STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has agreed to become Penn State’s first new head football coach in nearly a half-century.
Two people in the NFL with knowledge of the search told The Associated Press on Friday morning that O’Brien has told them he plans to replace fired coach Joe Paterno. Another person told the AP terms and details still needed to be set, that nothing was official and there was no signed contract.
The persons spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the search.
ESPN, citing unnamed sources, first reported Thursday night an official announcement would be made Saturday, and that O’Brien would remain with the Patriots as an assistant through the postseason. Two people have told the AP the report was credible.
According to a website that tracks flights, a plane registered to Penn State was scheduled to depart State College for Boston at mid-afternoon Friday, and a Penn State coaches staff meeting was scheduled for later Friday afternoon.
Division I’s winningest coach with 409 victories, Paterno was fired Nov. 9 by university trustees following 46 seasons in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges against retired defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. O’Brien has no apparent ties to Penn State and a proud program tarnished by a scandal that also led to the departure of school President Graham Spanier.
Penn State coaches had not received any word on O’Brien or anything else related to the two-month long search as of Friday morning.
A Patriots spokesman declined comment Thursday night. Messages left Friday for Penn State spokesmen were not immediately returned.
Penn State athletics spokesman Jeff Nelson on Thursday night cited department policy to not comment on reports to “protect the integrity of the search.”
O’Brien interviewed on Thursday, his agent said. Joe Linta told The Associated Press, earlier Thursday, that O’Brien was “flattered by the interest.”
This was O’Brien’s first year coordinating the Patriots’ high-scoring 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.
New England closed the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, and scored 513 points, the most in the AFC. Brady threw for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns, while being picked off just 12 times.
“He’s been a great coach and friend. We have a great relationship; probably a very unique relationship in that we communicate all the time,” Brady said Sunday about O’Brien. “I always enjoy working with him and he’s done an incredible job with this team and this offense.”
The Patriots are off this week, and will host a divisional round playoff game next weekend. They went 13-3 this season, won the AFC East championship going away, and secured the conference’s No. 1 seed throughout the playoffs.
“He’s done great for us and he’s going to keep on doing well for us and I look forward to preparing with him this next week,” receiver Julian Edelman said Friday in Foxborough. He described O’Brien as charismatic and emotional.
O’Brien “is a very passionate guy, knows his stuff,” Edelman said. “And you know he’s going to give it his all always and I love playing for him.”
But the selection of a coach without Penn State ties may not sit well with several prominent former players or some alumni. Former standout linebackers LaVar Arrington and Brandon Short had organized a petition in support of interim coach Tom Bradley’s candidacy. Short said the petition only included about 100 names after he was informed by a member of Penn State’s search committee it was enough to sway their opinions.
He said he planned to meet with Acting Athletic Director David Joyner on Friday in a meeting scheduled before reports began to surface about O’Brien. He would consider cutting ties with his alma mater if the O’Brien reports were true, and he said some former players — operating independently of the official Football Letterman Club for football alumni — might consider a lawsuit that would prevent the school from using their likenesses or images in the future.
Now an investment banker in New York, Short played seven seasons with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers. He called Bradley the best candidate for the job, citing Bradley’s role in helping to maintain the program’s high academic standards and ability to help Penn State
“There are thousands of other players who will tell you the same thing. The administration is under the belief that if they hire an NFL coach, or someone flashy, that they will fill seats,” Short said in phone interview Thursday. “As an NFL player I can tell you that there is a big difference between developing young men and recruiting, then the combine and free agency. It’s two different universes.”
D.J. Dozier, a running back on the 1986 title team, said Thursday the search committee should poll current and former players and high school coaches in the region. He planned to sign the petition if more signatures were taken.
“Give that person and that staff a chance. I believe the current staff has done a good job,” Dozier said. “Unless there’s politics involved, give them a chance.”
Some alumni also lobbied for Bradley, a 33-year veteran of the Penn State staff and defensive coordinator since 2000.
Prominent donor Anthony Lubrano, a Penn State graduate, questioned the school’s hiring process.
“Bill O’Brien might well be a fine football coach and more importantly an even finer human being,” Lubrano wrote in an email. “But by excluding the football (lettermen) from the search process, this administration has effectively communicated to them that their contributions to the Penn State family don’t matter.”
O’Brien joined New England in 2007 following 14 seasons on the college level, including stops at Duke, Maryland and Georgia Tech. He played football at Brown — Paterno’s alma mater.
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.
Penn State officials had termed the search “methodical and deliberate.” Joyner said earlier Thursday he would like to have Paterno’s replacement in place by Jan. 13, the start of 16-day recruiting window before high school seniors can begin to announce their official intentions to attend college on Feb. 1.
Bradley, who took over for Paterno on an interim basis, was among the candidates interviewed. He was on the road recruiting Thursday.