STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — While sitting in church Sunday, Bill O’Brien got distracted for a minute thinking about work.
Monday is a big deal for Penn State’s new head coach.
With spring practice starting, Monday is the first day the former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots can strap a whistle around his neck and start officially coaching the team.
“I went to church and I was thinking that about a month and a half ago … I was calling plays in the Super Bowl,” O’Brien said Sunday. “Now here I am on Monday getting ready to run our first spring practice at Penn State. That’s a pretty neat deal.”
Hired in January as the late Joe Paterno’s successor, O’Brien has been keeping busy since then running players through pre-dawn conditioning drills and recruiting — not to mention just the usual adjustments of moving to a new job and community. A career assistant, O’Brien is embarking on his first head-coaching job.
He’s been busy making public appearances across campus and around the state to become more familiar with the team’s huge fan base.
On Sunday, he delivered the keynote speech at The National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame’s Central Pennsylvania Awards Banquet luncheon Sunday at a conference center on the Penn State campus. A capacity crowd of 600 was expected, about 150 more than what the luncheon usually attracts. An organizer suspected that O’Brien may have been the big draw.
And most of the attendees are going to be just important to O’Brien as well — among those at the tables were Pennsylvania high school football players honored for their athletic and academic achievements and their coaches. Penn State’s new leader in his speech talked about qualities of effective leadership.
“Facebook and Twitter and all these things. That’s really the antithesis of football,” he said. “When you’re playing football, football is about communication. For anyone who has a chance to come out to our spring practice, you’ll see offensively, defensively and special teams, we’re going to talk to our guys all the time about communication on the field.”
Before his speech, O’Brien took questions from reporters about recruiting. O’Brien has said one of his recruiting goals is to “lock down” Pennsylvania, which has been fertile ground for decades for Big Ten schools.
Coaching changes at Penn State and Ohio State, where Urban Meyer is taking over for Jim Tressel, may have added a new dynamic to the recruiting tussles especially in western Pennsylvania.
O’Brien sees Penn State’s recruiting base as coming in an area within a roughly a six-hour drive of Happy Valley, with additional concentration on Georgia and Florida. Those are areas where Paterno’s staff did not attract much interest in recent years, while O’Brien and a few of his assistants have connections there from previous coaching stops.
But Pennsylvania remains the focus.
“For me, what’s most important is to try to get as many guys in the core of our roster that come from driving distance and mainly from Pennsylvania,” he told reporters before the luncheon. “I think many kids that come here will have a tremendous amount of pride playing for their state university, coming from Pennsylvania.”
O’Brien maintained that he would stress honesty in dealing with recruits, and that academics would remain a top priority, a standard established during Paterno’s 46 seasons on the sideline before his ouster by school trustees in November in the aftermath of child sex abuse charges against a retired assistant coach.
Whatever the message, O’Brien is having early success on the recruiting trail with five verbal commitments for the class of 2013. The jewel so far appears to be tight end Adam Breneman from Cedar Cliff High School in suburban Harrisburg, who is considered by recruiting services to be one of the top tight end prospects — and prospects overall — in the country.
Come Monday, O’Brien can finally add “coaching” to his duties. He’ll be primarily involved with the offense and plans to call plays.
But first thing’s first, especially with a new coaching staff installing new schemes and philosophies. Situational awareness will be an emphasis of camp, and the first two practices of spring ball will focus on first- and second-down plays on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“I can’t tell you,” O’Brien said in mock frustration, shaking his head, when asked how excited he was about starting spring practice. “I’m so sick of sitting in that office. I can’t wait to get out there and start coaching football.