After this game, O'Brien turns focus to Penn State
INDIANAPOLIS - For most Patriots fans, before Dec. 11, Bill O’Brien was just a name on the coaching roster, a guy many felt was just the keeper of the offense, lucky enough to have Tom Brady as his quarterback and overshadowed by Bill Belichick the head coach.
On that December afternoon, however, O’Brien’s name was suddenly on everyone’s lips. Late in New England’s game against the Redskins, the offensive coordinator and Brady engaged in an expletive-filled exchange on the sideline after Brady threw an end zone interception.
Suddenly, everyone knew who O’Brien was, and everyone had an opinion on the blowup, which happened in full view of CBS’s cameras. It wasn’t the first time the two passionate competitors had gotten in each other’s faces - but every other time, it had happened behind closed doors, not in front of a television audience.
It may well be their last such argument.
O’Brien, the 42-year-old Massachusetts native, is coaching his last game with the Patriots Sunday, in the Super Bowl against the Giants. On Monday, he will assume the full-time responsibilities of being head football coach at Penn State.
While O’Brien dismissed the notion that he is walking into “the most difficult situation in the country,’’ as one reporter said yesterday, it is an uphill climb: Not only is he replacing an institution in the late Joe Paterno, he also is taking over a program besieged by the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Many have wondered why Penn State settled on O’Brien; they know him only as the guy who screamed at the Patriots’ franchise quarterback.
A decade ago, O’Brien was a rising star in the college coaching ranks. He had graduated in 1992 from Brown, where he was a defensive end and linebacker, and was a graduate assistant with the Bears the next fall.
Just eight years later, he was offensive coordinator for a 9-4 Georgia Tech squad. When head coach George O’Leary accepted the position at Notre Dame, he took O’Brien with him to the most storied program in college football.
But no sooner did O’Brien find himself near the top of it all did it crumble. O’Leary was fired just days after being introduced in South Bend after it was discovered that he lied on his résumé.
Fortunately for O’Brien, new Tech head coach Chan Gailey brought him back to the school, still as offensive coordinator, and added the title of assistant head coach.
Stops at Maryland and Duke followed, and then O’Brien contacted an e-mail buddy: Bill Belichick. The two had met through a mutual friend. Belichick would contact O’Brien occasionally to ask about a player in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and O’Brien in turn would seek X’s-and-O’s information.
So he took a pay cut and went to the bottom of the NFL coaching ladder, as a quality control coach for the Patriots in 2007.
“I felt like if I wanted to be the coach that I wanted to be, I had to work for the best,’’ O’Brien said yesterday. “So obviously the best is Bill as far as what he does and how he prepares the team, how he puts a team together. So it was an opportunity I didn’t feel like was a step back; I felt like it was something where I could go in there and learn and become as good a coach as I could possibly be.
“I felt great about it, and that’s why my wife and I decided to do it. She probably wasn’t real happy with me - a little bit of a pay cut there.’’
O’Brien made an impression on his new co-workers immediately.
“When he first came in, I thought Billy was exactly what you would hope for in a young guy coming in - from a guy that already had been a coordinator at Duke, now he was stepping into the hardest job of all as a quality control guy, wasn’t coaching a position, was doing all the crap jobs that had to be done, and he did it with a passion,’’ said running backs coach Ivan Fears, who has been in New England for 15 of the last 21 years.
“He was very humble about his job, very thankful to be where he was and very, very respectful. And I was very impressed.
“He jumped in where he belonged and he just worked hard. I told him a long time ago: You’re going to reap the benefits of this, big. You really are.’’
O’Brien also made an impression with his fiery ways: Brady revealed yesterday that the players call him “Teapot’’ because he can get so hot, and O’Brien laughingly allows that Matt Light starts to whistle like a tea kettle if O’Brien’s blood is starting to boil.
He was receivers coach after one year, and then quarterbacks coach after two, when Josh McDaniels left for Denver. Though he didn’t get the official offensive coordinator title until a year ago, O’Brien has been the play-caller for three seasons.
Last month he was chosen as the man to replace Paterno in Happy Valley, an opportunity he said he couldn’t pass up. Every day since has been a bit of a juggling act as he fulfills his duties to the Patriots while also assembling his staff and working to get commitments from recruits.
O’Brien thanked Belichick and the Patriots several times throughout his interviews for the help they’ve provided him over the last few weeks, in ways great and small, and he was careful to note numerous times that “this week is about the Patriots’’ and the Super Bowl, not his new job.
Asked why O’Brien is the right man to lead Penn State through what likely will be rocky waters, Fears said, “He does it for Bill Belichick. He does it for Bill. Belichick.
“If Bill names that man coordinator, you’ve got to understand what it took to get that job. That is not easy. That is the hardest thing to do. For Bill to give you the title as offensive coordinator, that was hard. Billy had to work.
“We all know he’s qualified. I think they made a hell of a choice. I really do. Billy’s a really smart guy. He’s a hard-working son of a gun and he’s been trained and coached by the best, in my opinion.’’
O’Brien is focused on Sunday, but it is bittersweet to be in his last days with this team.
“I love it here,’’ he said. “I love the Patriots, I love these players, and I owe a lot to Bill and the Krafts. We’ve had very meaningful conversations with Bill and Mr. Kraft and Jonathan Kraft over the last three weeks, and there’s definitely a part of me that will miss it.
“I’m from Boston, it’s been a special deal for me in that regard too, but the coaching profession, you’ve got to expect the unexpected. So when this game’s over I’ll move to Penn State and that’s a special, special place, too.’’
Maybe O’Brien and Brady will have strong words again - but the next time, it may be over whether O’Brien’s Nittany Lions or Brady’s Michigan Wolverines are the best team in the Big Ten.