STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Sporting a Nittany Lions pin on the lapel of his dark gray jacket, Bill O’Brien took the podium, looked straight ahead and introduced himself with two quick, no-nonsense sentences.
“I feel like I’m a mentally tough guy right now. I feel like I’m the right guy.”
And with that, the 42-year-old O’Brien, the New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator the past four years, was off and running at his first briefing as Penn State’s new head football coach, the school’s first in nearly a half century.
It is his first head-coaching job.
“This is unbelievable,” he said.
Actually, for many Penn State fans and former players all over the country, how this all came to be is exactly that — unbelievable.
Until Nov. 9, the Nittany Lions had been directed by the same person for 46 seasons — Joe Paterno, who was fired that day in the aftermath of a child sex abuse scandal involving retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The case also forced the school president to resign.
Not only is O’Brien replacing Division I’s winningest coach, he is joining a still-reeling school attempting to steer its way through federal, NCAA and Big Ten inquiries — not to mention criminal proceedings against former administrators. Sandusky, meantime, is awaiting trial after waiving a preliminary court hearing last month. He has denied the charges.
O’Brien will remain with the Patriots for the duration of their playoff run. New England has a bye this weekend.
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.
Asked how the looming uncertainties affected his decision-making, O’Brien said he had tough questions for school officials during his interview and received “very, very honest answers.” He declined to give specifics.
“I’m here now. … It’s my job as the head football coach at Penn State to have the best football program both and off the field,” said O’Brien, who, like Paterno, is a Brown graduate. O’Brien added he looked forward to meeting Paterno and stresed respect would be shown for JoePa’s accomplishments.
“Replacing a legend, I’ve heard it a lot in the past few days. I’m not here to be Joe Paterno. There’s only one Joe Paterno,” O’Brien said. “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.”
School President Rodney Erickson said the Nittany Lions were looking for 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.”
John Nichols, professor emeritus at the College of Communications and a member of the search committee, said O’Brien’s credentials as a coach, along with his enthusiasm as a “true believer in the college model” and the education of student-athletes, stood out.
He said the committee also made sure it found someone of the “highest integrity,” which Erickson had deemed a non-negotiable criteria.
“In the current environment, we just absolutely had to do that,” Nichols said. “This person will be entrusted with a huge chunk of Penn State’s reputation in a critical time. Finding that person was absolutely integral.”
Russ Rose, women’s volleyball coach and another member of the search committee, said he liked O’Brien’s confidence during the interview.
“I liked the fact that he said ‘I’m a hell of a football coach.’ I think it’s important we hire a hell of a football coach,” Rose said. “I took it as a real positive that he had confidence he was a good football coach.”
O’Brien rocked on his heels and fidgeted with a water bottle while taking questions from reporters at the Nittany Lion Inn, a hotel on campus. Stepping to the podium, he surveyed the crowd and found his young son, Michael, wearing the blue No. 25 jersey of tailback Silas Redd. O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, have another son, Jack.
“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.
New England coach Bill Belichick, whom O’Brien thanked during the news conference, said in a statement: “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.”
Defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who served as interim coach — winning just one game down a tough, season-ending stretch — was passed over for the position but wished O’Brien well. The longtime assistant, who interviewed for the job, 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. “This is forever my home and forever my family. It is important that we come together to support our players and our university.”
Not everyone, though, was willing to hop aboard the O’Brien bandwagon.
In column Saturday for the Washington Post, ex-NFL linebacker and Penn State standout LaVar Arrington said his initial postings on Twitter on Friday amid rumors of O’Brien’s hiring were too harsh.
At one point, Arrington wrote on the social media site, “I’m done all my PSU stuff will be down before obriens introduction! We are! No more for me!”
“This hiring represents the Board of (Trustees’) feeling toward all that has happened,” he wrote in the column. “In my opinion, the board has concluded that everyone and everything associated with the football team is guilty of a crime that we simply did not commit — and that’s wrong.”
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 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.”
Designating himself the new leader of the “Penn State football family,” O’Brien said he commended those with passionate loyalties to the school.
“You should love this school. You are why we want to be here,” he said, reading from his letter. “We want you to know that you will always be welcome and be part of the program because we are Penn State.”
In a separate statement Saturday released through the school, Tim Sweeney, president of the official Football Letterman’s Club, said the new coach had the full support and backing of the organization.
“Our highly regarded standard of academic achievement equals that of our on-field performance, and we feel that Coach O’Brien is an excellent choice to continue this tradition that for so long has defined Penn State,” Sweeney wrote. “Welcome to the Penn State Football family, Coach.”