Sounds like a campaign tour, somebody said. He didn’t disagree, though he did say the junket, pitched to him months ago by John Nitardy, Penn State’s director of major gifts, was intended to be “a fun event.”
Still, it’s an election year. And he wants to be Nittany Nation’s football coach.
O’Brien stayed on message during a pre-luncheon news conference at a Center City hotel, saying for the umpteenth time that he will stay true to the ideals of Joe Paterno, his late, legendary predecessor – that he wants to win games and graduate players.
“I believe you can do both at the Division I level,” he said.
But beyond that, O’Brien hasn’t dwelled on the task of replacing Paterno – “because,” he said, “no one will ever replace Joe Paterno.”
“Nobody in the history of this game will ever replace him,” he continued. “I will daresay that nobody will ever coach 46 years and win 409 games. I promise you, I won’t. When I’m 85, if I’m still alive, I will not be coaching. So I give a ton of respect and credit to him for what he did.”
And then he again made the point about staying the course. At the same time he has revamped a great many things – recruiting, weight training and offensive strategy, to name three – and the initial impression he has left is that of a man who has hit the ground running.
“In certain areas I definitely feel good about where we’re at,” he said.
He mentioned the staff and weight program. But he added that the Lions are “behind on certain things, football-wise,” like their approach on third down and in the two-minute drill. Everything in its time, though.
The adjustment to his new job has been considerable. There was the sheer size of the roster, for one thing; it is roughly twice as big as the one with which he worked as the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator.
Then there are the rules governing practice time, contact with the players, recruiting, etc. – not to mention the on-field rules of the college game.
But more than anything, there is the fact that he is now in charge of everything, as opposed to just the offense.
“I try to use my time wisely,” he said.
To date he and his staff have been ambitious in their approach.
“Our theory in spring practice was to throw everything at (the players),” he said. “We taught these guys a lot. I don’t know if it was everything, but it was close. For the most part the guys handled it pretty decently.”
He now has a much better understanding of the Lions’ overall skill level, and last week he met one-on-one with each and every player to map out their roles. He also explained what will be expected of them during summer workouts, when they are not allowed to have contact with the coaches.
In June he will huddle with his assistants to firm up the depth chart, though O’Brien said he already has “a pretty good idea” of how that will shake out.
His other goals are no less ambitious. In recruiting the idea, he said, is to “hopefully put up somewhat of a wall around Pennsylvania” and attract the top in-state prospects. And he obviously wants to continue to network, continue to bang the drum for his program.
That began the moment he was hired, on Jan. 6; recall that during his introductory news conference the following day he extended an olive branch to the former players, some of whom had been critical of the fact that he had been named Paterno’s successor. He reached out to them on other occasions, notably when he addressed the alums before a luncheon in Beaver Stadium’s Lettermen’s Lounge on Jan. 24, two days after Paterno’s death and immediately following a private viewing attended by the ex-players.
On that occasion O’Brien again made clear that he stood for the same things Paterno did. And the new coach said he “didn’t concern (himself)...too much” with the public skepticism expressed most notably by LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short – a stance from which both later retreated.
“What you see is what you get,” O’Brien said. “I just try to be myself. I realize, believe me, from being the offensive coordinator in New England, that not everybody’s going to love you. I know this is a big job, and I understand that there’s going to be naysayers. All I can do is work extremely hard with our staff and our players to make sure we win football games and that we do the right things off the field.”
While nothing formal is planned with the former players during the current tour, O’Brien expects to have some “off-to-the-side events” with them, to get to know them better.
But the bigger goal is to continue his campaign. To let all of Nittany Nation know he wants to be its football coach.