For the past two weeks, O’Brien has lived at the intersection of the two biggest stories in sports — the awkward transition of Penn State’s legendary football program after the child molestation scandal that forced Paterno out, and the NFL playoffs, which feature the Patriots’ march to Super Bowl XLVI, where they will meet the New York Giants.
O’Brien’s position, potentially, compromises two organizations — the Nittany Lions, as his newly formed staff tries to recruit and get to know its team; and the Patriots, where Coach Bill Belichick has granted O’Brien wide leeway in balancing his current job with his future job — or is it his former job with his current job?
When he was introduced as Penn State’s head coach Jan. 7, O’Brien described the balance this way: “There is no way that I can stand up in front of our football team and our recruits and talk about loyalty and commitment and then leave the Patriots in the middle of a playoff run.”
That was before New England beat Denver in a divisional playoff game and Baltimore for the AFC title, bringing on two more weeks of work in Foxborough, Mass. But in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, O’Brien was adamant that he is able to handle both jobs.
“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,” O’Brien said. O’Brien has an assistant in New England who handles Penn State matters during the days, when he is preparing the Patriots for the NFL championship game. He leaves his Penn State work to the early morning and late evenings.
He has, he said, also consulted various mentors for advice during the transition — primarily Belichick but also former Georgia Tech coach George O’Leary and former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, for whom O’Brien worked as an assistant.
“He’s completely equipped to handle it,” Friedgen said last week. “Billy will do a great job. He’s smart and hard-working, and he can handle whatever is asked of him.”
A career assistant since his graduation from Brown in 1993, O’Brien, 42, has largely worked in the margins. Now, his every word means something. During Tuesday’s discussion with reporters, he was asked about the minutiae surrounding his new job — Penn State’s recruiting strategy in the Southeast (“It’s not easy”); his new strength coach (“the best in the country”); his offensive system (“the New England Patriots’ offense”); and whether he is open to altering Penn State’s plain-helmet, no-names-on-the-jerseys, black-shoed look (“We’re not changing the uniforms”).
Even as Paterno is laid to rest this week, fans across Pennsylvania care about it all. Fans in New England, though, care more about O’Brien’s devotion to preparing for the Giants. When the playoffs began, New England rehired former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left in 2009 to become head coach of the Denver Broncos. Belichick said McDaniels already has been a help. But Belichick has been clear that he doesn’t feel O’Brien’s attention is divided.
“Since he’s been named the head coach of Penn State, he’s done everything that he’s done this year and last year on a weekly basis,” Belichick said in a conference call with reporters. “He’s had the same responsibilities. He’s just worked very hard to manage the two situations. By far and away, the majority of his time and energy and effort have all been put into the New England Patriots.”
After Paterno’s viewing Tuesday, O’Brien attended a luncheon full of former Penn State lettermen at Beaver Stadium. He entered the room fully aware that many of those players did not endorse his hiring, or the process that led to it. Yet he said it was “important” he attend.
“There’s always going to be naysayers,” O’Brien said. “There’s always going to be people who say, ‘Who is this guy?’ I mean, I probably would be one of them.”