Connections run deep for Penn State, Iowa coaches

gciprian@centredaily.comOctober 18, 2012 

His resume includes five years with the New England Patriots and 12 years coaching at three Atlantic Coast Conference schools.

The path means Bill O’Brien still rests on the outside of most Big Ten coaching cliques.

But when Penn State meets Iowa on Saturday night, O’Brien might be compelled to engage in some personal pregame chatter.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive line coach Brian Ferentz are two of O’Brien’s go-to Big Ten confidants. O’Brien and Brian Ferentz worked together with the New England Patriots from 2009-11, so perhaps they will exchange Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski stories before Saturday’s 8 p.m. kickoff.

O’Brien served as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator last season. Brian coached the team’s heralded tight ends.

“I’m close with Brian,” O’Brien said. “Anytime you work with someone 24-7, six months out of the year and go to a Super Bowl with, ... you have a lot of respect for his football knowledge and those things. There’s no question that’s a great friendship there.”

Both coaches left the Patriots after last season, which ended with New England losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. Penn State represents O’Brien’s first college stop since he worked at Duke from 2005-06. This is Brian’s first season as a collegiate coach. Brian, the oldest of Kirk’s three sons, was a three-year letterwinner for his father from 2003-05. He accepted a scouting assistant job with the Patriots in 2008.

At Iowa, Brian’s star pupil is younger brother, James, the Hawkeyes’ starting center. His other younger brother, Steve, is a freshman tight end.

O’Brien, Kirk and Brian hail from the same coaching tree, having all worked for ultra-successful New England Patriots boss Bill Belichick at various points in their respective careers. Kirk, Iowa’s head coach since 1999, worked under Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. Kirk is the Big Ten’s longest tenured coach and earned his 100th Iowa victory by defeating Michigan State 19-16 in double overtime last weekend.

O’Brien said he has cultivated a personal relationship with Kirk through Brian and his work with the Patriots. O’Brien visited Iowa City and met with Kirk while scouting former Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi for the Patriots.

“He just does an excellent job of teaching fundamental, physical football, smart football,” O’Brien said.

Kirk has similar respect for O’Brien’s work. After leaving Duke, where he worked as offensive coordinator, O’Brien accepted an NFL entry-level coaching position as the Patriots’ offensive coaching assistant.

“There are a lot of things revealing about people, but he took a big step backwards,” said Kirk, who attended Upper St. Clair High School. “He left a coordinator’s position to take a job in New England that was, I can promise you, low paying. I can promise you they didn’t put the red carpet out for him.

“Most people wouldn’t do something like that at that age and that level and that stage of their career. So I think that just tells you a little about Bill. He’s all about coaching and an excellent football coach. He’s already done a great job (at Penn State).”

Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.

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