UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- After Penn State' first game, a loss to Ohio University, coach Bill O'Brien used the phrase, or some variation of it, at least six times: I need to coach better.
He did it again after the next game, a loss to Virginia, then the words weren't as common for a while. They returned last Saturday when the Nittany Lions lost a third time, to Ohio State.
If it's about the blocking on the kickoff return team or the offensive line, O'Brien says he needs to coach better. If it's about penalties, O'Brien says the problem starts with him.
The players admire him for his candidness and the way he shoulders the blame for the messes.
But what exactly does he mean?
"I'm always trying to figure out what I could do better than the day before or the practice before or the game before," he said. "That will never change; that's what I always try to do."
In January, O'Brien accepted a position that was entirely new to him. He had never been a head coach, not even on the high school level. Preparing to dive into an unknown realm, he made promises to himself.
O'Brien would be as organized as he could be. He would work as hard as he could. He would save enough time to spend with his family. And he would keep his players' well-being in mind with all of his actions.
His supporters trusted O'Brien could do it. Former mentors such as his high school and college coaches saw a guy who didn't just match everyone's work ethic. They saw someone who worked in a smarter way than the others.
In August, after a summer spent counseling players who had every opportunity to leave, the regular coaching duties began. O'Brien was waking up at 5 or 6 a.m. Getting better entailed grasping new duties, like special teams. He had never dealt with that aspect of football. He said he also had to see the big picture, rather than the nuanced sets he was comfortable with as an offensive coordinator.
The season has gone on, and he sees new challenges continuing to mount. He says that he honestly has to get better in order to understand these complications.
"We would have to be here all day for me to tell you exactly all there are," O'Brien said.
Primarily, he said much of the daily improvements he speaks about have to do with building and maintaining relationships with his players. He said he tries to make sure every day that players know where they stand, and offensive lineman John Urschel agrees.
"The coaches have done a great job of communicating to us what they expect from us and opening lines of communication to speak with them," he said.
The feeling has been mutual. O'Brien been an assistant many places, most recently for the New England Patriots, where he went to the Super Bowl. He said this experience has still been his most enjoyable.
The relationships he has formed have helped inspire him to do better for his team.
"I can't tell you how much I enjoy these players," he said. "I've had the most fun coaching that I've had compared to any year."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mdent05.