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O'Brien hired to coach Penn State

He'll stay with Patriots until the season is over

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 6, 2012
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Bill O’Brien will be returning to Gillette Stadium to help the Patriots prepare for the postseason - but when he does, he’ll be wearing a second, and quite substantial, hat.

O’Brien, 42, will become the next head coach at Penn State, an NFL source confirmed last night.

O’Brien spent yesterday on the State College, Pa., campus interviewing for the position, which opened in November after legendary coach Joe Paterno was forced out in the wake of child molestation allegations against his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky.

O’Brien will remain with the Patriots until their season ends, according to an ESPN report.

One of the biggest days on the college football calendar, National Signing Day, is Feb. 1. The Super Bowl, if the Patriots get that far, is Feb. 5.

O’Brien is not the first Patriots coach to hold down two jobs at once: as the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XXXIX in the 2004 season, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had already been hired by Notre Dame. He was forced to burn the candle at both ends until he could head to South Bend full time, which was after the Patriots beat the Eagles, 24-21.

It is the first head coaching job of O’Brien’s career.

Following an institution such as Paterno - who led the Nittany Lions for 46 years - and dealing with the ongoing scandal scared many off the job, but the sense is O’Brien wanted the challenge.

Something else could have played into O’Brien’s thinking: the number of hours college coaches must put in are much less than at the NFL level; O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, have two sons: Jack, 9, and Michael, 6.

Jack was born with lissencephaly, a rare brain malformation that has rendered him developmentally challenged.

Born in Dorchester and raised in Andover, O’Brien played linebacker and defensive end at Brown, which is where he began his coaching career, as a graduate assistant. He spent several years at Georgia Tech, then two at Maryland and two at Duke, where he was offensive coordinator in 2007, when he decided to take a pay cut and take Bill Belichick up on his offer to join his staff as a low-level assistant.

Belichick’s and O’Brien’s relationship began in 2001, when O’Brien was at Georgia Tech; they were introduced by a mutual friend. Belichick would call him occasionally to discuss players in the ACC and whether they had NFL potential, and O’Brien would e-mail every so often with football questions.

With O’Brien on his way to Penn State, thoughts turn to his successor as offensive coordinator. A league source indicated that a reunion could be in the works, with Josh McDaniels returning to the Patriots.

McDaniels, who left after the 2008 season to become head coach in Denver - a job he was fired from after less than two seasons - is the offensive coordinator for the Rams, the only coach still under contract. All of the other members of the staff were let go this week, including head coach Steve Spagnuolo.

However, the Rams are clearly in transition. Although McDaniels is highly regarded in the organization, and quarterback Sam Bradford came out in support of him within the last few days, the next head coach of the Rams (they’ve targeted Jeff Fisher, another offensive coach) might want his own guy in that role.

There are few candidates in-house who would seem ready to step into the role of play-caller and take on the responsibility of overseeing the Patriots’ offense; tight ends coach Brian Ferentz might be a coaching star one day, but that time doesn’t appear to be now.

Director of player personnel Nick Caserio has gone back and forth between the sidelines and the front office during his time in New England, and served as receivers coach in 2007.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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