Bill O'Brien wasn't scared away from Penn State by what happened in the past, because he embraces both the present and future of the football program and the university.
"We are very, very aware of what happened in November," O'Brien told about 200 fans Monday morning at Penn State Altoona.
The Jerry Sandusky scandal made some coaches back away from seeking the Penn State coaching job, and in his four months on the job, O'Brien said he's been asked numerous times why he took it.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Penn State’s Bill O’Brien gives his first autographs of the morning to Mike Dull of Duncansville and his sons Connor (left), 8, and Aiden, 5, Monday on his way to Penn State Altoona’s Adler Athletic Complex as part of Penn State’s Coaches Caravan.
"Are you kidding me?" he said. "This is the best job in college football."
There are challenges that don't come with other college coaching jobs, one of which is assuring one of the nation's largest fan bases that the football program is in good shape after going through so much turmoil.
O'Brien has been doing just that the past two weeks during the school's Coaches Caravan, which stopped at Penn State Altoona's Adler Athletic Complex for a breakfast gathering.
"I have no idea what other people have thought about this job," O'Brien said. "I just know what I thought, what I saw, what I heard and the people that I met. I just know that this is a very special job, and I'm thrilled to be the head coach here."
O'Brien showed off his people skills for local fans Monday by working the room, going from table to table shaking hands with everyone before his speech and then posing for pictures afterward.
"It was nice," Tim Matteson of Hollidaysburg said after his 10-year-old son, Nick, and 10-year-old nephew, Andrew, posed for pictures with O'Brien. "I think he's doing everything the right way. He seems like a real good guy."
O'Brien was called "a man of substance" by PSU men's hockey coach Guy Gadowsky, who also spoke at the Caravan stop.
In his speech, O'Brien stressed the four foundations on which he will run the program. They are:
- Academics: He said the players' identity won't just be as a football player, but as a "Penn State football player," meaning one who makes the classroom and graduating big priorities. He later told a story about how when he was growing up, the topics at the dinner table usually were education, sports and politics, and his parents wouldn't let him have dessert until he talked about school that day.
- Respect: He called this a big word in the program and noted, "You earn respect through honesty and hard work." He also mentioned he has set up a peer intervention group of about 12-15 players who are respected on the squad and can help their teammates when needed. O'Brien would not disclose which players he selected.
- Integrity: He wants everyone to be honest with each other, and while he noted, "We don't have 105 angels on the team," he praised the previous coaching staff for putting together a roster that includes a majority of "high-integrity guys."
- Football: He wants a big, strong, fast, physical football team that can play in all types of weather. There will be much more emphasis on the passing game under O'Brien, and he later joked that after an early practice, his wife, Colleen, was worried and asked him, "What was that?" and "Can we throw the ball?"
O'Brien has made a point during the Coaches Caravan stops to show great respect to his legendary predecessor, and in doing so Monday he said, "I'm not here to be Joe Paterno."
O'Brien joked he won't coach at Penn State for 46 years like Paterno did - the 42-year-old did say he'd like to stay until he's 70 - but he did vow to keep going what the late Paterno built at PSU, which is a program that has remained competitive while also standing for all the right things in collegiate athletics.
"We've got a very, very special university with a very, very special athletic department," O'Brien said.
Nittany Lion men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik, whose four sisters went to Penn State Altoona, spoke first at the Caravan. He won a national championship in 2008 but played a self-deprecating role as he referred to himself as a leek on a plate that included the bigger names Gadowsky and O'Brien.
Gadowsky followed and said if a coach as successful as Pavlik is a leek, then he's a garnish. When O'Brien stepped up to speak, he continued the food theme and showed his sense of humor by calling himself a Brussels sprout compared to the other two coaches.
A question-and-answer session followed the speeches, and O'Brien displayed more of his dry wit and preference for short answers when presented with the first question. The coach had said his offense showed only about 10 percent in the Blue-White Game and was asked by Les Hart of Duncansville how much he thinks fans will see come the season opener against Ohio.
"A very big percentage," O'Brien deadpanned.
The coach answered seven questions during the Q&A session, ranging from recruiting and the new strength and conditioning program to academics and his biggest challenge and surprise on the job so far.
"He answered the questions super from the audience. You couldn't ask for anything better," longtime PSU fan Dan Casey of Altoona said. "As far as a public speaker, he was average. But as far as his sincerity and everything, I think he's a home run.
"He's going to be a breath of fresh air to the program, and I hope the critics give him a chance."
O'Brien already has won over most critics with how he's handled himself so far on a job that everyone knew would be challenging given the circumstances.
"The biggest compliment I can give him is he's handled it exactly as a Penn Stater should," Pavlik said.
Mirror Staff Writer Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031.