Bill O'Brien, new hand at the Penn State helm
Penn State's new football coach Bill O'Brien, center, poses with acting athletic director Dave Joyner, left, and university president Rodney Erickson, after he was introduced during a news conference Jan. 7 in State College.
Share with others:
ANDOVER, Mass. -- At 24, Bill O'Brien was a part-time assistant coach paid only a small stipend to work with the linebackers at Brown University, his alma mater, at the start of the 1994 season.
He thought so much of one of Brown's most famous alumni -- Penn State University's football coach, Joe Paterno -- that Mr. O'Brien wrote him a letter.
"Billy showed me the note, and coach Paterno actually wrote on the other side of the piece of paper when he sent it back," recalled Mr. O'Brien's boyhood friend, John Perry, who was a part-time wide receivers coach on that same Brown staff.
"Billy told coach Paterno how much he admired him and how proud he was to have a degree from Brown, just like Joe. Billy said he was just entering his collegiate coaching career and he was hoping someday to follow a similar path as coach Paterno.
"Well, here he is now, replacing coach Paterno. How ironic is that?"
Mr. Paterno, the winningest coach in major college history with 409 victories, was fired Nov. 9 amid a child sex abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Since his dismissal, the 85-year-old Paterno has been battling lung cancer and recovering from a broken pelvis suffered in a fall at home.
But Monday, two days after being introduced as Mr. Paterno's permanent replacement, Mr. O'Brien talked to the former coach on the telephone.
During their conversation, Mr. Paterno offered his support for Mr. O'Brien, whose Jan. 7 hiring was met with mixed reviews because he had no Penn State ties or prior head coaching experience.
"Replacing a legend -- I've heard it a lot in the past few days," Mr. O'Brien said during a jam-packed news conference Jan. 7 on Penn State's campus announcing his hiring. "I'm not here to be Joe Paterno. There's only one Joe Paterno. What I'm going to try to do is be Bill O'Brien and we're going to do the best we can to continue the success that he's had here for many, many years."
Penn State's past three head coaching hires all have ties to Brown, from Rip Engle in 1950 to Mr. Paterno in 1966 to Mr. O'Brien nine days ago.
Mr. O'Brien's father, John, who made a fortune in the semiconductor business, also played football at Brown, as did Bill's older brothers, Jack and Tom.
Mr. O'Brien, 42, now the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, will join the Penn State program full time after the NFL team's playoff run ends.
"I heard some people were upset at the decision to hire Billy at Penn State and I don't get it," said Jim O'Leary, Mr. O'Brien's high school football coach at St. John's Prep from 1985-88. "It's not like all of the people down there are going to say, 'I'm not going to the games anymore. I'm not going to support the program.'
"They just need to support Billy and give him a chance."
In summer 1978, Bill O'Brien was 8 years old when his family left Georgia and moved into a modest, white four-bedroom house on the corner of High Plain Road and Serenity Lane in the affluent community of Andover, 25 miles north of Boston.
A short time later, Mr. O'Brien met Mr. Perry. They spent a lot of time together, playing competitive football and basketball.
Mr. Perry was the starting quarterback on the eighth-grade football team at West Junior High School and Mr. O'Brien was the center.
But they split up in ninth grade, with Mr. Perry heading to Andover High School and Mr. O'Brien going to St. John's Prep, a private all-boys commuter school of 1,200 on a sprawling 175-acre campus in Danvers, 15 miles from his home. He became a three-year starter as a center and defensive end for the Eagles.
"It was clear from the beginning that people liked Billy and people followed him," said Mr. O'Leary, still the football coach and athletic director at St. John's Prep. "We, as football coaches here, loved his toughness.
"He was capable of getting a 15-yard penalty occasionally. He challenged people in practice. ... He was always our emotional leader. He was the defensive player of the year when he graduated from here."
George Delaney, a wide receiver then quarterback in Mr. O'Brien's senior season, said he admired Mr. O'Brien's feistiness. The two were among four co-captains at St. John's Prep in 1987.
"It was a terrible season," said Mr. Delaney, a seafood company executive who remains one of Mr. O'Brien's best friends. "We finished 4-6 and Billy was miserable, and it wasn't because we didn't have cheerleaders. He hated losing, and still does.
"I think I broke, like, three Prep records in one game and we lost by two points. He didn't talk to me for a week."
After graduating that fall, Mr. O'Brien stuck around to coach the school's freshman offensive and defensive linemen. Then, in January 1989, he enrolled at Brown.
Mr. Perry, now the head football coach at nearby Merrimack College, a Division II school, applied to Brown but was not accepted. He ended up at New Hampshire, while Mr. Delaney went to Colgate, where he set a number of receiving records.
Mr. O'Brien played linebacker and defensive end at Brown in 1990-92, graduating with a double concentration in political science and organizational behavior management.
He and Mr. Perry eventually reconnected at Brown in 1994 as part-time assistant coaches under head coach Mark Whipple -- now the Cleveland Browns quarterbacks coach after a three-year stint with the Steelers in 2004-06.
In all, Mr. O'Brien was employed 14 years as an assistant coach at colleges. He also worked at Georgia Tech, Maryland and Duke prior to joining coach Bill Belichick's New England staff in 2007 as an offensive assistant.
Mr. O'Brien is the 15th head coach in Penn State's 125-year history, hired after a two-month search conducted by a six-person committee.
He inherits a football program not only embroiled in the Sandusky controversy, but also facing possible National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions as a result of an ongoing inquiry into the university's institutional control and ethical conduct.
Mr. O'Brien was accompanied at his introductory news conference by his wife, Colleen, and youngest son Michael, 6, who wore a No. 25 blue jersey in honor of tailback Silas Redd.
Another son, Jack, 9, did not make the trip. He was born with lissencephaly, a rare genetic brain formation disorder that requires special care.
"It's a remarkable family," Mr. O'Leary said. "You don't have a child with a disability and have the kind of job he has without the support of his family. He deals with it like he does a lot of things. He's very private about it, and rightly so. But I can assure you he's a great father."
Syracuse head football coach Doug Marrone introduced Mr. O'Brien to his future wife when he and Mr. O'Brien were assistant coaches at Georgia Tech. Colleen O'Brien, a lawyer, and Helen Marrone attended Boston College together. The families remain close.
"She's the brains behind the operation," Mr. O'Brien said. "Magna cum laude from BC, top five in her law school class, so obviously I have a pretty good idea how to recruit."
Mr. O'Brien received a five-year deal worth a guaranteed $2.3 million per season, according to Penn State. His incentives cannot exceed more than $200,000 per year, meaning he could earn as much as $2.5 million.
Linda Caldwell, a member of the Penn State search committee, said she was impressed with Mr. O'Brien from their initial meeting.
"I felt in him a burning passion and desire to use the collegiate football experience as a means to provide young men an opportunity to grow as a person academically, athletically and as human beings," said Ms. Caldwell, a Gateway High School graduate who serves as Penn State's NCAA faculty athletic representative.
Ms. Caldwell said she expects Mr. O'Brien to uphold Penn State's tradition of strong academics. According to the 2011 NCAA Graduation Rates report, Penn State and Stanford were tied with a graduation rate of 87 percent for their football players.
"I am impressed that he has a clear vision of how academics and athletics are not only compatible but also can operate synergistically," Ms. Caldwell said. "I am confident that he and his staff will carry on coach Paterno's very successful Grand Experiment.
"Although he doesn't have a Penn State pedigree, I felt that immediately he `gets' Penn State and what we are about here academically and athletically."
Patriots Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady said he was not surprised that Mr. O'Brien took the Penn State job.
"I think it's a great opportunity for a very deserving coach," Mr. Brady said. "He's worked his tail off for a long time to get opportunities ... Everyone is happy for Billy and his family. It's a great tradition they have. It's a great school."
Even though he now lives in Medfield, Mass., Mr. O'Brien has not forgotten his boyhood friends or his former St. John's Prep teammates in his adopted hometown.
He still talks frequently to Mr. Perry, who lives in North Andover, along with Mike Lane, another boyhood friend and local police officer.
When Mr. Perry won a conference championship at Merrimack in his second year as head coach in 2009, Mr. O'Brien spoke to the team and congratulated them on their accomplishment.
And Mr. O'Brien was the keynote speaker last year at a sold-out St. John's Prep alumni breakfast.
"Penn State people are going to love Billy O'Brien, and they're going to love the program under him," Mr. O'Leary said. "He's going to bleed blue and white. There isn't a more loyal person than him in the whole world."
First Published January 15, 2012 12:00 am