions and lowered expectations – would last quite awhile.
On Tuesday, the first Tuesday after the NCAA announced a reduction in its sanctions against Penn State football, that way of thinking was chopped down at its roots.
By Bill O’Brien. With a cut block.