O'Brien doffs one of two caps to recruits
Bill O'Brien, the New England Patriots offensive coordinator, does an interview Wednesday in Indianapolis. As the incoming Penn State coach, O'Brien was landing his first collegiate recruiting class.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- As letters of intent poured into college football offices via fax across the country, Penn State's new head coach sat at a table on the campus of another university in Indianapolis and looked at his cell phone.
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis does not field a football team, but it does play host to one this week as the New England Patriots are using the school's facilities to prepare for the Sunday Super Bowl.
That is why Bill O'Brien could be found there Wednesday, fulfilling media duties as the Patriots offensive coordinator and answering questions about his other job as Joe Paterno's successor.
The cell phone? Just one, not like Charlie Weis, a predecessor in New England who carried two with him to Super Bowl XXXIX after he was named Notre Dame head coach -- one phone for the Patriots, one for the Irish. All too soon for Weis, it was one for the road from Notre Dame.
O'Brien, who is Irish, only has one cell phone, and he was not keeping tabs every second on his first Nittany Lions' recruiting class as their official, binding letters of intent rolled into State College Wednesday. He was awaiting another call from his wife.
"My son was playing pickup hoops in the driveway waiting for the school bus and hit his head on the driveway," O'Brien explained.
A scrape, nothing serious.
As for those letters, O'Brien expected to receive the official list around noon Wednesday from his staff headed by holdover Paterno assistant Larry Johnson. But some recruits would have to wait for the congratulatory phone call from their new coach. There is another matter O'Brien must attend to this week, and he left little doubt as to where his energy and concentration will go through Sunday, even down to the outfit he wore Wednesday morning that included Patriots ballcap and blue Patriots hoodie.
"It's all about the Patriots," O'Brien said.
"There's only one focus that you can have when you're in a game like this. We have a great staff back at Penn State that is in charge of what's going on there right now. I'll start there early next week."
In fact, he said he will land there late Monday or early Tuesday -- "I've got a human resources orientation meeting that I've got to be at on Tuesday" -- and while his complete focus is on the Super Bowl, there will be time to place those calls to his new recruits.
"Once they've signed, you're allowed to call them," O'Brien noted. "I'm going to try to do that the best I can over the next couple of days. My primary focus at this time is the New England Patriots. A lot of these kids don't sleep a lot, so you can call them at 10:30, 11 o'clock at night, and they're answering the phone like its 8 o'clock in the morning. So, late at night, I try to get some things done."
Most analysts have graded O'Brien's first recruiting class in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten Conference, a disappointment under usual circumstances for Penn State. But things are far from normal there. While a number of Nittany Lions "committed" recruits backed out since the alleged child sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky broke wide open in November (a handful switched to Ohio State), O'Brien and his staff have done a decent job keeping others and adding a few more.
O'Brien said he could not care less if his first class is ranked No. 1 or No. 50 and wondered where players such as Patriots Pro Bowl overachiever receiver Wes Welker might have been ranked coming out of high school.
"We feel very good about the players we brought in there," O'Brien said.
It is not about his first recruiting class, though, nor his second. The success of the first new Penn State football coach in 47 years will rise and fall on many factors -- winning, of course, and how he and his staff do that and how they carry themselves at a school where the emotions and allegiances have been fractured and divided like none other in the history of college sports over the past three months.
O'Brien must be more than the recruiter of young football players, and he and his staff and those they recruit must carry themselves in the shadow of a man larger than life, all the while under intense scrutiny from within Penn State and out. He must also convince those -- including a few of Penn State's biggest stars -- who were angered that someone from the Nittany Lions family was not hired that he is the right man for the job.
He has reached out to a large group of former players, and all he asks now is the chance.
"Our staff is here now, we're looking forward to a great future," said O'Brien, who has one more staff position to fill. "We just ask that everybody there gives us a chance to earn their respect. Watch us work, watch how we deal with players and things we care about. At the end of the day, I firmly believe they'll be very happy with what we do.
"I know it's been tough because I've been in a transition for them, a transition period right now, but I'll be there soon enough."
Tuesday morning at the latest, come Super Bowl victory parade or not.
First Published February 2, 2012 12:00 am