STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — White placards with a set of rules were affixed to the glass doors of the players’ entrance at the Penn State football building about the time Bill O’Brien agreed to become the school’s next football coach.
Rule No. 1 on the sign the Nittany Lions see when they walk in? “Know Your Role/Do Your Job,” in bold, capital letters
Come Tuesday, O’Brien should finally be doing just that full time in Happy Valley. There’s no rest for the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator two days after losing the Super Bowl 21-17 to the New York Giants.
“I’ll be there Tuesday. I’m going to do everything I can to help New England on Sunday, then I’ll be in State College as soon as I can get there on Monday night, Tuesday,” he said last week in a teleconference with reporters.
O’Brien has already left an imprint on his new team even after a hectic month of dividing loyalties between the Patriots and Penn State.
There’s a new offseason workout regime, as well as the relaxation of a rule that limited facial hair for players — a guideline from his old-school predecessor, the late Joe Paterno.
And though Penn State lost a half-dozen high-profile recruits, O’Brien and his staff were able to salvage a relatively respectable recruiting class given the turmoil that has engulfed the program.
Paterno was fired Nov. 9 in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges against retired assistant Jerry Sandusky, who is out on bail and awaiting trial after denying the allegations. Paterno wasn’t a target of the investigation, authorities have said.
O’Brien took over about two months later in hopes of embracing Paterno’s legacy while starting a new era at Penn State.
The recent message handed down from O’Brien to his new charges: Move forward.
“I think the biggest thing is that parents wanted to meet the head coach. They wanted to know what Coach O’Brien was all about … to (see) what he was all about, what he wasn’t going to change, and Penn State was moving forward,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who was retained from Paterno’s staff, said about the message to recruits’ families.
“Our players were pretty excited also … because they believe it’s a chance to move forward. Then Coach O’Brien walks in to sell it again and I think our family has kind of settled down a little bit, and now we’re ready to go.”
And with some new routines inside the Lasch Football Building.
Mustaches and beards are now OK, as are hats inside the building — another no-no from the Paterno regime.
“I think it’s because he doesn’t have any hair — he wears a hat,” linebacker Michael Mauti joked about his new coach. The balding O’Brien has jokingly referred to himself as “follicularly challenged.”
A new strength coach has installed a new offseason workout system based on free weights, Olympic-style lifting and squats. The old routines were based on exercise machines.
For the offense, there’s a whole new system to learn. O’Brien has designs to base Penn State’s offense, which has struggled under a two-quarterback system in recent seasons, on the potent attack he coordinated in New England.
Penn State starting quarterback Matt McGloin recently got a copy of a quarterback manual and what he described as the beginnings of a playbook from O’Brien, who was also the position coach for star signal-caller Tom Brady in New England.
“It’s big. It’s definitely going to be tough to go through,” McGloin said about the playbook. “At the same time, that’s what you want. You want something different.”
And one of the most noticeable changes so far for under O’Brien is media access to coaches and players. Team interviews are being conducted at the football building more frequently than in the previous regime under Paterno, who notoriously limited media access to practices and players.
For example, coaches and players were made available for interviews last Wednesday, the first day that high school seniors could cement their college choices. Such interactions were a rarity the last several years under Paterno.
“I think it’s important to the people, especially the people in Pennsylvania, to see how hard we’re working as players and coaches,” O’Brien said. “To see the type of players we have there — the character, the commitment they have to the football program.”
Some alumni, former players and state legislators have questioned whether overall university operations and decisions should be more transparent amid federal, NCAA and internal inquiries about how the school handled the allegations against Sandusky and its aftermath.
The increased access at football comes against that backdrop, though there’s no apparent correlation to the criticism itself.
“I didn’t see this coming at all, it’s a nice change,” defensive tackle Jordan Hill said. “It’s something different, and more people to see what’s going on here at Penn State.”