O'Brien didn't have to concern himself with the arduous task of recruiting high school prospects in his job as an assistant coach with the New England Patriots the past five years. But that changed when he agreed to take over the Nittany Lions earlier this month, even though he has remained in his position as New England's offensive coordinator as the Patriots make their way through the NFL playoffs.
Recruiting is nothing new for O'Brien. He logged 14 years as a college assistant before taking a position with the Patriots in 2007, and part of that time was spent as recruiting coordinator at Georgia Tech.
“It's kind of like riding a bike,” O'Brien said when asked what it was like to be back in the recruiting game.
The tricky part has been finding a way to work on recruiting for Penn State while still fulfilling his duties with the Patriots. So he watches film of prospects during lunch breaks. At night, he makes calls and does anything else he can.
“Sleep's not important,” he cracked.
With the Feb. 1 signing day for college prospects rapidly approaching, we thought it was important to spend some time talking recruiting with Penn State's new coach to get a feel for how he and his staff are (and will) approach things.
O'Brien took a few minutes Thursday afternoon to give Fight On State's Mark Brennan an exclusive one-on-one interview where he tackled a variety of recruiting-related topics. This is O'Brien's first interview about recruiting since he was named head coach Jan. 6.
Note that due to NCAA restrictions, he could not talk about specific prospects, but he did have some interesting things to say about regional recruiting, Ohio State and Michigan landing top prospects from Pennsylvania and more.
Read on for details.
Mark Brennan [Fight On State]: What's it been like getting back into the recruiting game?
Bill O'Brien: I had a lot of experience recruiting. I was a recruiting coordinator; I recruited a lot of different areas of the country. It's kind of like riding a bike. As long as you have the ability to start relationships and talk about trust and integrity with people, then you've got a chance to be a decent recruiter.
So the number one philosophy for us at Penn State is we've got to go out and find the best football players who have the best combination of academics, football playing ability, personality, confidence, toughness -- everything that you would expect in a Penn State football player and more. We're not going to settle for anything less than that.
"We're going to have a very aggressive approach to recruiting with — in my opinion — the best recruiting staff and coaching staff in the country."
— Bill O'Brien
And we're going to have a very aggressive approach to recruiting with -- in my opinion -- the best recruiting staff and coaching staff in the country.
MB: Can you give a little bit of background on when you were a recruiting coordinator?
BOB: I was a recruiting coordinator at Georgia Tech. Don't quote me on the (exact years), but it was two or three years there. At that time, at Georgia Tech, we were a good football team. And I think it's important that people understand when Ted Roof and I -- and Stan Hixon -- when we were at Georgia Tech together, we beat the University of Georgia three years in a row on the field. We also did a heck of a job in the state of Georgia having some kids come to Georgia Tech who never would have thought of Georgia Tech before Coach (George) O'Leary and our staff was there.
So I was in charge of that. We had a staff of great recruiters at the time, so I was more of an organizer. But you have to do a good job of building trust with the high school coaches and the parents and the prospects and the champions of the kids. We were able to do that. I learned a lot there and we were able to translate that to success on the field.
MB: In the past, Penn State has really focused on a 300-mile radius (around State College). Is that something that will continue? Do you kind of have to keep your own house in order first before looking outside? Or do you look outside immediately?
BOB: There's three main (things) we have to do to make sure we have the best program in the Big Ten. Number one is we've got to take care of that 300-mile radius. We've got to do a great job in the state of Pennsylvania. We've got to be able to go into Ohio. We've got to be able to go into Chicago. We've got to be able to go into New England and New York. And then, the mid-Atlantic states, especially with the job Larry Johnson has done recruiting in the Baltimore/D.C. area. That's definitely one of the objectives.
Then we've got to do a great job of recruiting the East Coast. So we're going to have three or four coaches in the state of Florida. We're going to have two coaches in the state of Georgia. (They'll be) looking for the types of guys we think will be a great fit for Penn State. But we've got to build our program, the foundation of our program, has to be with prospects from that 300-mile radius. Then we have to go down to Florida and Georgia and use the connections that we all have from when we recruited for different schools and find some Penn State players.
Then the third category I would say is anybody on our staff, including me, who has a connection to a guy who is playing in Texas or maybe California. Maybe it's an alum's son or something like that. We definitely will look to other parts of the country. But we have to concentrate on the East Coast.
MB: In the past, Penn State has assigned coaches to specific areas. Are you taking that same approach, where one guy is in Ohio, one guy western Pennsylvania, Larry Johnson in Maryland and so on?
BOB: We're in the process of doing that right now. I will say that guys will have areas. The No. 1 deal with the areas for me is every guy will have an area in Pennsylvania. Every coach on the staff -- and I have one more spot on the staff (to fill) -- but the eight coaches now all have a part of Pennsylvania. That was really important to me. We've got to get out there and let these (high school) coaches get to know us.
"We've got to stop letting Ohio State and Michigan come in here and grab Pennsylvania guys."
— Bill O'Brien
And then, from there, guys will have their own areas. But as recruiting goes on, it becomes more position-specific. Our process will be very much like it is here in New England. And it won't start until after this signing day, obviously, as far recruiting for next year. But it will be a grading process and an evaluation process. There are different areas we will take into account.
MB: Do you have a recruiting coordinator yet?
BOB: Charles London will be our recruiting coordinator. At Penn State, with all the resources we have, there are a lot of people within the office who are gonna do a lot of work for us.
I'm in the process of trying to help New England win a playoff game Sunday. But when I get there full-time, we'll get a lot of that set up very quickly.
MB: I assume you'll be hitting the road recruiting at some point -- even if it is for next year. What is it going to be like for you to get back on the road doing that with a wife and two young kids?
BOB: My wife is the star of the family. She understands what it means to be a football coach's wife. I'll say this, too, and it has been very important to me as the process has gone along and I interviewed and I was fortunate enough to get the job: the people of State College, I can't say enough about 'em. Words don't describe how welcoming they've been, obviously starting with Dave Joyner and his wife and many, many people within the organization -- President (Rod) Erickson.
And then the people in the town. It's a very, very unique place. I've only been there for a couple of weeks -- and I haven't really been there -- but I can't tell you how many … you know, my oldest son is handicapped, and I can't tell you how many emails I've received from special education people in State College.
So my kids are in good hands with my wife and my wife is in good hands with the people of State College.
MB: What kind of tough questions are you getting from parents and recruits about some of the stuff that has gone on here? I'm sure they have pointed questions.
BOB: With all due respect, and I understand you have a job to do, but I'm really going to keep the conversations I have with prospects and their families between myself and the prospects.
"I will say this: we're here now. I'm the head football coach of the Penn State football family, the Penn State football program. We were not here then. All we're gonna do is work extremely hard to make sure people — the 600,000 alums, the people of State College, the people of Pennsylvania — are very, very proud of their football program."
— Bill O'Brien
But I will say this: we're here now. I'm the head football coach of the Penn State football family, the Penn State football program. We were not here then. All we're gonna do is work extremely hard to make sure people -- the 600,000 alums, the people of State College, the people of Pennsylvania -- are very, very proud of their football program.
We can't do anything about the past as it relates to that situation. But we can do a lot about the future. And that's what myself and my staff are going to do.
MB: Are you getting the sense that other schools are recruiting negatively against you with respect to some of these things?
BOB: No. I'll say this about the Big Ten: I think there's a bunch of great coaches in this league, some of them who I personally know -- Kirk Ferentz, Urban Meyer. You've got a lot of first-class guys who are running programs here, and they're talking about their programs, we're talking about our program. So I haven't seen that at all.
This is a special conference and a bunch of really top-notch coaches. I think we all do the best we can to talk about our own programs and worry about that.
MB: How does the transition from the previous staff's recruiting to this staff's recruiting work? Obviously you have a couple of guys who were involved with the previous staff. Are all the names and info passed along? Or do you have to kind of start from scratch?
BOB: There's a little bit of both. I will say that it was very, very important to me to have a chance to keep Larry and Ron (Vanderlinden) because they were recommended very highly to me by many people on campus. I can tell you we were fortunate to be able to keep them and they've done a good job through this whole transition process the last couple of weeks talking to those of us who are new about the guys who are committed and then, as we move forward, about some prospects out there.
Then there has been some turning over of stones trying to find some guys. But again, we're not in a rush to sign 25 guys in this class. All we want to do is get the best players we can get for Penn State. It's not about this recruiting class. It's about five years from now, 10 years from now. So we're not in a rush.
I think you learn that in pro football. One of the things we've done a great job of here in New England, and we're going to try to do it at Penn State, is Bill Belichick has put together a great team of character football players. We have a lot of guys here who have graduated from college -- many, many guys.
So, as it relates to college football, we want a bunch of kids who want to be coached, work hard and get a degree.
MB: How important is it for you to actually get here on campus, especially when it comes to the process of identifying juniors and sophomores?
BOB: That's important. But one thing we've done -- related to an earlier question about recruiting areas -- is we've divided up guys (to different areas). Now some of that is subject to change. But at least guys can go out, up and down the East Coast over the next couple of weeks -- and in addition to securing the guys we have and maybe finding a couple of other guys -- is start getting going on juniors and (identifying) who are the best juniors out there with the combination we're looking for at Penn State. So we're on that. We're on that pretty good.
You know, one of the things, if you look at our staff, we have a bunch of guys who understand -- they've been in this type of situation where it is the transition of a new coach. So they've hit the ground running.
MB: You obviously recruited against Penn State, especially when you were at Maryland.
BOB: Didn't win many of those (laughing).
MB: But what did you take from that?
BOB: As a competitor you were mad that you couldn't beat 'em. Then you step on campus two weeks ago and you really start to realize why. It's the people. It's the facilities. It's the stadium. It's the town of State College. It's a very special place.
I remember I was at Georgia Tech and we were really in on Courtney Brown. Joe Hamilton, he was our quarterback who was really good and they were from the same town. So we felt like we had a really good shot at Courtney Brown. Obviously we didn't, and you can see why when you step on campus and see what's available to the students. The whole package of Penn State is really a special deal.
MB: How much time have you been able to put into recruiting? With everything else you're doing it's got to be tough.
BOB: You know, I'm a decent multi-tasker. So I come in early in the morning and work on Penn State stuff. Any break in the action -- usually we meet until about 11:30, then we have from 11:30 until about 12:45 when we go out to practice -- I'll take that time and make sure I'm returning phone calls or things like that and watching recruiting tape. The guys at Penn State are doing a great job of sending me tape (online). So I'm able to watch some tape, and that's good. Then late at night I get a lot done.
Who needs sleep, though? Sleep's not important. We just have to try to win a playoff game Sunday and keep getting Penn State going in the right direction.
MB: How do you handle a weekend like the one coming up? Last weekend, it was easier because the Patriots played Saturday and you could get in here Sunday and meet with kids. Do you try to get back at all this weekend or do you use technology to meet the kids?
BOB: I'm new to all of the rules. … I'm not going to be able to be there for the recruiting weekend for obvious reasons -- we play Sunday at 3 p.m. But I know there are some situations where you can Skype and things like that. I believe we're working on that.
I wrote a letter to our football team at Penn State and told them, I'm with you in spirit. Even though I'm not physically there, I'm thinking about Penn State 24/7 and I'm trying to balance being the head football coach at Penn State and doing the best job I can for the New England Patriots.