Senior College Football Columnist

O'Brien sticking to core values, beliefs as Penn State changes


O'Brien gives a presentation during the Penn State Coaches Caravan stop in New York. (AP)  
O'Brien gives a presentation during the Penn State Coaches Caravan stop in New York. (AP)  

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Here is the call sheet. Tom Brady's call sheet. Basically the offensive game plan for a hall of famer. Bill O'Brien hands it across his desk. Take it, touch it, turn it over, read it. Wow, it was actually used last Sept. 12 against the Dolphins.

Then hand it back to Penn State's new coach, sufficiently impressed. Each week before a game, O'Brien and Brady went over these hundreds of plays five or six times.

"Awesome guy, the best," O'Brien says. "He is all about football. Hardest worker. Best leader."

Never mind that little dust-up on the sidelines that was brought up when O'Brien was hired here in January. Brady is more Super Bowl than super model, O'Brien assures. Happens all the time. Guys bitch at each other. They get over it.

Senior Matt McGloin has passed for 3,119 yards, 22 TDs and 14 INTs in his career. (US Presswire)  
Senior Matt McGloin has passed for 3,119 yards, 22 TDs and 14 INTs in his career. (US Presswire)  
Here is Matt McGloin. The next Tom Brady for O'Brien. Well, sort of. Maybe. There's a reason the new coach hasn't named a starter yet. The three quarterbacks in contention have thrown a combined 28 interceptions and 29 touchdowns.

McGloin is the only senior in the group -- a gutty, try-hard kid from Scranton, Pa. So gutty he was knocked out by a teammate in December. It happens. Guys bitch at each other. They get over it.

Like all the Penn State quarterbacks at the moment, McGloin obviously has his limitations. On this night, he is at a reception in his hometown, a show of support for the new coach.

"A lot more audibles, a faster pace," McGloin gushes summarizing O'Brien's first spring practice.

How many times did McGloin audible last year? 10?

"Less probably," he says.

Then it hits you. This is a kid with a degree still learning how to play the position in his fifth season by watching film of the greatest quarterback of the era. In McGloin's case, Joe Paterno's Grand Experiment has worked. But it is just one issue among scores at Penn State that clash like atoms in a superconductor.

Football just happens to be in the middle as arguments and trials and outrage and healing and victims' rights intersect. The questions on O'Brien's 18-stop, nine-day bus caravan that ended this week were awkward and mixed. Will the uniforms change? Will the offense change? And what about the kids whose alleged abuser is scheduled for trial next month?

"When you work for the Patriots, you get there at 5 in the morning and go until about midnight," O'Brien explained. "You don't know what's going on in the outside world except for your family. The TV might be going on in the background but didn't know what was going on there. I'm not BS-ing.

"Of course, once I got to Penn State ..."

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The school is not only changing coaches. It has to change its reputation, maybe the culture, too. O'Brien was the 42-year-old out-of-the-box hire from the Patriots to help a little with football too. He was known enough in the industry to been contacted about other jobs, but unknown enough to get this collective query from Penn State fans.

"Who's that?" Jay Huffman remembers thinking. Huffman was a center/linebacker under Rip Engle from 1959-61. "I didn't know anything about him."

Understated seems to be good at this point in Happy Valley. As a coach, O'Brien seems competent enough. At several caravan stops he conducted a no-nonsense Power Point presentation featuring all the right buzz words: trust, accountability, work ethic. He wants a big, fast, physical team that can play in any weather because in State College -- ha, ha -- it can turn in a second.

"I don't have 105 angels," O'Brien said repeatedly. "I'm not going to beat Ohio State with 105 angels."

Perhaps most impressive, O'Brien wrote every word. The two P.R. firms Penn State has retained for $2.5 million over the next year to spin its message weren't needed for this grassroots message.

Penn State football, it can be argued, is not broken, perhaps not even the central issue, at the school. It is the university's self-awareness that must be adjusted six months after the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke. At some point, Penn State must be able to feel good about itself again. If that is ever possible.

Emotions have been rubbed raw. Thousands of proud alumni wonder if JoePa's Grand Experiment -- blending athletics with the educational mission -- can be continued.

Thousands more wonder if Penn State will ever be the same, if they will ever be same. Up until a few months ago, an alleged child molester was watching games from a Beaver Stadium suite and had access to the football facility.

"I used to work out at 8 a.m. He must have been there at 7," McGloin said of Sandusky. "He was working out all the time."

Like a lot of us, McGloin was watching TV that November night when State College spun out of control. Paterno was fired, students spilled into the streets. Fires were started. Teammates tried to get the quarterback, one of their leaders, to go downtown.

"You see clips of TV vans being tipped over," McGloin said. "Kids getting busted. I'm not going down there, bro ... I couldn't believe it at first. Everything happened so fast."

The last time he saw Paterno was the Sunday after the Nebraska game. The trustees had chosen to fire the legend by phone, sending a messenger over to the modest home at 720 McGee St. with a number to call. Two and a half months later, Paterno was dead.

"That's what killed him," McGloin said.

Here is Michael Meade, a 2000 Penn State grad, at a reception prior to O'Brien's appearance in New York. It's clear he wants to talk.

"We go there once a year for a game, my buddies and I. We rent an RV," jokes the 30-something marketing executive. "Now we're the creepy old bar guys at the college bars."

In a way, Meade embodies Penn State's emotions at the moment -- fans, players and alums. They are hopeful and cautious, ebullient and reserved about the future. Sometimes all of them. Sometimes none. Meade is not the first person to mention the word "Camelot" in relation to the Paterno era.

"Overnight," he says, "it was shuttered. I didn't wear a Penn State T-shirt for a while. I was worried that Penn State is going to be a college football wasteland."

Here is Anthony Gordon. Same reception. Class of '78, played for Joe. As a freshman he cut down an upperclassman in practice with a block out on the edge. The older player grabbed his face mask and threatened him with a fight if he did it again. He did it again.

A student manager alerted Gordon after practice that Joe wanted to see him.

"We're putting you on special teams," Paterno said.

"I've got a ring I'm looking at right now -- captain of the special teams, senior," Gordon said later by phone. "I wear this ring every day. Sometimes I put it on before I put on my wedding ring."

Gordon, like some others, was upset that Penn State didn't hire one of their own. He was among a small group of players who demanded an audience with O'Brien in February. They wanted a face-to-face with the new guy to basically see if he was worthy.

"He said two things to me," Gordon said. "I'm not going to lose to Ohio State and I'm sick and tired of people saying we can't beat the SEC teams.

"All he wants is a chance."

Of course, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley would have been the perfect choice if he hadn't -- as one observer put it -- "sat at the right hand of God," as Paterno's senior assistant. The nickname "Scrap" stuck to Bradley when the determined defensive back played from 1975-78.

Everybody loved Scrap. He was interviewed but didn't get the job. The unspoken risk was that six months from now his name is mentioned during the Sandusky trial. That's all it would take. Guilt by association. Hiring outside the family seemed inevitable.

"We didn't do it intentionally," acting AD Dave Joyner said. "Even if the events of the last six months didn't unfold, replacing a coach like Joe Paterno is the most monumental thing probably ever in college football. It's a rare individual to come into that atmosphere and handle it."

Bradley now lives in Pittsburgh and may do some television this fall. His talents qualify him, but no one knows if he will work at the highest level of football again.

"Talking to Tom," Gordon said, "There will never be another Camelot."

Here is Scott Radecic, another glorious product from Linebacker U. He has served his school well. The former Penn State and NFL ‘backer is a senior principal at Populous, a Kansas City-based architecture firm. Radecic helped design the Lasch Building, the football facility that for years was the standard in the industry.

Paterno used to complain his office that overlooks the practice field, Beaver Stadium and the Mt. Nittany, was too big.

"Every morning I watch the sun come up over the mountains," O'Brien said of his new digs. "When I was with the Patriots I didn't have a window. God, I hope Belichick comes up here and visits me and busts my chops."

O'Brien has tweaked the shrine that was essentially built to fit Joe. Paterno's old office now includes an overhead projector so the new guy can watch film. The weight room has been rearranged. The treadmills alone cost $25,000 each. The computer on the coach's desk, considered a futuristic annoyance by the last guy, will get its own workout.

Radecic is damn proud of his minimalist, artful, 90,000-square foot creation. But for the last few months whenever Lasch was in the news, it was usually mentioned as the location for some of Sandusky's alleged crimes.

"The alleged actions that occurred could have occurred in anybody's home, anyplace around the country," Radecic said firmly. "It just happened to take place -- allegedly -- in that building. The building is absolutely gorgeous."

Here is Jack O'Brien. He's such a loving kid, nine years old and full of life. When his younger brother Michael comes into the room, well, Jack just lights up.

"He rubs his belly," O'Brien said of his oldest son. "It's like he's the star of the show."

That day nine years ago O'Brien missed the only practice of his career. Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen had allowed his running backs coach to leave. The doctor at Johns Hopkins had called. He quickly got them in, showing Bill and Colleen two MRIs.

"Here's a normal brain," the doctor said. "Here's your son's brain."

Jack was born with lissencephaly, a rare genetic brain disorder. The parents were devastated but they loved, which is the only thing you can do. Jack is in a wheelchair and depends on his parents for everything. But O'Brien is a coach and that means significant time away. That makes Colleen her own star of the show in the caring process.

"He can't talk but he can communicate," O'Brien said of Jack. "He can nod and shake his head. You can give him a choice of food. You can tell he is alert. He knows who you are. He knows his grandparents. But when his little brother walks in the room, he goes crazy."

When 6-year-old Michael was born, his parents rushed him to a nearby North Carolina hospital for an MRI of his own. Healthy as a horse, the parents were told. When both sets of grandparents were called with the news, O'Brien swears there were tears streaming down their cheeks. He could already hear them crying over the phone.

Here's the situation. In some ways, O'Brien can't change, manipulate or explain the world he has chosen. The current climate is unlike anything in college sports. Maybe ever.

There is a moment when all new coaches sit behind a new desk and realize, holy spit, they are the new coach. O'Brien says there hasn't been that moment yet for him. The Belichick coaching tree is supportive, significant and experienced. O'Brien popped down to Tuscaloosa to exchange ideas with Nick Saban. During Patriots meetings O'Brien would keep two notebooks -- one for the game plan and one just on Belichick's coaching style.

The weight of the job for the man who has left Belichick's side to take over for Paterno isn't obvious. Recently, O'Brien casually ate a salad at his desk, describing the picture directly behind his desk. It shows former Penn State great/then-Raider Matt Millen throwing a punch at then-Patriots general manager Pat Sullivan after a game a quarter century ago.

Millen has come by the office a few times. Coach and former player have bonded.

"He's intense as ---," O'Brien said.

The new coach also recounted his first meeting with Paterno. It came in 1992 when JoePa returned to speak at Brown, his alma mater. O'Brien was a senior at the Ivy League school. A friend snapped a picture of the two with O'Brien holding a beer.

A few months later, he wrote Paterno inquiring about a grad assistant job. We don't have anything right now, Joe said, but please keep in touch.

"I framed the note," O'Brien said.

The next time they spoke was by phone in January, two weeks before Paterno's death.

"He was really supportive," O'Brien said. "He thought it was neat a Brown guy got the job. You could tell he was struggling. I wish I had a chance to see him but I didn't. We all try to get where he's at."

Meaning, what -- top of the wins list, top of the Big Ten, heaven?

So many questions. As one era ends suddenly, another begins apprehensively. It will start with a familiar language. Football is still spoken here at Penn State. Among the many, mighty duties ahead for O'Brien, there is still an offense to fix, a starting quarterback to name.

The Super Bowl coordinator, author of that call sheet, is asked what the first play will be following 46 years of Joe Paterno.

"I haven't thought about it too much," says the only man soon to have both Tom Brady and Matt McGloin on his resume.

"We'll probably throw it."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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