Bill O'Brien was amazed at the number of students who dropped by his office last week hoping to get a graduation picture with the new head football coach.
Bill O'Brien's players got to know him this spring. He's spending May getting to know everyone else.
"You talk about ruining a graduation picture," O'Brien cracked.
Penn State alumni, fans and media are getting to know the guy who in many circles is known as "O.B." In some cases, they're becoming familiar with his self-deprecating humor. In others, they're getting to see the attention he pays to detail and his no-nonsense leadership style. They are most anxious to see what O'Brien can do with his first Penn State team and what kind of players he is recruiting for future Penn State teams, but they're also curious about who he is and what he is about.
College football coaches have to be able to conduct themselves in a variety of social settings. A coach's language and demeanor is, quite obviously, going to be different when he's talking to a parent of a recruit or a TV reporter than the language and demeanor he uses when his quarterback has just thrown two straight interceptions on the practice field. That doesn't mean the coach is two-faced or disingenuous; only that the job demands adaptability.
Knowing the game isn't a problem for O'Brien, and knowing what to expect from the members of his staff (he's coached with most of them at previous stops) should help him make the transition from long-time assistant coach to the head coach.
O'Brien watched Bill Belichick run the Patriots from the football offices as well as represent the organization in the public eye. Learning how to balance both might be the biggest change he has undertaken since he took the Penn State job, and the Coaches Caravan, which has put the coach in front of six different crowds of at least 200 people, has given him plenty of practice.
O'Brien admitted that he had never participated in anything like the caravan before. But it was not his first time speaking in front of a large group, either. The New England Patriots would have businesses come to the facility and O'Brien, then the offensive coordinator, would give talks about the team's philosophies. And, as both a pro and college coach, he had spoken "at a million" coaches clinics.
The comfort level that O'Brien has had during the Coaches Caravan, and really, since coming to Penn State, seems to stem not so much from a natural gift for public speaking as from the calm, steady sense of self-confidence he projects.
"I don't really get too nervous," he said. "I just try to be myself and tell people the truth and what I think. Where we are now and where we're headed."
O'Brien used a Power Point presentation to show alumni some of the mantras he will use as the foundation of his program (the four tenets, he says, will be Academics, Football, Respect and Integrity). He has taken great care to portray a sense of respect and admiration for what Joe Paterno put in place but does little more than acknowledge the events that led to his predecessor's dismissal and shook the entire Penn State community last fall.
"I understand what happened here," O'Brien told the Camp Hill audience earlier this week. "But I understand this too: It's a new era. It's time to move forward."
Most of the questions O'Brien has gotten from fans and alumni haven't been about last fall, he said, but football stuff like strategy and, yes, who the quarterback will be. He likes answering those kinds of questions.
"I tell them I don't really enjoy talking about myself too much," he said.
Maybe not. But, whatever he's discussing, O'Brien is giving his followers a chance to learn about him, a little bit at a time, which might be the best thing he can do until the season rolls around.