CHICAGO — Penn State's Bill O'Brien hardly looks the part of a first-year coach as he navigates the program through the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Even after the Nittany Lions were hit with significant NCAA sanctions, the former offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots has maintained an extremely optimistic outlook for his new team.
At Big Ten Media Days here this week, O'Brien has been candid, direct and outspoken. This just a few days after the sanctions were handed down Monday.
“At the end of the day, if we don't get it done, we get fired and we have to find new jobs,” he said bluntly Friday morning. “That's life.”
It is part of life, anyway. Another part of O'Brien's life helps to explain how he has remained composed in the face of such overwhelming adversity for the program.
A decade ago, O'Brien and his wife Colleen welcomed a son they named Jack. About a year later, when they realized the boy did not appear to be developing like other kids his age, they took him to Johns Hopkins for tests.
O'Brien was an assistant coach at Maryland at the time.
“I'll never forget this,” O'Brien recalled. “He was a little baby, and they put him in an MRI.”
The diagnosis shocked them. Jack had lissencephaly, a severe disorder in which the brain does not develop properly. There is no cure.
“That was a tough day,” O'Brien said. “I'm gonna tell you what — that was a hell of a lot tougher than last Monday.
“But we stuck together,” he added. “We knew what we had to do was get up and get going and do what we had to do to give Jack the best life possible.”
They've done that. O'Brien said his path in coaching has been guided in part by being able to take care of Jack. A lawyer, Colleen had to stop practicing full time to devote more attention to her son. O'Brien tried to land jobs in areas that would allow them to care for Jack the best ways possible.
At Maryland, Johns Hopkins was nearby. Then he moved on to a job at Duke, which has great medical facilities. O'Brien said the special education program in North Carolina was “really good,” too.
When the family moved to Boston when he landed his first NFL job with the Patriots, they found more great medical facilities and a “collaborative school” for Jack in which “he was included at many classes” with regular students.
When considering the Penn State job, the family found the same type of collaborative educational opportunities in State College. Jack requires a wheelchair (and someone to push it) to move around. His communication skills are limited.
But O'Brien was quick to point out that his oldest son can use head motions to indicate yes and no. And he puts them to use when watching football games. If he doesn't like something that happens, he shakes his head as if to say, “No.”
“He's a great little boy,” O'Brien said. “His teachers have always loved him. He's got a great laugh, a great smile. It's been a fulfilling experience, that's for sure.”
And the perspective Jack provides comes in a lot of ways.
O'Brien's youngest son, Michael, is now 8. Not long after he was born, he underwent an MRI.
“I'll never forget that, because when he came out, he was healthy as a horse,” O'Brien said. “He's too smart. He's like my wife.”
But then O'Brien began to become emotional.
“I remember calling our parents and telling them that he was healthy,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “That was a big thing. That was a big thing.”