It’s no easy task replacing a legend. On January 7 of this year, Bill O’Brien did just that.
Think back to that time. The Penn State community was fractured. The Penn State community was confused. The Penn State community was looking for someone — anyone — to lead them in a positive direction.
The coaching search was exhaustive. Penn State fans were getting restless as months inched by. When word began to leak out that a Penn State outsider from the New England Patriots was the frontrunner of the coaching search, it’d be an understatement to say that the Penn State community did not approve.
The arguments were usually simple, but passionate.
“O’Brien had never been a head coach!”
“Other Bill Bellichick assistants haven’t done well as head coaches!”
“He’s not a Penn State man!”
Outcry from former Penn State lettermen did not help matters, but once O’Brien stepped in front of the media for his introductory press conference on that January day, it appeared that David Joyner, Ira Lubert, and the coach selection committee was on to something.
“I’m in charge of this family now,” O’Brien said.
From day one the man has emanated confidence and spoken with firm conviction. He is honest and forthright. He cuts right through the bullshit. He has stood in the public eye and represented Penn State with the highest level of integrity—before and after the NCAA sanctions.
On the field, he and his top-notch staff of assistants have brought a new energy to Happy Valley. The players (those who remain) have bought into a brand new system and have been extremely receptive to the changes at hand, but above all, O’Brien’s honesty and forthrightness is what sold him to the Penn State players.
“During the sanction times, he basically came right out and said ‘this isn’t easy, it’s not an easy choice for you guys.’ He was honest for all the players who were on the fence about leaving. He was upright and up front about what’s going to happen. He was completely honest about everything we were going to face,” junior linebacker Glenn Carson said at Tuesday’s media press conference.
Not only is O’Brien’s honesty vital in his dealings with players off the field, it is equally important on the field.
“It’s really important for your coach to be honest with players because it really develops that strong bond and that connection. Being able to trust a coach is so important so when you’re on the field you know that you trust that coach and that coach trusts you,” Carson said.
The players’ trust in O’Brien and his coaching staff enabled the staff to implement a fresh, new system on offense—one that is exceedingly different than the stagnant Galen Hall and Jay Paterno led offenses of the past.
This may not be the best Penn State team, but they sure are fun to watch.
On offense, they work fast. They spread the ball around. They go for it on fourth down. They are aggressive and run an innovative, creative system. On defense, they fly to the ball. They hit you in the mouth. And most of all—they play extremely hard.
“I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from non‑Penn State people telling me how much they enjoy watching this team play. Again, I don’t know what’s going to happen this year. I’m not a genie. But, people enjoy watching this team play because of the effort with which they play,” O’Brien said at his weekly Tuesday afternoon press conference.
“They play like their hair is on fire every play.”
The team sits at 3-2 on the year, winning three straight games after opening the season with two close losses. Saturday’s homecoming contest with No. 24 Northwestern—a team that O’Brien called the best Penn State has played thus far — will offer an immense challenge for the Lions.
Who knows? Maybe a win could spark Penn State and propel them on a run through the less-than-stellar 2012 Big Ten schedule.
He has coached just five games, but there’s little doubt that with his honesty and integrity he has displayed so far on and off the field that Bill O’Brien was the perfect hire for this University and for the future of the Penn State football program.