George O'Leary didn't just like to hear Irish music; good Lord, he was veritably obsessed with it. Anytime he returned to Long Island and had dinner with his friend Jim Bernhardt they would drive around forever until they found a place where the bandmates spoke with a thick Irish brogue.
After a seemingly endless drive one night in the 1980s, they discovered a suitable bar and grill. O'Leary was satisfied. Then about three chords later, he realized the song sounded a little too familiar: Springsteen!
"They were Irish, but they weren't playing Irish music," Bernhardt says. "I remember him being so mad."
Nights like those helped Bernhardt and O'Leary forge a strong relationship, with the college assistant O'Leary offering valuable guidance to then high school coach Bernhardt.
"You can't pay back," Bernhardt says. "You can only pay forward, so you try to pass along."
One day in 1995, O'Leary, then the head football coach at Georgia Tech, called Bernhardt for a favor. He asked him if he knew a promising, hard-working coach who could take a job as a graduate assistant on his staff, someone "smart enough to get into Georgia Tech but dumb enough to want to be a football coach."
Bernhardt suggested a kid he had mentored and -- like that -- Bill O'Brien got his first break. Three years later, when O'Leary hired O'Brien as a full-time assistant, he got a bigger break. Since then, his career trajectory consistently has trended upward, to the point where O'Brien, as the head coach of Penn State, will face O'Leary's Central Florida team Saturday.
That simple story of Bernhardt's recommendation is primarily what we know about the start of O'Brien's path to the big-time. But how did he really get here?
The path begins before then, carved through a Northeastern lumberyard and a beat-up Providence house, marked by relationships with friends and with passion.
"I think with him, and I think with most people, the love was developed before, or what you think is love," says Bernhardt, now a special assistant for the Penn State football program. "I guess you have to go in and find out whether it is true love."
Labor and love
To be a coach, you must be a "shed head" first.
O'Brien graduated from St. John's Prep near Boston in the spring of 1989, but he couldn't enroll at Brown University until January. With an entire fall to fill, he asked his high school coach, Jim O'Leary, if he could help out with the football team.
Jim O'Leary (no relation to George O'Leary) put him in charge of the freshmen. He managed about 100 14-year-old boys, placing them in personnel groups, doling out playing time and dealing with parents.
At least, that's what he did after 2 p.m. Mornings were spent at his other job, in a lumberyard where workers built and transported sheds for Sears. Jim O'Leary called these employees "shed heads."
Three times a day, O'Brien would take have to take a shed's four walls and roof apart and move them to where they needed to go. Sometimes, the boss, an assistant on the St. John's staff, would make him pick a wall and run with it to the site.
"It was a hard place to work, with men who were men," Jim O'Leary says.
He remembers the freshman team performing well under O'Brien's guidance that season. O'Brien recalled that he didn't have a clue what he was doing.
"I loved it, though," he says.
To be a coach, you must shovel snow when asked.
Recruits were visiting Brown on a winter morning, and head coach Mark Whipple ordered a gang of his low-level assistants to shovel the first two rows of the football stadium. Those assistants included O'Brien, who had concluded his playing career at the school in 1992 but had remained as a coach, and his best friend John Perry.
"I can remember Billy joking, 'I'm sure my parents must be happy they spent so much on a Brown education so I could shovel the stadium,' " Perry says.
That's what everyone had told O'Brien, who played defensive end for the Bears. When he asked Bernhardt, his position coach at Brown about coaching, Bernhardt offered a variation of that response.
The head coach at this time, Mickey Kwiatkowski, thought the same thing: Why become a coach when you have a Brown degree?
As a "restricted-earnings" Brown assistant, you made a few grand. You had a meal plan at the school dining hall. You prepared film, bought coffee and sandwiches and then did the other full-time work an assistant would. Unlike Division I-A teams, Ivy League schools couldn't offer "graduate assistant" positions, either, so you didn't get a free education for your toil. And then there was the house.
Next to the observatory on the corner of Providence's Doyle Avenue, the youngest Brown assistants roomed together in a three-bedroom house. O'Brien had three roommates his first year as an assistant: Joe Klausz, Chris Thurman and Roger Pollard. In his second year, under Whipple's new staff in 1994, he had five roommates, Klausz, Perry, John George, John Hartnett and the son of the team's athletic trainer.
"Once we decided to bring them in it was literally one of these, 'Get them up to where they're going to sleep, throw them a key and then get out of there before they change their mind,' because it was a dump," Kwiatkowski says.
"It was one step above a fraternity house," Klausz says. "I'm surprised we didn't kill each other."
Thurman slept on a couch. The second year, Klausz remembers three guys in one room. O'Brien was one of the lucky ones, always in a bed, receiving a dose of privacy but little else.
"Joe Klausz might've done some decorating," Perry says. "I know for sure Billy didn't have a single picture up on the wall. ... There was usually nothing in there. If you found a bottle of water in the refrigerator that would be a lot."
Knowing he was a Brown graduate, the young assistants leaned on O'Brien for survival skills. He could sweet-talk the lady at the dining hall into a round of free lunches. He knew the security guards well enough to open the athletic facilities at the last minute.
The older coaches took his advice, too. When Whipple's staff came in, O'Brien helped navigate them through the red tape of admissions and other obstacles that befall Ivy League teams. Kwiatkowski called O'Brien a conduit between coaches and players. His combination of respect, levity and curiosity led to him understanding the players' needs and earning the praise of his superiors.
"I know for a fact we were better coaches because we had insight into the players," Kwiatkowski says. "I think a bond was developed that never would've been developed had he not been there."
He could be serious like that. But only when he needed to be.
O'Brien could rib anybody. Recalling his friend as a reputed performer of "Whip-isms," impressions of Whipple, then-assistant Phil Estes says O'Brien knew when he needed to remove tension with a joke.
One night, Estes, O'Brien and a couple of the other young assistants were driving back from an evening out. All of a sudden, O'Brien, sitting in the passenger's seat, told Estes, "Nobody's ever done the tunnel."
He directed Estes to drive his Cadillac through an underground passage reserved for public transit. Next thing Estes knew, the car was flying out of the tunnel to Thayer Street downtown. It was snowing, and the car slid across the street and ended up nearly parallel-parked.
They were right next to campus. O'Brien turned to his friend again and told him, "Nobody's ever done the Main Green." The Main Green is Brown's version of a quadrangle, accessible only to pedestrians. Estes drove the Cadillac through an archway onto the pedestrian path.
"Billy's all cheering," Estes says. "All of a sudden on the front -- knock, knock, knock. It's a cop, campus police. We don't even hesitate. We put it in reverse, do a spin and go out the back way.
"That was always the story. No one's ever done the tunnel and the Main Green in one night. But we did. We pulled it off -- with Billy's direction of course."
The right path
To be a coach, you must enjoy the misery.
Kwiatkowski says all the people he hired for the position O'Brien held were promised only hard work and a mandate to do what the full-time coaches didn't want to do. Sure, they had their fun once in a while, but they generally worked from predawn to postdarkness, shutting out social life at an age when most everyone else enjoys themselves.
"I would've told him not to do it," Jim O'Leary says. "I came out of college coaching ... it's a miserable life. It is. It's not what you see on TV."
Sometimes during his two-year stint at Brown, O'Brien met to chat with his favorite college professor, Barrett Hazeltine. Hazeltine says he doesn't remember O'Brien specifically talking about the possibility of another career -- O'Brien graduated from Brown with a double concentration in political science and organizational behavior management -- but remembered having discussions about what it might be like if he didn't make it to the apex, if he was a career assistant.
"Partially because I think he really was trying to decide what to do with the rest of his life," Hazeltine says.
Perry says O'Brien caught the bug the first fall he coached at St. John's Prep. What happened in his two years at Brown, the beautiful and the ugly, helped convince him he was in the right place.
The beautiful part that Perry most remembers was the camaraderie, refined through the dilapidated house, the cafeteria meals, the late nights discussing football schemes. Further, he believes O'Brien was the "rallying force" when the young coaches were confronted with the ugly.
"I bet at the end of the day Mark Whipple asked [O'Brien] to shovel the stadium and so we all did," Perry says. "He has a way of uniting people."
To be a coach, you must tell your good friend, "no."
After his two years at Brown, O'Brien spent three years as a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech, from the 1995 season to the 1997 season. Up in Providence in 1998, Whipple was leaving his job, and Estes was named the head coach at Brown. His first call for a new assistant was to O'Brien, who was just finishing the graduate-assistant position. He accepted what would be his first full-time coaching gig.
For about a month, O'Brien was Brown's running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. Then, George O'Leary called from Georgia Tech; he now had a vacant position for a full-time assistant.
O'Brien fretted over the decision, not wanting to let down Estes. He called Bernhardt for advice.
"I said, 'You're not sure what to do?' " Bernhardt says. " 'Uh, walk out the door, go tell the head coach and drive directly to the airport -- luggage is optional -- and go to Atlanta.' "
Estes chewed out O'Brien after he told him the news, even though he knew O'Brien was making the best choice.
"Who knows, I could have killed his career if I made him stay here," Estes says. "Imagine where he'd be right now. Probably flipping burgers at McDonald's or something. So, he did the right thing. Billy's a great friend."
As his career has gone up and up, O'Brien has stayed close with many people who helped him at the start. Last year, he invited Estes to spring practice at Penn State. Not long ago, he sat next to Kwiatkowski and watched two of Bernhardt's sons play in an NCAA tournament lacrosse game. Bernhardt works on his staff, offering input just like he has since Brown.
Estes, Kwiatkowski, Bernhardt, Perry, Jim O'Leary, none of them could have guessed O'Brien would advance from "shed head" to near-poverty in Providence to Penn State. They aren't surprised, though. He has lasted as a coach for a long time, a span much longer than many who once dreamed of the coach's life -- longer than that crummy, old house next to the observatory, too.
It's long gone, demolished and replaced by a small park, unable to wither the ambitious wrath of too many young assistants.
"The house was taken down," Estes says, "probably because of Billy."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.