Column: O'Brien settling in

Follow a football coach from city to city for two weeks and you're going to hear a lot of the same things over and over again, at least in the context of Penn State's Coaches Caravan.

In Philadelphia, Baltimore, Lancaster, Camp Hill, New York and Pittsburgh, I learned that Bill O'Brien feels good about the team he has, that Tyler Ferguson "has to be a little bit ahead" of Christian Hackenberg in the quarterback race simply by virtue of the experience he gained in spring practice, that players on both sides of the ball are more comfortable with the system than they were a year ago, that depth is a concern, that the Nittany Lions have "leaders in every class."

In other words, very little anyone on the Penn State beat -- and fans everywhere -- hadn't already learned this spring. It was the nature of the caravan, and O'Brien, as he did last year, displayed admirable patience when encountered with variations of the same questions for the second, third, or eighth times.

The more time you're around O'Brien, though, the more you begin to see, in between these questions, a man truly settling into his job and, just as importantly, furthering his understanding of exactly what that job entails.

"I'm just the football coach," O'Brien said on Wednesday. "I'm only going into my second year as a football coach, but I do have a responsibility to tell the supporters and the alums and the fans what I feel about the university."

But saying that you're "just the football coach" at Penn State is like the lion telling you he's just a resident of the jungle, or the Pope telling you he's just a guy who serves Mass from time to time.

If he didn't understand this dynamic when he got to campus, O'Brien does now.

"When you drive onto Penn State's campus, the first thing you see is the football stadium," he said. "I'm not saying it's a football school. I understand the responsibility that I have and what I believe is that it's a fantastic university with a bunch of great kids."

O'Brien's primary job is to run the team -- coordinate his staff, craft game plans, develop players, put them in the right spots on the field and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to do off the field.

His secondary jobs are those that begin when the cameras and recorders are switched on -- balancing the program's proud (and recently checkered) past with its ever-uncertain future; being respectful of the previous regime while putting his own stamp on things.

How he handles what seems to be a ceaselessly changing landscape from his office and the practice field and the sideline -- the first part of the job -- will ultimately be what determines O'Brien's success at Penn State, and so far, his missteps have been few. How he presents that game plan to the public and press will be nearly as important for building the unified Penn State that O'Brien spoke of at each caravan stop.

His comfort level with both aspects of the job -- despite the obstacles thrown in front of him -- has grown in the past year. O'Brien and the Nittany Lions have made it through many of the growing pains that come with transition, the ones they anticipated and those they couldn't have planned for.

"It definitely takes a while to implement a new philosophy or changes, whether it's weight room changes or X and O changes or training room changes," he said. "When you hire a new football coach, that's what happens. And when you add onto that what happened with the sanctions, it's an adverse situation that we came out of OK."

It is O'Brien's show now. He has ceased to be the "new coach" and is now simply the coach. He's in a position now where he's a little more comfortable with mentioning the past, because he knows he has a firm grip on the present.

"We had a great foundation," he said. "Penn State was all about tough football, academics, and then we started our own foundation, kind of another layer up from that, and hopefully we can kind of keep it on solid footing during the next few years, the sanction years. And then when we come out of the sanctions, be in a pretty good spot to get going."

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