COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Family, past tell tale of who Penn St.'s new head coach is

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, right, gives instructions as center Matt Stankiewitch (54) listens during the NCAA college football team's workout in State College, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, right, gives instructions as center Matt Stankiewitch (54) listens during the NCAA college football team's workout in State College, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

STATE COLLEGE Yet another book lay on the coffee table in his spacious office.

Bill OBrien is Ivy League material who studied political science and organizational behavior as an undergrad, public policy after that.

To know him is to imagine his mind working non-stop, on another game plan, a recruiting pitch, or a coaches meeting. From that lecture he promised his high school buddy to the stadium tour hed give his college teammate.

His high-grade reputation truly blossomed at Brown University Joe Paternos alma mater with not only learning every nuance of playing his position but the stunning particulars of everyone else on the field as well.


Reading is another way he soaks in the worlds debates, how he learns and tests theories and tweaks his methods of motivating in sports and beyond. He said he often works on three or four books at a time.

In the late spring, the newest addition in his office was Laura Hillenbrands Unbroken, the hardback best-seller about Louie Zamperini, the young Californian sprinter who ran in the 1936 Hitler Olympics before going to war.

There, he remained exquisitely focused and upbeat and pulled through countless near-death experiences and torture at the hands of his Japanese captors.

OBrien had not yet opened that one.

This was a week before the guilty verdict in the Jerry Sandusky trial. A month before the scathing Freeh report was released. The crippling NCAA sanctions followed it all, driving several of his prized recruits to leave the fold almost immediately. Some of his stars from his current team did the same.

Meanwhile, OBrien locked into his strengths and his resources and simply built one day upon another.

He talked to his mentors, the top football coaches in the country.

He re-charged in a perfectly timed week at the family hangout in Cape Cod, sharing meals, telling stories, busting chops and hitting golf balls.

At Penn State, he grabbed four or five hours of sleep each night. Hed arrive at his spacious office early and rarely slow down from studying practice and game film and planning everything from staff meetings, team-building activities and recruiting pitches to alumni events and a multi-week bus tour.

Always, at the end of whatever he digested that day, he packed it away and made the short drive to his new home in Boalsburg to be with his wife and two young boys.

Colleen OBrien is every bit his intellectual joust, magna cum laude at Boston College, top five in her law school class and a sports junkie. But the fit truly works like this he burns hotter, an Irish-Catholic from New England; she operates smoother, calmer and drier.

She thinks things through. Shes the opposite of ready-aim-fire, Bill OBrien said. She never gets riled up, hung up.

She ensures that not only firecracker Michael, 7, finishes playing with new friends in time for baseball or soccer practice, but that son, Jack, 10, simply survives happily through another day.

Jack was diagnosed with a rare developmental brain disorder several years ago, not long after OBrien began his steady but twisting ascent in coaching. Jacks lissencephaly guarantees him no specific amount of life or cognitive abilities but no defined limits, either.

Always, they are in a state of detailed vigilance and yet hope.

One crucial segment of life bleeds into another.

In June, OBrien talked about how so many probe him about the new-found pressure in his life, that of coaching at Penn State.

Rather, he looks to his home and his son. He could have been referring to Unbroken.

What do you define as pressure? he asked, rhetorically, during a one-on-one meeting in his office.

This job is about hard work. Its about doing the right thing for the kids. Its about making sure the team is prepared to practice and play.

But pressure is when your child is going through tough things. Pressure is what my wife has to deal with every day. Feed him, bathe him, make sure he has the right medicine. He has to take medicine on the dot. Thats pressure. If you miss that by an hour, he might have a major seizure. Thats pressure. You better get your medicine in the kid.

Its not third-and-one against Ohio State. Thats just making a good play-call.

A week before his first game, we know more about the man whos been on the job eight months. We know more but nowhere close to a majority of defining images.

What is clear is that there is a depth and perspective to OBrien that guides him better than most would think of a 42-year-old, first-time head coach.

Im not easily impressed by most people, said high school buddy George Delaney. But (OBriens) always exceeded expectations. There are no shortcuts in this man.

Hes always moving forward, as he has become fond of saying.

One unforeseen and yet steady step at time.

In a sense, he grew up as an only child.

Bill OBrien was 10 years younger than his oldest brother, Jack, and more than six years younger than Tom.

Sports became engrained in each of the boys, though education was the runaway motivator. Their father, John, graduated from Brown University before becoming a success in the semi-conductor business. Each of his boys followed him to Brown, Tom even playing football there.

But Bill OBrien was different.

His focus and intensity in those games separated him from most everyone. When he was in the eighth grade his parents sent him to St. Johns Prep, a Catholic school in Andover, Mass.

Probably the best thing we ever did for him, John OBrien said recently.

The peer pressure was to be a good student and an athlete, unlike some public schools where peer pressure was to be an athlete and a wise guy. He thrived with the all-boys (student body) and the sports and academics. They practiced football and hed come home dog-tired and then do three hours of studying every night.

That was pretty rigorous, and that set him up (for today). Hes well-grounded and well-schooled.

Both of Bill OBriens brothers became lawyers, with Tom even running Jacks successful Massachusetts state senate campaign.

Bill went to Brown and played football there, too. Though his defensive skills were limited, he rose above everyone as a leader.

He doesnt have an ego. Hes confident, but he doesnt have an, Its-about-me-kind-of-attitude, said Jim OLeary, his high school coach. Everybody loved OBie. Hes had the ability to make friends and keep them. People follow him.

You have to be able to see beyond the moment and see the big picture.

Those traits sparked him at Brown, where early on he realized his infatuation with coaching.

After graduation and a brief stint coaching tight ends barely younger than himself, he earned his first big break. Georgia Tech needed a graduate assistant.

Of course, OBrien had to be accepted into the prestigious graduate school just to take the job.

He hadnt taken a test in 2 years ... and they dont just let you in there, said John Perry, who grew up with OBrien and coached with him at Brown.

But he went in and nailed (the entrance exam). Those things are always remarkable to me. An average person would take their time and study for six months, but he just went in and nailed it.

The next decade saw him emerge as a successful offensive coordinator and fight through some tough times.

He lost a job at Notre Dame when George OLearys resume came into question.

He suffered through losing seasons at Duke and even prospered rather anonymously under Bill Belichick in New England. His sideline shouting match with future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady provided some sudden national face time.

Two weeks later, he became Penn States surprise pick.

It all completed a stunning arc, but hes been no more or less successful than brother Tom, who runs a real estate development company, and brother Jack, who runs a government and regulatory affairs group for a Texas utility.

Hes made his fortune by crafting masterful on-field matchups, by putting every type of player in a position to succeed, by smoothly morphing his offense around whatever he has to work with, even if the parts seem less than favorable.

He still talks regularly with Alabamas Nick Saban, OLeary and Belichick, a few of the top minds in the profession.

Hes taught me the discipline of his management style, Jack OBrien said of his brother. There is a lot going on in (the Penn State football) building getting ready for this season. With everything coming at him, its how disciplined he is, with how he wants that program to run.

Guys like my brother can run other organizations in other industries in other academic settings.

While he has repeatedly embraced Penn States tradition, its academics and even Paterno, OBrien also made sure to quickly paint his own brushstrokes as well. From a relaxed policy on long hair and earrings to putting names on the backs of those staid uniforms, to opening more practice time to the media to encouraging coaches families to attend workouts.

We dont want to regret that because were coaching football we didnt see our kids, OBrien said. Thats one thing Ive done during the offseason: I try to help as much as I can at home.

For so long, the wonder and anticipation focused on the oddity of starting a season without Paterno, his assistants, his family everything that stayed so much the same.

And yet now things are much bigger than that.

Its almost difficult to quantify it all and how it will feel Saturday in Beaver Stadium in the home opener.

To OBrien, though, this is simply the first step of his first job as a program leader. He trusts the men hes coaching with. He has been a known plan-builder since the day he arrived.

Penn States past doesnt sway him too hard one way or another. A cloudy future seems only to fuel him.

He began his overhaul by hiring one of the nations top strength-and-conditioning coaches to go with one of the top offensive line coaches to rebuild a program on basics, in a sense, from the inside out.

It could well be a long-term project, especially considering the multi-year bowl ban and scholarship losses and transfers. But the sometimes fiery and always direct coach also owns a patience.

Hes bought into that during his own career. He sees it every day at home, how his oldest son is elated by the smallest of accomplishments, like crawling a bit on the floor, and how his youngest son willingly watches over him.

His boys have probably made him have a stronger appreciation for whatever opportunities he has, said Brian Aylward, a college football friend. Hes that much more dedicated to the kids he coaches. It makes him fight that much more for them to get the most out of their abilities.

Which, after eight months on the job, finally leads to his first game.

It will be emotional and maybe even overwhelming in a packed stadium of more than 107,000 fans, all of it broadcast on national TV.

Maybe hundreds of OBrien family members, friends and former co-workers from New England will be in the stands watching.

Hes been too busy to even contemplate that moment and what it will be like to run onto that field.

Hes purposely avoided it.

Maybe Ill think about that the night before the game, he said. And Ill think about myself and how Im going to control the emotions.

And then the action on the field will begin.

Eventually it will end.

And there will be another to day to build.