Over the course of his first 16 months holding the title of head football coach at the Pennsylvania State University, there were several situations where Bill O’Brien easily could have easily gotten mad.
For the majority of the time, he did not. Part of this is a calculated move on his part. Yell too much or at inopportune times, and the people who listen to you — fellow coaches, players, or members of the media — begin to tune it out and not take it seriously.
Flashback to fall Saturdays in Beaver Stadium during the 2012 season. The first year head coach was rarely shy about getting in the face of a referee when necessary during a contest, but twice in a three week span, O’Brien was diplomatic following losses to Ohio State and Nebraska where controversial penalties hurt the Nittany Lions. He never took the bait or used it as an excuse. In this business, coaches have to pick their battles, and some just aren’t worth fighting.
However, everyone has a topic or two that grinds their gears. Regardless of who the audience is and who might hear about it later, they’ll sound off. Questioning his regard for player safety is that area for O’Brien, and yesterday, he intended to do battle.
In a 22-minute afternoon conference call with reporters, the Nittany Lions head man blasted the Sports Illustrated story penned by David Epstein that investigated Penn State’s medical care and personnel changes that occurred a few months back.
Unlike most of his sessions with reporters, O’Brien began with a three minute opening statement before accepting questions. In his initial remarks, he emphasized that the safety of student athletes is his number one priority.
“It’s not near the top. It’s not around the top. It’s at the top,” said a fired up O’Brien. “And for anyone to suggest or perhaps outright accuse that anyone in Penn State’s athletic program would do otherwise is irresponsible, reckless, and wrong.”
“You may believe I’m only sitting here addressing the media with that comment. But I mean for anyone — anyone at Penn State, anyone in the media, anyone to state such a thing is preposterous.”
Throughout the first few questions, O’Brien declined to discuss specific employee matters including long-time team physician Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli no longer working with the football team but instead supervising all of Penn State sports medicine.
He did vehemently stand behind the program’s medical care.
“It is the same, if not better, than everywhere I have been at numerous schools around the country as we speak right now. We will have a primary care physician at every single practice. We will have a primary care physician even in the off-season that is located right near here. We will have an orthopedic surgeon that will be here quite a bit.”
“We are at 67 scholarships. Do you think for one second that I would jeopardize the health and safety of this team with 67 scholarship players on the team? That’s preposterous.”
O’Brien came to the defense of athletic director David Joyner, believing Epstein’s article was a character assassination against his boss. After conversing with SI in a phone conversation on Sunday, he came away unimpressed with how the magazine arrived at the finished product.
“What we sent from Penn State, our medical synopsis to Sports Illustrated, that was not in the article. We had our Dean of the Medical School had a significant amount of quotes. That was not in the article. I spent much of my time on Sunday on the phone with Sports Illustrated back and forth. I didn’t have any quotes in that article.”
Regarding fostering community unity in State College as a portion of the fanbase remains bitter for what has transpired over the past 18 months, O’Brien was rather straightforward in his explanation and what his role is.
“I’m not the unity coach. I’m not the coach of unity. I’m the football coach. It is my job to do the best job I can for the football program as long as I am the head coach here. I’m not the unity coach.”
Towards the end of the call, O’Brien fired back at a reporter who used the term “vendetta” when talking about Joyner.
“Don’t put words in my mouth,” he repeated twice.
From there, O’Brien asked an athletic communications employee monitoring the call how many questions remained. When she said six, O’Brien said three, later adding “My son’s little league game starts in 15 minutes, and if I’m late to that, I might be divorced.”
The slight attempt at humor did not last long though. O’Brien criticized outspoken trustee Anthony Lubrano for his comment that Penn State was becoming more like an NFL team that might rush student-athletes back from injury early.
“I don’t know where anyone can just say a quote about something they know nothing about. I don’t understand. I don’t comprehend it. I don’t understand how someone can make a quote about something that they know nothing about. And then the quote is not true. It is not true.”
He concluded with, “Who in the world would try to undermine us? If there is someone trying to undermine us, they need to look in the mirror. Why would you try to undermine something that is good?”
For the head coach, it is a teleconference he wishes never had to occur, but for how ever long his tenure at Penn State lasts, it will go down as one of the most memorable ones.