O'Brien's steel faces sternest challenge at Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At Brown University Bill O'Brien played defense for teams that won three games in three years.

"Terrible, terrible football," then-coach Mickey Kwiatkowski said of his Brown teams.

Before the last game of an 0-10 season, though, Brown continued a tradition. The seniors, one by one, had to stand in front of the team and discuss their favorite experiences. All of them, Kwiatkowski recalled Tuesday, invoked the name of O'Brien. How the young man kept a sense of humor, how he stayed loyal, how he brought tolerability to a turbulent situation.

"O'Brien," Kwiatkowski said of the man who is now Penn State's football coach, "is tempered in steel."

No one who has stood inside a raucous Beaver Stadium and joined in a "We Are" chant would like to think Brown-esque winless seasons await Penn State, but a struggle does. The NCAA sanctions announced Monday -- including scholarship reductions and a four-year ban on bowl appearances -- will test the school's football prowess.

The first-year coach insisted he is here to stay as the program is tested, hungry for a football challenge unlike any he has faced.

"Life is filled with adversity," OBrien said, "and the way that you travel through life is how you handle adversity."

O'Brien spoke publicly Tuesday for the first time since the announcement of sanctions. He said he learned of their exact nature at the time of the NCAA news conference. Before then, he only had expressed to president Rodney Erickson and acting athletic director Dave Joyner his belief that Penn State had to play this year with its games televised.

When the time came to make sense of the penalties, he led a team meeting. O'Brien told his players the reasons he accepted the job in January: Penn State's tradition, the university's academics and the opportunity to coach smart, tough players. He also told them about how they needed to embrace and overcome the difficulties. As of Tuesday afternoon, O'Brien said no players had told him they would transfer.

In a conference call with reporters and as a guest on the national Dan Patrick radio show, the coach exhibited a fire to turn around Penn State. He wants fans and players to feel the same way.

Time will tell if his remarks are just soothing and political or if he is genuine.

His high school coach at Massachusetts' St. John's Prep, Jim O'Leary, and Kwiatkowski have spent enough time around him to believe the latter.

That night at Brown, Kwiatkowski remembers gaining stronger feelings for a player he already held in high regard.

"I'm looking around at my coaches going, 'holy mackerel who is this guy Billy O'Brien,' " he said. "When he had that extra year and someone says he wants to coach, I said, 'Get him on board.' "

Kwiatkowski discovered that O'Brien could decipher the answers to puzzling questions like no one else. When a problem in a practice or game arose, the young coach would investigate until he figured it out.

O'Brien didn't preach the cliché message of working harder. Everyone worked hard. He motivated players to work smarter. Those qualities, Kwiatkowski said, will benefit him in this tough situation.

O'Brien refused to discuss details of the strategies he will employ at Penn State because of the sanctions, just like he refused to discuss his conversations with specific players or recruits. He talked generally about how he can treat a smaller roster like an NFL-sized roster and how he can use his NFL background as a recruiting tool for high school players. He insisted his staff will be ready.

"You can rest assured that we have a plan," O'Brien said.

When a reporter asked if O'Brien considered Penn State's sanctions harsher than the "death penalty," he rejected that characterization. It could be worse. As O'Brien said, at least Penn State is playing football. And, as his former mentors said, at least Penn State has O'Brien.

"People will walk away saying, 'that's the guy I want to play for,' " O'Leary said. "Is that enough to overcome what's going on at Penn State? I believe it is because I know him so well. He has all the tools to do it."

NOTES -- The State Farm insurance company said it will pull its ads from broadcasts of Nittany Lion home football games but continue to advertise during Penn State's away contests. Other sponsors have said they plan to stick with Penn State, including PNC bank and the state's largest health insurer, Highmark Inc.

Also, Moody's Investors Service said Tuesday that it may cut the school's Aa1 bond rating. The Freeh Report and the NCAA sanctions could hurt enrollment and fundraising, and the school is still under state and federal investigation, the rating agency said. A downgrade could make it more expensive for Penn State to borrow money for expansion or other projects.

psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter @mdent05. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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