Sports

O’Brien ’92 to coach Penn State

By
Sports Editor
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Still reeling in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, Pennsylvania State University formally announced the selection of Bill O’Brien ’92 as the new head coach of its football program Jan. 8. O’Brien succeeds fellow alum Joe Paterno ’50, whose legendary 46-year career ended in disgrace after his firing last November by the Penn State Board of Trustees. Paterno passed away Sunday.

“Billy’s not afraid,” said Brown Head Coach Phil Estes, a friend and former colleague of O’Brien. “Penn State is not one of those things that Billy looks at as walking in there and having to tiptoe around.”

“I thought he was a young and confident coach,” said Russ Rose, a member of the search committee responsible for replacing Paterno and the head coach of Penn State’s women’s volleyball team for the past 32 years. O’Brien’s 14 years of experience as a college coach and enthusiasm will be assets to a program looking to restore lost luster, he added.

Rose served on a six-person search committee headed by David Joyner, the university’s acting athletic director. After a 40-day process, the group chose O’Brien for the position.

O’Brien, who will leave his job as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots once their season ends, played as a defensive end and linebacker for Brown and graduated with degrees in organizational behavior and management and political science. Following graduation, he remained at Brown for two seasons, coaching tight ends and linebackers. Histime in Providence overlapped with Estes, who first joined the coaching staff as running backs coach in 1994.

O’Brien has no shortage of experience coaching at the college level. Prior to joining the Patriots, O’Brien logged 14 years of experience at several institutions renowned for their athletics, serving as running backs coach for Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland and as the offensive coordinator at Duke University.

Estes pinpointed O’Brien’s experience coaching college football as his biggest strength and what differentiates him from Charlie Weis, another Patriots offensive coordinator under Bill Belichick, who moved on to a college head coaching career. Weis concluded a mediocre five-year stint as the University of Notre Dame head coach with a 35-27 record.

“Billy understands how to recruit, and his personality has proven that,” Estes said. “So that’s why I think he’s going to be a good coach and do excellent things for Penn State.”

After being hired as an assistant to the Patriots in 2007, O’Brien worked his way up to quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator.

“He went on to coach one of the best quarterbacks ever in Tom Brady at New England,” Estes said. “Most people would go in there and let Tom Brady do as he does and just kind of give him a game plan. Billy was coaching him. “

O’Brien made national headlines in December for a heated sideline exchange with Brady following an interception in the fourth quarter of a win over the Washington Redskins.

“The fact that he was willing on national TV to go toe-to-toe with one of the top players in professional football — you have to have great confidence to enter that realm,” Rose said.

But the decision to hire O’Brien has not been met with universal approval.

A number of Penn State former players and alumni have voiced their displeasure that the new head coach is not affiliated with the university. Former All-American and three-time Pro Bowler LaVar Arrington told Blue and White Illustrated that he planned on putting his Penn State memorabilia in storage. Another former linebacker, Brandon Short, told Blue and White that the university had “turned their backs on our entire family.” Arrington has since apologized for his remarks via Twitter.

“I thought a lot of people we interviewed had great strengths — a lot were Penn State people,” Rose said. “We heard from a lot of Penn State alums that were hoping we would stay within the Penn State family, but it didn’t go that direction.”

O’Brien faces the challenge of rebuilding the football program following an ugly public scandal spurred by the allegations against Sandusky. Sandusky, who was accused of sexually assaulting eight underage boys on Penn State property, has since been indicted on 42 counts of child molestation. The scandal led to the firings of both Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier and the indictment of Athletic Director Timothy Curley for perjury.

“I think it’s going to be a really hard transition period for them,” said University Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger. “When you think of what happened, it’s not a football issue, but it is certainly one in which adults in power didn’t appear to act the way they should have, and that’s a hard thing to overcome.”

O’Brien’s hire means a continued connection between Brown and Penn State football. Rip Engle was Brown’s head coach from 1944 to 1949 and coached Paterno, who played both quarterback and cornerback at Brown. The pair moved to Penn State together, where Engle served as head coach for 16 seasons until Paterno took over in 1966. Both Estes and Goldberger acknowledged the relationship between the two programs but emphasized that the hiring was based solely on O’Brien’s individual qualifications and personality.

“I understand that Bill O’Brien has been named head coach and I want to congratulate him,” Paterno said in a statement released following the hiring announcement. “I don’t know Bill, but I respect his coaching record, and I am particularly pleased we share a connection to my alma mater, Brown.”