Bill O’Brien snapped at me once after a game for having the audacity to ask why his running back that’d been averaging 23 carries a game had only seven for an early-season contest last season. Three weeks later, he was visibly annoyed I inquired if a lack of complementary wide receivers was a worry after one receiver had accounted for roughly two-thirds of the wideout catches through six weeks. During his two seasons at Penn State, it became clear that dealing with media questions – to be fair, oftentimes very mundane ones – was far from his favorite part of his vocation.
Ultimately, though, I respected O’Brien for his honesty and straightforwardness. Penn State’s players did, too. I reached out to several – some on the record, some off – over the past couple weeks in anticipation of knowing I’d have the opportunity to speak with him Thursday in advance of his Houston Texans playing at the Steelers on Monday night.
To a man, every Nittany Lions player I talked to was effusive in his praise of O’Brien. Part of that is likely attributable to some sort of psychological human reaction in which one develops a bond with someone with whom they experience a crisis with (after all, O’Brien navigated Penn State through what was easily the most trying time in its program’s history). But I have come to believe that players and others associated with the program also came to respect O’Brien for his no-nonsense, sincere approach.
The man had a classic New England Irish temper, no doubt. But for better or for worse, you always felt he was genuine. I only covered him for one season, so I sheepishly hesitate from drawing too much of a public conclusion, but I will say I also ultimately came to respect O’Brien for who he was.
That could be why there was no – at least as far as I had seen when it came to on-the-record comments – backlash against O’Brien from players when he left PSU to pursue an NFL coaching career 9 ½ months ago.
I was eager to talk with O’Brien this week. He was to be available to Pittsburgh media via a conference call – as all NFL coaches are to opponents’ media four days in advance of a game. As so often happens in these instances, a local media many times has little use for the opposing coach. Barring some kind of hot-button, locally-relevant or imminently-timely pressing issue, these conference calls are met with a figurative shrug, with perhaps only a couple questions asked by a scant number of media members.
In terms of Steelers-related relevance among the Pittsburgh media for O’Brien, that was the case Thursday. The result was a virtual one-on-one with me and the former Penn State coach – the only other outlet listening was the radio flagship for Pitt (unlikely his pro-PSU comments get broadcast there) and one other online reporter who asked one Steelers-related question before losing interest.
That meant almost eight consecutive minutes of a love letter from O’Brien to Penn State Nation.
A cynic would point out that O’Brien knew his audience (a Pennsylvania reporter) and catered his message as such. A fair point. Also, what would O’Brien have to gain by saying anything negative about a former employer? So that said, take his comments with a proverbial grain of salt — Who knows? This wouldn’t be the first time I’d be accused of being naive.
Still, I have no reason to doubt he was genuine. Multiple times, he veered off from clumsy questions I asked to emphasize a positive sentiment toward Penn State. During my second-to-last question (it asked how often he got to watch PSU games), O’Brien began his answer by saying: “I haven’t been able to watch too many games. We were off last weekend so I was able to see the Michigan game and I know that was a tough game for them. I think, not that you asked me this question, but I just feel compelled to say that, Penn State will be back. Penn State is a tremendous place…”
I included the final two phrases of the above, along with the remainder of his thoughts, in the print article that ran in Friday’s editions. Look, those who – for whatever reason – don’t like O’Brien (be it Penn State partisans or Penn State haters alike), they aren’t going to buy into his kind words for the university and its program. (And I’ll admit I didn’t ask him about some of the more controversial aspects of his tenure).
But I’ve been surprised with how overwhelming the early feedback has been about the printed article. So, I thought I’d (after making you all endure reading this wordy introduction) present the remainder of the conversation here on The Blog.
(H/T to Steelers PR whiz Ryan Scarpino for his help in compiling this)
O’Brien, when asked if there was anything he’d miss about coaching in the college game…
“Those kids — the kids that we coached there — were tough, they were hard-nosed, they were winners. And certainly, my wife and I made great friends in State College that we still will stay in touch with and will for the rest of our lives. But I’d say just of the time at Penn State, the biggest thing that I take from that is the relationship with the players that I had there.”
O’Brien on his tighter-than-usual bond with his former players at Penn State…
“I think it was more because of what we went through as a team together there at Penn State for two years. Not what we went through, that’s probably a bad way to say that. It’s more about how we bonded together and won some games…”
O’Brien, asked if despite recent struggles if Christian Hackenberg – whom he was instrumental in bringing to Penn State – still projected as a quality NFL quarterback…
“Christian Hackenberg, No. 1, is a special kid. He’s a tough kid, he’s smart (and) he’s a great teammate. He has everything that you’re looking for in a quarterback. He’s got a strong arm, he’s competitive and I know that he hasn’t even reached his potential yet. He’ll work very, very hard every single day and he’ll only get better and better because of his own work ethic. He’s a special kid.”
O’Brien on if it took any time to get re-assimilated into the pro game after his two years at Penn State….
“It’s always an adjustment coming back –especially having been (in the NFL) for five years but then not having been here for two, and especially with the new rules of the CBA and things like that. Those were a little bit different when I was here before and those types of things. There was an adjustment period but it looks like now, personally, just from the schedule and the day-to-day operation, (I’m) definitely back into the swing of things.”