STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Bill O’Brien took the podium, looked straight ahead and uttered the kind of words you would expect from someone who had just been introduced as Penn State’s new head football coach.
“This is unbelievable.”
The offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots the past four years, O’Brien picked quite a challenge for his first head-coaching job. Until Nov. 9, the Nittany Lions had been directed by the same person for 46 seasons — Joe Paterno. The Hall of Fame coach, however, was fired in the aftermath of child sex abuse scandal involving retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Not only is O’Brien replacing Division I’s winningest coach, he is joining a school trying to steer its way through federal, NCAA and Big Ten inquiries — not to mention criminal proceedings against former administrators.
O’Brien will remain with the Patriots for the duration of their playoff run. New England has a bye this weekend.
“I feel like I’m a mentally tough guy right now,” the 42-year-old O’Brien said. “I feel like I’m the right guy.”
The new coach said he would pull together his staff during the next two or three days, and get the assistants on the recruiting trail immediately while he works with New England. He will retain assistant Larry Johnson from Paterno’s staff to coach the defensive line.
“I’m going to surround myself with good people,” O’Brien said, “and I’m excited to do that.”
His five-year contract, finalized Friday, included base compensation starting at $950,000, with a 5 percent increase each season. O’Brien will also collect another $1 million a year for radio and television work, as well as a $350,000 Nike contract.
The base package is roughly on par with Paterno’s compensation, which was about $1.02 million last year — a relative bargain for a coach with two national championships. Until now, Penn State never released details of salary from endorsement deals outside the school.
O’Brien joined New England in 2007 following 14 seasons on the college level, including stops at Duke, Maryland and Georgia Tech.
The Patriots are third in the NFL overall in scoring (32.1 points per game), and second in total offense (428 yards) and passing (317.8 yards).
Penn State finished a 9-4 campaign with a 30-14 loss in the TicketCity Bowl to Houston on Jan. 2. The Nittany Lions relied on defense much of the year after the offense struggled with a two-quarterback system.
PSU President Rodney Erickson said O’Brien as someone who would “maintain the school’s commitment to excellence on the field and in the classroom. We have that leader in Coach O’Brien.”
Though O’Brien has no previous ties to Penn State, he and Paterno do have one thing in common — both are graduates of Brown University.
O’Brien rocked on his heels and fidgeted with a water bottle while taking questions from reporters. Stepping to the podium, he surveyed the crowd and found his young son, Michael, wearing the blue No. 25 jersey of tailback Silas Redd.
“I can’t wait to get going on this,” he said, “get everyone headed in the right direction.”
This was O’Brien’s first year coordinating the Patriots’ powerful offense, but he has also coached star quarterback Tom Brady since 2009 and spent 2008 coaching receivers.
O’Brien recently was in the spotlight when he and Brady got into a heated argument, shown on national television, after Brady threw an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ 34-27 win over the Washington Redskins on Dec. 11.
Asked about the incident and his relationship with Brady, he spoke of the Pro Bowl quarterback in glowing terms, adding: “Football is an emotional game.”
Brady has described O’Brien as a great coach and friend; Pats receiver Julian Edelman said he is charismatic and emotional.
Not everyone, though, has immediately hopped aboard the O’Brien bandwagon.
Some alumni and former players were concerned that O’Brien had no previous head coaching experience nor Penn State ties. Others were critical of the search itself, angered that ex-players weren’t consulted about the selection process. Former teammates and standout linebackers Brandon Short and LaVar Arrington started a petition supporting the candidacy of interim coach Tom Bradley.
O’Brien addressed the rumblings in a letter he said he sent to former players.
“We respect the rights to one’s opinions, beliefs and (their) contributions to Penn State,” he said, reading it at the briefing. “We respectfully request the opportunity to earn your trust through communication. In time, we will find we have more common interests and goals than not.”
Bradley wished O’Brien well. The longtime assistant under Paterno remained on the staff as of Saturday, though his future was uncertain.
“No matter the challenges that the university may face, Penn State will always have my support,” Bradley said in a statement. “This is forever my home and forever my family. It is important that we come together to support our players and our university.”
New England coach Bill Belichick, whom O’Brien thanked during the news conference, said in a statement that O’Brien “has met every personal and professional challenge head on with great passion and competitiveness.”
“I expect Bill to draw on his deep background in college football and the NFL to continue attracting and developing top players,” Belichick said. “For five years, Bill’s outstanding work with our quarterbacks and entire offense has led to record-setting performances. His presence and command before our team has grown into that of an inspirational leader.
“This is a great match between a storied program and an old-school football coach. Bill will be up to the task and I couldn’t be happier for him.”