In reality, very little pressure on O'Brien
UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State football media day is always interesting.
This year was no exception.
Needless to say, the 2012 edition was unlike any other. With an overflow crowd in the media room at Beaver Stadium on Aug. 9, first-year head coach Bill O'Brien sat down in the same chair that the late Joe Paterno once used. Paterno sat there for numerous media days, Tuesday conference calls and postgame news conferences.
Media Day 2012 featured plenty of tough questions. There were questions about transfers and the NCAA sanctions. There were questions about depth on a team that has lost some of its most talented players to some of the nation's top football programs. And there were questions about the culture at University Park, which has been under a microscope since last November.
To his credit, O'Brien stood tall and answered every question head on.
About a half hour into his news conference, O'Brien got a question from a young reporter who asked about the cohesiveness of his squad. It was a question that he'd addressed earlier in the day. Without flinching, O'Brien cracked a smile and deadpanned: “Did you just get here?”
It was that kind of day for O'Brien, who has been a great representative for a football school that nearly had its lights turned off by the NCAA. Use all the cliches you want. O'Brien has dug in, buckled down and kept his chin up.
It certainly hasn't been easy. Under other circumstances, following in Paterno's footsteps might be a daunting task. He was asked about filling the shoes of Paterno.
“I don't even think about that. I don't think about succeeding anyone,” O'Brien said matter-of-factly. “I just try to come to work every day with a great staff, great group of kids, take it day-to-day, keep things in perspective. Understanding that this is about educating young men, this is about doing the best job you can to teach them how to play football your way.”
At one time, following in Paterno's footsteps would have been difficult. However, he's no longer in the shadow of the winningest coach in the history of college football. He doesn't drive by a statue on his way to work every day.
The truth is this: Because of the NCAA sanctions — the massive fine, the postseason ban, the transfers and the scholarship limitations — there is little pressure on O'Brien.
Before Silas Redd bolted for Southern Cal, Anthony Fera became a Longhorn and Justin Brown headed to Oklahoma, things looked good for Penn State. Most of the pundits predicted at least an eight-win season. Some (like myself) were confident that a nine-win season was within reach. However, given everything that has happened this summer, it's hard to envision Penn State winning more than seven games. Some of the so-called experts are predicting the Nittany Lions' first sub-.500 season since 2004.
Even with the transfers, though, O'Brien likes his team. Does he expect to be competitive? Uh, you could say so.
“We expect to go out there every single game and put a good product on the field. We expect to be out there every single game and be prepared,” he said. “We expect to be out there every single game and do our best and play extremely hard. We expect to go out there with the mindset in every game that we're going to win. That's the way it's always going to be here.”
O'Brien has never been a head coach. There's a world of difference between being a coordinator and being the head guy. The spotlight will shine brightly on him whether he likes it or not. If the Lions go out and lay an egg during the non-conference schedule that includes the likes of Ohio, Virginia, Navy and Temple, you won't see too many people parading through downtown with “Bill-ieve” and “O'Brien's Lions” T-shirts. While those first four games look extremely winnable, anything is possible on a team with so many question marks.
In the end, though, there is little pressure on O'Brien. After all, the Lions were contenders for a national title just once in the past 18 seasons.
When the 2012 season begins in just a couple of weeks, a new era of Penn State football will begin. It will feature a clean slate with a new coach. There will certainly be some bumps in the road. At first glance, O'Brien looks like he's ready to deal with whatever comes his way.
“It's important to set a tone every day. It's not year to year. It's important to come in there every single day you go into a meeting, whether you're the head coach, coordinator or position coach and set the tone for that day,” he said. “So that's my job. My job is to make sure every day I do the best I can to prepare the football team for that day, which hopefully leads to that week, that game, that year.”
If the man is under pressure, he's certainly not showing it — and that's a very good thing.