Bill O'Brien did get a chance to speak with Joe Paterno about 11 days ago, and Penn State's new coach appreciates being able to have what he called a "meaningful conversation" with the legendary figure before his passing.
O'Brien, in State College this week for Paterno's memorial services, did not disclose specifics about the phone conversation, saying he'd like to keep that "between myself and Coach Paterno."
"At the end of the conversation, it was clear that we shared a lot of the same beliefs, and I was very, very thrilled to have the chance to speak with him," O'Brien said Tuesday.
Mirror photo by J.D.?Cavrich
New head coach Bill O’Brien wants to maintain the standards of excellence on and off the field that Joe Paterno implemented at Penn State.
O'Brien attended the viewing for Paterno with the football team Tuesday morning on the Penn State campus.
"It was very important for me to lead our team over to the viewing of Coach Paterno and to greet his family," he said. "That was something that meant a lot to me, and I was very, very glad to be able to do that."
The new coach then attended a luncheon with the Letterman's Club, where he spoke to about 800 former Nittany Lion players.
"I felt like it was very important for me to go over there and meet as many guys as I could and speak to the group," O'Brien said. "The message that I told them is that it's a day to honor Coach Paterno, and then going forward we're going to work hard every day to uphold the standard of excellence that he set here on the football field and with graduating kids and how important academics were to him.
"The rest of the message I'd like to keep between myself and the lettermen because it's a family here at Penn State, and it's very important that we keep it that way."
O'Brien said what struck him most about the emotional scenes at Penn State this week have been "how much pride these guys have in this football program and what a sad day it was for them to be here, but also what a special place this is."
There's long been a sense in sports that a coach may not want to follow a legend, but instead follow the guy who followed the legend.
O'Brien said he had no concerns about that.
He again stated he wants to continue Paterno's standards of excellence, then added, "I don't really think about following Coach Paterno. I just think about really doing the job myself and being myself, and at the end of the day, hopefully that will be good enough."
O'Brien has continued to serve as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, who play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 against the New York Giants. He thanked Patriots coach Bill Belichick for being "unbelievably cooperative to me" during the transition and said he has someone in New England who has been helping him with his Penn State duties each day.
There has been speculation that the notoriety of O'Brien coaching in the Super Bowl could ultimately help the PSU program, especially if the Patriots win it.
"The Super Bowl is about the New England Patriots and the New York Giants," he said. "The only thing that I'll be doing there is working very, very hard to help the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl, along with the rest of the staff there. As far as the rest of it goes, hopefully we go out there and play a good game, and that will do as much for Penn State as anything [with regards] to the Super Bowl."
O'Brien plans to be back at Penn State the day after the Super Bowl to begin devoting all of his time to his new job. He doesn't have much time this week to focus on the many things that need his attention in State College, but he credited his newly hired assistant coaches for hitting the ground running in recruiting and
working with the current players.
As for his soon-to-be new home, O'Brien said of State College, "You can tell right away that this is a town where people really care about each other, and I'm thrilled to be here."
O'Brien said he passed the NCAA recruiting test that coaches have to take, scoring a 29 out of 30 on Tuesday.
"If I was a Penn State grad I would have got 30 out of 30," he added.
The new coach has been asked numerous questions about recruiting since getting hired. He said his No. 1 priority is to keep the top Pennsylvania recruits, plus the top players within a 300-mile radius of State College.
O'Brien and several of his assistants once coached or played at Georgia Tech and have a lot of experience recruiting in the South, so PSU fans are hopeful the program can attract more top players from Florida and other fertile Southern states.
"What we need to do is use our connections," O'Brien said. "We have a number of guys on the staff, including me, that have recruited Georgia, obviously, and Florida. The majority of our team should come from areas where their parents can drive to see them play, but then we also have the ability to go down to Georgia and Florida and use some of the connections that we have in our years of experience recruiting there."
That's obviously easier said than done.
"It's not easy because there's a lot of competition," the coach said. "The great schools are all in there. What we've got to do is go down there and do a great job of quickly whittling our list down to the guys that we feel are the best fit for Penn State. And as soon as we can get our list down to a specific number of guys, the better off we're going to be to get into the recruiting battle with other schools."
One thing O'Brien will not change about Penn State football is the basic, no-frills uniforms. He made that vow when he was introduced at the school and reaffirmed it Tuesday.
"We're not changing the uniform," he said emphatically. "When you turn the television on and you watch Penn State, you know it's Penn State because No. 1, it's a tough, smart football team, but No. 2 is the uniforms."