What I learned about O'Brien at Penn State

What I learned about O'Brien at Penn State
January 2, 2014, 4:00 pm
Share This Post

Who is Bill O'Brien?

(Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)

As soon as the Texans fired Gary Kubiak, I thought Bill O'Brien would be a great fit to become the next coach in Houston.

I was a Penn State television beat reporter for an affiliate in central Pennsylvania for almost two years and covered O'Brien's taking over the program. I will never forget his introductory press conference on Jan. 7, 2012. It took place in a ballroom full of people who were skeptical of a man with no head coaching experience and an outsider in the Penn State community. But he completely impressed me and so many others I spoke with that day and left the Penn State community with so much hope.  

O'Brien didn't disappoint on the field (8-4 his first season and 7-5 in his second even with the most devastating NCAA sanctions) nor off the field (leading Penn State through an image nightmare).

Here are some of my observations of the man who took over and Penn State and the man that is now taking over for the Texans.

Deep down, he's an NFL guy

In his introductory press conference at Penn State, O'Brien said he viewed the NFL as the highest level of his profession, and by many of his actions, it was obvious he was meant to be at the pro level and wanted to get back to it someday. We all know about his success in New England under Bill Belichick for five years, particularly with Tom Brady. That magic played out in Happy Valley when O'Brien turned former walk-on Matt McGloin into the Big Ten passing leader in just one season. Before O'Brien took over, McGloin was in a back-and-forth competition with Rob Bolden, who is now the fourth-string quarterback at LSU, for snaps. After his one successful year under O'Brien, McGloin was signed as an undrafted free agent by Oakland and ended up starting six games for the Raiders, and of course McGloin credits his former coach for his opportunity in the NFL.  

With the quarterback situation being an issue for Houston, you can imagine the Texans and O'Brien were licking their chops about the opportunity for their new head coach to work with whoever will be under center next season. O'Brien's passion about football, especially about offense and developing quarterbacks, was clear from the beginning. This was a dream for him to come to the Texans – a team that has so many weapons and one that has the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL Draft.

It was fun to watch O'Brien transform a Penn State offense that had become more boring and anemic into a pro-style offense and the competition he demanded at every position. The hardest-working players who learned the new NFL playbook the quickest won out.  

Another note on the same theme, O’Brien brought in Director of Strength and Conditioning, Craig Fitzgerald. They gutted and renovated the weight room to rival any NFL facility and revamped the workout regimen from a military-like program to one that was much more NFL and football-specific.  

What he did for Penn State will benefit the Texans

As much as I liked seeing what O'Brien did on the field where he was creative, competitive, smart, and organized, it could be interesting to cover him off of it. From Day 1, O'Brien was a tough, fiery leader and motivator. He's a players' coach who commanded respect, which is exactly what his young players needed. He was outgoing, funny and witty, but if you caught him in the wrong moment, especially after a bad practice or loss, he could be hard-nosed and give short, truculent answers and you knew he’d rather be anywhere else than answering questions from the media.

Even more important, was O'Brien's understanding of what he'd have to do off the field to help try to save Penn State's image from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse candal. He allowed more access to the program than anyone can ever remember and made himself very accessible for interviews, also not the norm for the program. He even hosted a picnic for the football operations staff and media during his first spring on campus. O'Brien made a lot of public appearances, including attending and supporting other Penn State sports and headlining each stop of a Coaches' Caravan the school started to reconnect with the fan base and alum.

Although O’Brien was under so much pressure for taking over for the legendary Joe Paterno, it was amazing to sit back and watch him lead the Penn State community and especially his players and staff. It was especially impressive to watch him work so swiftly to do damage control when the NCAA sanctions were handed down. Although some of his best players transferred, as allowed by the NCAA, he was able to convince a strong core group of current players to stay as well as a core group of his 2013 recruiting class, including top quarterback recruit, Christian Hackenberg, and tight end recruit, Adam Breneman. One of my favorite things O’Brien did while at Penn State was put players’ names on the back of their jerseys for the first time ever in the program’s 125-year history. He wanted everyone to know which players decided to fight and stay with the program.

After the Nittany Lions lost their first two games under O’Brien – to Ohio, then Virginia – they beat Navy 34-7 in Week 3. I was the second reporter to do a one-on-one interview with him after his very first win at Penn State and as a head coach. I can’t tell you what a sense of relief, accomplishment, joy, and every other emotion you can imagine he was feeling, but it was all for his players, which is all he cared about from Day 1. I also interviewed McGloin and Michael Mauti, one of the veteran leaders who helped keep the team together, and they were overwhelmed by emotions they felt for O’Brien and his first win. That proved how much they loved and respected their head coach and what an impact he had made. The Nittany Lions went on to win seven of their last nine games.

O’Brien seemed to handle everything with grace, and treated Paterno’s legacy with nothing but respect from the beginning. However, I could see that the constant comparisons to Paterno and expectations from a very loyal – and somewhat delusional – fan base frustrated him, as it would anybody, and I can imagine he’s not upset about leaving that situation for a more stable one Texans owner Bob McNair and Houston can provide.

He has more perspective than most

Taking over Penn State football at the darkest of times was not even O’Brien’s biggest concern in life. His oldest son, 11-year-old Jack, has the rare neurological disorder Lissencephaly, which requires constant assistance for basic needs and causes him to suffer seizures on a daily basis. O’Brien would talk about how this helps him put things into perspective and handle the pressures of coaching and especially the situation he was in at Penn State. The fact that Houston has the best medical center in the world right down the street from Reliant Stadium had to have been a huge draw for O’Brien and his family.

Bonus points

O’Brien has a mean golf swing. Not surprising, he says he barely gets to play, so we were all quite impressed when we saw him play in a Coaches vs. Cancer charity golf tournament. As benevolent of a city as Houston is, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who are involved with or play in charity golf tournaments around town. You need to get this guy in your group!

In closing

Even though the Texans have several things that need to be fixed, it’s on a much smaller scale than Penn State, and if anyone deserves the chance or seems more fitting, it’s O’Brien.

More Team Talk