Right Man at the Right Time
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
When Penn State began its search in November of 2011 for a permanent successor to Joe Paterno, it was looking for much more than a head football coach. It was in the market for a miracle worker.
Who would possibly want to fill the opening on the sidelines in State College, a career-staller to be sure? The entire University was reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, a tragic story that transcended both football and the boundaries of the nation. An NCAA investigation loomed like a storm cloud above Central Pennsylvania, and there was also the business of replacing JoePa, who was still very much an icon in the region. Penn State was radioactive for just about everyone on then-acting athletic director David Joyner’s short list of candidates … except Bill O’Brien.
When Penn State reached out to O’Brien, he was enjoying a successful debut as the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots in his home state of Massachusetts. With Tom Brady as his prized pupil, the Pats were cranking out points and earning the top seed in the AFC playoffs. From afar, O’Brien had impressed Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, among others, who was looking to replace head coach Jack Del Rio. An NFL promotion appeared imminent for the hot coaching commodity, yet O’Brien opted instead to take the rocky road to Happy Valley, where one of the profession’s toughest jobs awaited.
“If the task was easy, Coach O’Brien would go in the opposite direction,” said FB Michael Zordich, one of the senior leaders from last season. “He’d never admit it, but secretly I think he loves the thrill of new challenges.”
O’Brien might be an adrenaline junkie on some deep level, but it was his no-nonsense, blue-collar approach to his profession that first caught the attention of the Penn State administration. Raised in the shadow of Boston, he’s a reflection of his parents; hard-working, detail-oriented and passionate about doing things the right way. O’Brien is also unflappable, the product of that upbringing and of being the father of a 10-year-old son, Jack, who suffers from lissencephaly, a rare and debilitating brain disorder. The coach knows true adversity on a daily basis, allowing him to put all other challenges in proper perspective.
“Coach is a straight-shooter, and brutally honest whether you like it or not,” added Zordich. “There’s absolutely nothing scripted or disingenuous about him. He genuinely loves football, loves teaching it, and we all just related so well to him. The very first day we met him, he had us all buying in immediately. Everything clicked. It all made sense. We just knew he was the right man to lead us in 2012.”
From the moment he was hired, O’Brien never took his eye off the ball, even though there were countless reasons to become distracted, from the initial lukewarm reaction to his hiring and the ongoing Sandusky trial to the devastating NCAA sanctions levied last July and the subsequent transfer of players from the program. And as if O’Brien hadn’t already faced an unprecedented level of turbulence during his maiden season as a head coach, his Nittany Lions began 2012 with back-to-back emotional losses. Panic? That’s just not in O’Brien’s playbook.
“Coach is just so intelligent,” said senior LB Michael Mauti. “He was always up front and honest with us throughout this ordeal. He trusted us every step of the way, and we owed it to him to pay him back. He just knows how to smoothly operate an organization, and even after starting slowly, we felt as if he’d help turn us into a well-oiled machine.”
At 0-2, absolutely nothing had changed for O’Brien, the even-tempered educator and mentor of young athletes. In fact, his resiliency grew even stronger as his vision for the future of Penn State football came into tighter focus. The initial breakthrough occurred on Sept. 15, with a 34-7 win over Navy that allowed everyone associated with the program to exhale a bit. Few could have guessed that the victory would be the start of a five-game winning streak, which included three straight over Big Ten opponents.
The 2012 Nittany Lions predictably showed their greatest gains on offense, O’Brien’s area of expertise. The coach inherited a team that finished 110th nationally in scoring, and had lost three key weapons, RB Silas Redd, WR Justin Brown and PK Anthony Fera, to transfers just before the start of the campaign. Yet, somehow, this brew of former walk-ons, unproven grinders and underclassmen embraced the new pro-style attack that led the Big Ten in total offense in conference games. Matt McGloin, the quarterback for Penn State’s skittish offense of the past couple of seasons, blossomed into the league’s most dangerous passer. It was borderline implausible that the U-turn had happened so quickly.
“Coach O’Brien is just so cerebral with the X’s and O’s, a real offensive genius,” boasted Zordich. “He loves scheming to beat the other team. But what makes him so effective is the way he teaches the game. He makes it simple for us to learn his philosophy and his playbook, which helps everyone execute more efficiently on Saturdays.”
In a season that once appeared destined for disaster and massive rebuilding, Penn State, with O’Brien at the controls, entered the regular season finale with Wisconsin at 7-4. It was a remarkable turnaround for a program that began the year with a depleted roster, a pair of losses and no chance of playing in the postseason. Rather fittingly, the Lions capped the rollercoaster ride that was 2012 with a hard-fought overtime win against the same Badgers who’d go on to capture the Big Ten championship a week later in Indianapolis.