By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
MERCER COUNTY —
“Penn State Proud” has been used as a recruiting slogan, but for head football coach Bill O’Brien it’s a way of life.
O’Brien orchestrated an 8-win season for the 2012 Nittany Lions, including a season-ending overtime win over Big Ten Conference champion Wisconsin. However the intense taskmaster related, “I think at the end of the day, it was a good year for Penn State. But one thing you learn in coaching,” O’Brien admonished, “is that you can’t rest on your laurels. That year’s over, and we moved on — really, as soon as the Wisconsin game was over — we started thinking about 2013, and that’s basically where we’re headed now.”
The 2012 Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award winner, O’Brien served as guest speaker at the annual Penn State-Shenango Friends of Penn State dinner on Wednesday. A native of the Boston suburb of Andover, Mass., the intense O’Brien was polite, but smiled little during a 15-minute meeting with the media in Sharon Hall on PSU-Shenango’s campus.
After making a pair of Super Bowl appearances with the NFL’s New England Patriots, O’Brien became Penn State University’s 15th head football coach on Jan. 6, 2012. Having had a late start on the recruiting trail and having lost numerous scholarship players in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal, the 2012 Nittany Lions lost back-to-back games to commence the campaign.
However a subsequent practice on an emotional Monday motivated his minions toward a 34-7 victory over the United States Naval Academy. That propelled PSU to 8 wins in its final 10 games.
“It was definitely an enjoyable season, especially with this being my first as a head football coach,” O’Brien acknowledged. “Being around the players, the coaches, the administration — just really fantastic people at Penn State. And that’s saying a lot, because I was an assistant coach on two Super Bowl teams, and those were really enjoyable years, too — even though we didn’t win.
“But (2012) was a very special year, mostly because of the kids, the players, and how hard they worked,” O’Brien continued, “the passion that they had, the commitment (31 seniors) that they made to it, so it was a pretty neat year.
“There were a few gratifying moments,” O’Brien reflected. “These are young guys playing a contact sport, a tough sport, and they’d been through a lot. We came to practice that Monday after the Virginia game (a 16-14 loss), and we had a really good, crisp practice. That was a really gratifying moment for me as a coach.
“Then the other moment,” he continued, “had to be the locker room after the Wisconsin game. That was just a fantastic scene! And to be a part of that, especially with those kids — the commitment they had made to the university, to us, the commitment that they made to each other — to see them come out on the winning end of that game was just pretty neat.”
Regarding 2013, O’Brien offered an assessment of his recently signed class of recruits:
“We feel really good about the student-athletes we’ve recruited,” he began, relating, “We’re in a situation (owing to NCAA sanctions) where we can’t sign as many guys as we’d like to sign, but we really feel good about the quality of the guys that we’ve brought in here. We think we’ve gotten some high-character guys, we think we’ve gotten some good football players that come from good families. We feel good about the job we did in Pennsylvania; we feel we need to do an even better job in the future. ... We have nine coaches in Pennsylvania, so we have coaches who have (geographical recruiting) areas.
“But especially as it relates to Ohio, we have to do a better job in Ohio,” O’Brien acknowledged. “There are good players in Ohio that have interest in Penn State. But just overall, as a staff led by me, we have to do a better job there. But we’ll always recruit this area and the Youngstown area has been good to us (Cardinal Mooney High product Michael Zordich, a senior fullback, served as a 2012 captain). But we have to continue to do a better job in this area, recruiting it.
“Recruting’s never been easy,” O’Brien admitted. “Recruting’s about a fit: Does the student-athlete feel like he fits in at the school that’s recruiting him? Does the student-athlete feel good about the relationship? Is is a trusting relationship? What makes recruiting harder is ... some of these new rules (text-messaging, telephoning, visiting recruits). Hopefully we get some of these new rules tabled — there’s, like, three of four of them that need to be tabled and talked about a lot longer than they have been.
“The relationships and whether or not a guy fits, that’s the fun part of recruiting,” he added.
O’Brien also praised Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delaney — “a forward-thinking man,” — specifically for his role in expanding the circuit, which soon will include Maryland and Rutgers.
Although 20 years into his coaching career, arguably, O’Brien’s enduring legacy may be that as the man who succeeded legendary Joe Paterno as Penn State University’s head football coach. Ironically, they shared the same alma mater, Brown University.
“I actually spoke to Coach Paterno one time,” O’Brien began, “and that was about 10 days before he passed away. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to at least do that. I wish that I’d had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him, obviously, but I had the opportunity to speak with him on the phone. ... that was a private conversation between he and I, and I’ll just keep it at that.
“But it was a productive conversation. I wouldn’t say it was an emotional conversation, but it was productive, and ... I’m glad I had a chance to speak with him,” O’Brien related.
“Funny story,” he related. “When I was a senior at Brown, (Paterno) came to Brown and spoke to the whole athletic department. And then the football players (O’Brien was a linebacker/defensive end), the seniors that year, we got to ... meet with him and talk to him a little bit. That was really neat, just as a 21-year-old, that was pretty cool.
“But ... we’re doing things at Penn State that, I believe, he would be proud of,” O’Brien continued. “We’re recruiting good kids, we’re putting a huge emphasis on academics, because it’s a fantastic school, we care about the school, we care about the guys we coach.
“I (didn’t) know Joe Paterno personally, but I believe he’d be proud of that. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the body of work, the wins, combined with graduating that high percentage of players over time, will never be matched,” O’Brien concluded.