Bill O'Brien talks about Joe Paterno.
DUBOIS, Pa. — Bill O'Brien was still serving as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots in January of 2012 when he received the phone call. O'Brien had been hired as Penn State's head coach earlier in the month, and the former Nittany Lion coach wanted to touch base with him.
That former coach, of course, was Hall of Famer Joe Paterno, whose career came to an abrupt end when the child sex abuse scandal involving former PSU assistant Jerry Sandusky erupted in November of 2011.
On a bus tour promoting the Penn State football program and PSU athletics in general, O'Brien has been letting fans in on a promise he made to Paterno during the phone call in question. As it turned out, the two men would never speak again. Paterno died of lung cancer a week and a half later.
“We've got a bunch of really good kids again. We've got guys that go to class, that believe in the right things,” O'Brien said during a stop at PSU's branch campus in DuBois, Pa., Thursday morning. “That was the one thing I promised Coach Paterno when I took this job. I was able to speak to him about 10 days before he passed away.
“I know obviously that was a hugely difficult time for him,” O'Brien added. “But he picked up the phone, and we talked. And he said, 'Can you just promise me that you'll continue the tradition of tough Penn State football with fantastic academics — guys that graduate, guys that go to class?' I promised him I would do that and I think we're trying to do that on a daily basis. We've got that type of team.”
Eighteen Penn State football players, including seven with remaining eligibility, received their diplomas during spring commencement ceremonies last weekend. All 31 players who had senior eligibility in 2012 have now received at least one degree.
At a press conference prior to the speaking engagement, O'Brien said it looks like “a couple” of current players will have to have strong summers in the classroom to be on solid academic footing in the fall. But he would not name names.
Overall, though, he said the team is in better shape on the academic front this year than it was as the same time in 2012 and, “We don't have — knock on wood — a bunch of academic problems right now.”
Be sure to stop by the best Penn State message board around, OUR TAP FORUM, to discuss O'Brien's comments and everything else in the world of Nittany Lion athletics.