CHICAGO – Bill O’Brien thinks he can do a better job of managing the clock. He wants to improve his communication with his coaches in the press box. Then there are the adjustments for recruiting, practice and team meetings.
After a most unusual season, the Penn State football coach is focused on putting everything he learned in Year 1 to good use.
“When you’ve never done it as a head coach, you’re definitely learning on the job, and I learned a lot in my first year,” O’Brien said Thursday at Big Ten media days.
O’Brien and the Nittany Lions enter this season in a much different spot than a year ago, when the former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots was adapting to his new role with the school facing unprecedented sanctions for the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.
Just 6½ months after he accepted the job, O’Brien found out he was looking at a four-year bowl ban and steep scholarship cuts. Not exactly an ideal situation for a first-time head coach.
“A year ago, we had just found out about the sanctions, so that was a tough time,” O’Brien said. “That was a time when we had just received in many ways, as far as I’m concerned, some unexpected news. We knew there was something coming down the pipe. And then I’m coming to my first Big Ten media days as a head coach, on top of all that.
“I think we’ve learned a lot in a year. I believe we’ve improved. The years ahead aren’t going to be easy, but we have a better handle on things.”
Considering the controversy swirling around the program, Penn State’s 8-4 record last season was one of the best coaching jobs in the country, and O’Brien received several awards. The Nittany Lions dropped their first two games, then won five in a row. The offense developed into one of the most potent units in the conference.
But listen to the 43-year-old O’Brien for a while, and it’s clear the Boston native expects more – from himself, and his players.
“We want to be a tough, smart football team. We want good kids. We want to be able to play in all kinds of weather and all those different things,” O’Brien said. “I talk about that a lot, whether it’s recruiting or Xs and Os.”
That public emphasis on improvement is consistent with the coach the Nittany Lions see in practice and meetings.
“He’s the same guy but with any competitor and coach O’Brien is a competitor, he always feels like he needs to improve something,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “Just certain things like just different techniques that he’ll learn or things that he’ll watch on film that he picks up, you know he’ll inform the team and he’s always 100 percent honest with us.”
While there is an ongoing competition at quarterback and concerns at linebacker, there is still plenty for O’Brien to work with in his second season. Whoever wins the quarterback job gets to throw it to dynamic receiver Allen Robinson, who had a school-record 77 receptions for 1,013 yards last season. There are 16 returning starters in all, and a total of 38 letterwinners coming back.
There will be no postseason again this year, but that hasn’t dampened the expectations the Nittany Lions have for themselves.
“We have the same motivation that any football team in the country does,” senior guard John Urschel said. “We love each other. We’re a team. We want to do well for each other. We want to fight for each other and we want to win football games for each other, for our team, for our head coach and for our university.”
While O’Brien is more comfortable in his position than he was a year ago, it’s not as if the Sandusky scandal is completely behind the program.
The NCAA asked a Pennsylvania court Tuesday to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the family of the late coach Joe Paterno that seeks to overturn the sanctions against Penn State. Some trustees, former players and coaches and current faculty members are also taking part in the same lawsuit, which the NCAA said was flawed.
The ongoing legal questions make for a tricky situation for O’Brien, who recently spoke with the university’s Board of Trustees about the NCAA penalties.
“When I’m asked questions, at times I’ll give my opinion,” he said. “But right now I’m so focused on the 2013 season, I don’t really care about those other things. I know my job is to go out here and do the best job I can to keep this team focused on training camp and Syracuse.”