Bill O'Brien was more than a half hour into his Media Day press conference when he got a question about the cohesiveness of his Penn State team. It was a topic O'Brien had addressed in some detail earlier in the morning, if not the exact question, so he cracked a bit of a smile and asked the questioner:
"Did you just get here?"
O'Brien was nice enough to actually answer the question again, but he's really been answering it, with his words and actions, since he took the job in January. The foundation of the Penn State program, if not the entire university, has been pounded with blow after blow during the better part of the last year. O'Brien has been running from spot to spot with spackle, cement, a hammer and nails, working to stabilize and reinforce. He doesn't know where the next blow will come from and he doesn't seem to really care. All he's trying to do is keep building and make those around him believe that the whole thing will still be standing, as he likes to say, at the end of the day.
I used to think that succeeding Joe Paterno would be the toughest job a college football coach could have. The next man up would not just be replacing not just the winningest coach of all time but an entire way of doing things, a system that so many players and fans knew by rote.
Well, the comparisons to Paterno will undoubtedly not be anywhere near as frequent now, but O'Brien's job is somehow even tougher. He's been asked to build knowing that his supplies will dwindle by the year. He has to convince his players to move forward even though he knows the water will get deeper with each step.
And he has to be the man in front at every turn. Every move he makes and everything he says will be micro-analyzed, not by die-hard Paterno fans but by a whole nation -- every columnist waiting to re-rip Penn State will be waiting for a slip-up. Every rival football coach seeking to gain an advantage over the Nittany Lions on the field or the recruiting trail will be searching for weaknesses. Prospective recruits are watching. His current players, too, are watching, and will take their cues on how to conduct themselves on and off the field from O'Brien. Their belief and confidence in the program are tied directly to his.
O'Brien has been tested so many times already, and he's ever on the alert for the next test. Thursday, he firmly emphasized the importance of winning, then quickly added that the Nittany Lions would not win at all costs. He doesn't want his team to take an "us against them" mentality, but rather a "this is about more than football" approach. He said he respects any individuals' decisions to appeal the sanctions but has to keep himself and his team focused on the future, not the past. More than any other coach, he can't afford to have any of his comments misconstrued or taken out of context.
A little later in the press conference, someone else asked O'Brien if "everything that had gone on" had "affected his nerves" leading up to Penn State's Sept. 1 opener against Ohio. Again, O'Brien had a little fun with the question.
"Do I look nervous?" he replied.
Determined? Yes. Cognizant of the incredible task ahead of him? You bet. Nervous? No.
Not even someone who just got here would see O'Brien as nervous.