Forgive O’Brien for not quite understanding Nittany Lions fans’ obsessions over where his team will dress before Saturday’s season opener or what route the players will take to the stadium. “I don’t even know the names of the streets,” he said the other day, “which I’ll probably get in trouble for saying.”
Throughout this offseason — his first as a head coach at any level and the likes of which no head coach has ever experienced — O’Brien has publicly teetered between honoring Penn State’s rich-but-now-tainted history and making the decisions he believes will help rebuild the program. But when he arrives home after work and greets his 10-year-old son, Jack, who is stricken with a rare brain disease and is confined to a wheelchair and can’t talk, O’Brien has a touchstone. Third-and-one, tense? Come on.
“As long as you work hard and you know that you’re doing the best for this football program every single day, what else can you do?” he said. “You get over losses a lot quicker . . . because you go home and you see that kid, and you move on.”
Moving on. In this town the week before Penn State’s first football game in what senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said has “felt like forever,” there are signs in store windows urging the community to “Keep Calm and Fight On.” There are T-shirts for sale that read “Still Proud.” There are still more signs that read, “One Community. One Team.”
By none of his own doing, this is O’Brien’s world: At the center of a community scarred by the heinous crimes of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach who is now a convicted child molester. The timeline of events over the past nine-and-a-half months, utterly inconceivable a year ago, is now part of this town’s lexicon: Sandusky’s arrest, legendary coach Joe Paterno’s ouster, Paterno’s subsequent death, former FBI director Louis B. Freeh’s scorched-earth report that blistered so many who had been held in such high regard, and the NCAA’s swift action that imposed scholarship limits, issued a $60 million fine, prohibited bowl appearances for four years and wiped out all of the Nittany Lions’ victories dating back to 1998.
So Saturday is so many things to so many people here. It is O’Brien’s first game as a head coach after 19 years as a college and NFL assistant, one for which he “will certainly have butterflies,” he said. It is the first chance for a group of 22 seniors to show why they stayed when the NCAA told the entire team it could go, transfer to another school and be eligible to play immediately. Just nine players did.
“With everything going down, we weren’t the only ones suffering,” senior linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “The community, the victims, the people — all that. I think it was in our best interest to stay, not just for us. It’s bigger than just the national championship or Big Ten championship. Playing for pride, playing for respect, and that no matter what you do to us, no matter how far you knock us down, we’re going to keep getting back up.”
‘A lot of guilt’
O’Brien and his wife, they have gotten up before. Colleen O’Brien graduated magna cum laude from Boston College, started law school at Wake Forest and finished top five in her class at Georgia State. She is a lawyer by trade, a full-time mother by choice and necessity. Bill O’Brien played football at Brown, where both his parents and both his older brothers went as well, but had decided as a kid growing up in Andover, Mass., that he would be a coach. So a typically nomadic journey began, from Brown to Georgia Tech (a time in which he met Colleen) to Maryland to Duke to the New England Patriots, where he coached in two Super Bowls and rose to be Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator.
In 2002, just before the last of his eight seasons at Georgia Tech, where he started as a graduate assistant and became the assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, Colleen gave birth to Jack, and the O’Briens started their family. But from the first days and weeks, both maternal and paternal grandmothers got a vibe from their grandson.
“They knew what a newborn baby should be doing,” Bill O’Brien said. “And Jack was struggling to do what most newborn babies do.”
And that’s why third-and-one — and the route to the stadium, and where a team dresses, and other traditions and details — doesn’t seem so important. When the O’Briens moved to Maryland, where Bill served as Ralph Friedgen’s running backs coach, they took Jack to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and received the diagnosis: lissencephaly, for which there is no cure. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the term literally means “smooth brain.” Jack’s brain doesn’t have normal folds in the cerebral cortex. For his whole life, he has suffered multiple daily seizures, which Colleen must do her best to subdue, even as Jack weighs more than 80 pounds.
Now, they know it as their life. Then, they were just trying to deal.
“You have a lot of guilt,” Bill O’Brien said. “What did you do wrong?”
The answer, of course, was nothing. Colleen hit the books, finding out whatever she could about the condition. Bill kept coaching through perhaps the toughest time of his career. After the 2004 season, he left Maryland for Duke, where he was not only reunited with former Georgia Tech assistant Ted Roof, then the Blue Devils’ head coach but where he could again be an offensive coordinator, where he could again call plays. But the move was also about family: Duke offered top-flight medical facilities that could better serve Jack’s needs.
“He’s always been extremely driven and very passionate about what he’s doing,” said Roof, who now serves under O’Brien as Penn State’s defensive coordinator. “But at the same time, as well it should be, there’s nothing more important to him than his family.”
In the face of all of this — not to mention two difficult seasons at Duke in which the Blue Devils went 1-22 — the O’Briens followed through with a plan they had since immediately after Jack’s arrival: They wanted to try for a second child. When Michael was born, Colleen insisted he be taken almost immediately downstairs, to the basement of the hospital at the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill, to get an MRI on his brain. When it came back normal, the O’Briens called their families. Their reaction, tears and more tears, made the new parents understand how tough their lives with Jack seemed from the outside.
“People have always asked me like, the pressure of coaching [Tom] Brady or being in the Super Bowl, or the pressure of this job,” O’Brien said. “I don’t really feel the pressure. I feel the intensity. I understand that people are passionate about this football program, and I understand all that. But pressure is what my wife goes through every day. And pressure is making sure I’m doing the best thing I can for my family.”
Recognizing who stayed
What, then, is the best thing for O’Brien’s new family, his Nittany Lions, his new community? Since he was hired in January, weeks before Paterno died, he has tried to navigate those questions and more. During a springtime caravan around the northeast with other Penn State coaches, in which he was thrust into the role of featured speaker and main draw as boosters filled hotel function rooms to chant “We Are! Penn State!”, O’Brien was adjusting to what his new role means.
“I’m still struggling with why people want to take their picture with me,” he said during a stop in Baltimore.
The photos, for some fans, represented their own chance to move on from the scandal, which hasn’t fully released State College from its hold. This week, the Daily Collegian, Penn State’s student newspaper, ran a story on how Sandusky’s charity, the Second Mile, will delay its plans to transfer its remaining assets to a Texas charity. A group of former Penn State faculty members lambasted Freeh’s report, saying it was based on “scant evidence.” Each day brings the possibility that someone, somewhere will prevent the community from turning its thoughts elsewhere.
In the midst of considering how to handle different aspects of all this, O’Brien consulted with his players. As the Nittany Lions prepared for Ohio, a potent mix of rap and heavy metal blasted from speakers at the program’s practice facility, rattling the cloud-dotted blue sky above the central Pennsylvania hills, spurring the players to bounce and clap through their stretching. Under Paterno, Penn State famously wore jerseys without individual names on the back. The message: No player would be more important than the team. But O’Brien considered the fates of these particular players at this particular time. They deserved, he thought, recognition.
“I felt it was important for the people out there to really know who these kids were that stuck with this program, that stuck with this university, that are going to help — not lead, just help — this community moving forward,” O’Brien said.
So Saturday, for the first time, the Nittany Lions will run onto the field at Beaver Stadium as one team, but with some individuality. When O’Brien announced in August that last names would be stitched onto the back of each jersey, junior safety Malcolm Willis called his mother, instantly excited.
“I feel like it’s an honor for me to represent my family name and also represent the Penn State football name and the university,” Willis said.
Hodges, one of the Nittany Lions’ best players, said when he pulls on his blue jersey with his name across the back, it will be “one of the greatest feelings, just to be able to represent my family.”
O’Brien, too, will represent his own family. There is no telling how long Jack will live, or what his life will be like if he does. That is the O’Briens’ reality. Regardless of the 100,000 voices with their 100,000 opinions, regardless of the outcome against Ohio or next week against Virginia or beyond, that will not change. His commitment to this job — “I hope we’re here for a long, long time,” he said — is unwavering. But it is different, separate, from his commitment to Colleen, to Jack, to Michael.
“It’s all intertwined,” O’Brien said. “It’s hard to deny that that’s a big part of your thought process, your life. There’s not a second of the day that you don’t think about your sons, Jack and what he’s going through, and Michael and your wife — whatever profession you’re in. It gives you great perspective on what’s important in life.”