Former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was in town Saturday for the Nittany Lions’ annual Chalk Talk, a two-day event designed for high school and junior high coaches around the state, and he met with reporters after giving his keynote speech.
O’Brien — who began his PSU tenure in January 2012, two months after Joe Paterno’s firing — guided Penn State through the beginning of the sanctions and to records of 8-4 and 7-5, respectively, before leaving for the NFL’s Houston Texans. Here’s a full transcript of what he discussed during a 12-minute availability Saturday at the Lasch Football Building:
Q: What does this place mean to you, personally and professionally?
A: It’s a place that I have a lot of memories here. Coming back here — I haven’t been back for four years. And, thinking about the two years that I was here, I just told the high school coaches — I said, relative to college football, this is football heaven. You come back here and you come through this building, you see the lettermen wall, you see the All-American wall, you see the guys coming out of meetings — all the changes that James (Franklin) has made in the building are incredible. Nice day outside, so this is what it’s all about. I have good memories here; nothing but good feelings about Penn State.
Q: When was the last time you were here?
A: The day I left. I came back to State College, but I didn’t come over here. I came back for a little get-together with some friends of mine from here a couple years ago, but never back to this side. So this is my first time back since I left, and it definitely brings back a lot of memories. And like I said to Cory (Giger), you look around at all the changes that have been made in the building — and, like I said to James earlier, he’s done such a great job here, and this is where Penn State should be. On the brink of a national championship and being the type of team that can go out there and compete with anybody in the country. And I think that’s a statement to what he’s done here.
And you can see it here, and it just makes me feel really good about being here today. It was cool to come here. He asked me to come back and speak at the clinic and I said, “Man, I think that’d be really cool.” So it was good to be back.
Q: Did you get a sense of what sleeping giant this program was when you were here? Obviously you were hamstrung in a difficult situation. But to see them winning Big Ten titles, did you have a feel for that?
A: Absolutely. I think you knew. When I was here, there were still some sanctions there. But I knew, in time with the type of people that were here at the university ... there are just some great people here. And I knew that in time, with the support and the type of program that Coach Paterno had built here, that this place was going to be back, that it was going to be some tough times going through it — but, in the end, it was going to be back battling for national championships. And you can see it now, and all of us that were here — players and coaches — we still keep in touch, and we’re all very proud of what’s going on here now.
Q: What do you miss most about the college game or coaching Penn State?
A: Well, look. I think every level has its challenges and has its advantages. There are just differences — I don’t know if it’s anything that I miss. There are differences when you’re coaching a guy that comes in as a 17-18 year old freshman and you’re developing him, and you’re developing him on and off the field, academically obviously, socially off the field and then obviously on the football field. Professional football is a little bit different; you’re still developing young guys on and off the field. But these guys are getting paid now, so it’s a little bit of a different mindset in professional football. But there’s challenges to both, and there’s things about both that I love. And I love where I’m at right now. But coming back here brings back a lot of great memories.
Q: What are you most proud of here, and any regrets?
A: Well, I regret every loss. I mean, I definitely regret every loss. I thought we could have won more games while we were here. But I think the biggest thing that I’m most proud of here is just the relationships that we built. And the fact that, listen — I’m just going to tell you: There was a time when the sanctions first came out that they said this program would never come back. There were people that said this program would basically be a Division II, Division I-AA program — whatever the word is for that now ... I think you know what I mean — and I think we all looked at each other that were here and looked at this wall and looked at the All-Americans and knew that was never going to happen, that something terrible had happened here, but things were moving forward and we had the right people in place to bridge that gap to where they are now.
So I’m most proud of the relationships and the people that we had here. Some of the best people I met were the guys that I worked with here, the people I worked with here, the guys that I coached here. I still keep in touch with a lot of those guys, so I think that’s probably what I’m most proud of.
Q: You mentioned keeping in touch with some of those guys. Christian (Hackenberg), Adam Breneman — you guys are going in 20 different directions. But when’s the last contact you had with those guys?
A: You know, I haven’t talked to Hack in a while. I have not talked to Hack in a while. You just reminded me I probably need to reach out to him. But Breneman we had in the Senior Bowl, so I coached the Senior Bowl and he came down there and he hurt his hamstring so he didn’t practice as much — but I know he retired now from football. But those guys were great guys. They came to Penn State, like I’ve said millions of times, during a very tough time.
They committed to Penn State and then it was told to us that we couldn’t go to bowl games, and we couldn’t win championships and all this, and they stayed committed. I think that says a lot about them. They could’ve gone anywhere. Hackenberg could’ve gone to Alabama, Miami; Breneman could’ve gone anywhere. He was the No. 1 tight end in the country when he was coming out, and they stayed with Penn State. And I think that says a lot about those guys and the type of parents they have and the type of guys that they are.
Q: You got a new contract from the Houston Texans, you got DeShaun Watson. How good do you feel where you are now and what the future could hold?
A: Yeah, it’s year to year in the NFL. I’m very appreciative of the new contract. I’m very appreciative of the McNairs and the support that they’ve given myself and Brian Gaine, our new GM. But we need to make improvements, and that’s what we’re doing, that’s what we’ve been doing since the season ended — trying to improve the roster. We start our offseason program on April 16, so that’ll be a big time period for us, getting guys back healthy is obviously very important. But there’s a lot of other things we need to improve upon, schematically, football-wise, that we’ll start working on on April 16. But we’re all excited about what the future could be in Houston, but we have to go out there and do it.
Q: And the fact that you’ve got a quarterback?
A: I think, like everyone knows in the NFL, you can’t say that’s the most important position — but it’s a very, very important position. If you have a guy there that’s a good leader, is a really good player, good person, knows how to get the ball in the end zone, that means a lot to your organization — and we feel like have that with DeShaun.
Q: You said before you felt Penn State would be back. But are you surprised at all by how quickly it’s come?
A: No, no. Because I knew that once the sanctions were lifted — and I had a sense that, when I was getting ready to move, that there was a possibility they would be completely lifted; I just had that sense because we were doing things the right way. We were doing everything the right way here. We were by the book. We weren’t making extra phone calls. We weren’t tweeting, texting. We were doing things by the book.
So I knew once they saw that these people were really doing things the way it should be done, that once those things were lifted, that this place is a place where kids should really want to come and play football. Like I said, it’s like college football heaven. You come in here and you watch a game in front of 108,000 fans. You come into this building, the practice fields, the view from the practice field, the indoor facility, they have the nutrition deal set up in the weight room now. I felt like this would be a place that could definitely come back pretty quickly.
Q: Can you tell us about your relationship with James, and can you give us a sense of the conversation between you two before he took this job?
A: Yeah, sure. He and I go way back. Our offices were next to each other at Maryland. We were neighbors at Crofton. Our wives are friends; Fumi and my wife, Colleen, are friends. One thing I always remember about James is he was great with my oldest son. He was always great and, every time he called, he asked about my oldest son. That always meant a lot to me about James.
So we’ve known each other a while so when I left and there were some candidates for the job, he was one of them. And he called — and just about where things were at and what I thought needed to be done, improvement-wise, relative to this building or relative to recruiting and all of the different things; talk about the personnel they had there and things like that. That was pretty much just a lot of football talk. And I told him what a great place it was and what a great two years I had here. Personally, I really enjoyed my two years here.
Q: You see in anything in ’03 or ’04 that led you to believe Franklin would be here?
A: Oh yeah, oh yeah. He was very smart. Very energetic, had a great energy; good with players, smart in a lot of different areas — could coach, could recruit, hard worker, very hard worker; up early, stayed late and a good personality. I think whatever you personality is, you have to have something to be able to be a head coach. And I think he had all of those traits and obviously he started that at Vanderbilt, and then what he’s done here has been fantastic.
Q: How’s Jack (special-needs son) doing?
A: Yeah, he’s doing good. He had a rough couple months a couple months ago, but we’re in a good place for him and he’s doing well. He’s got a great mom, as most people around here know, and we feel good about how he’s doing right now. Every day is a struggle for Jack, but he’s doing well. And Michael, my 12-year-old — be 13 in May — he’s playing baseball every day down there. So he’s a lefty pitcher; I think he struck out nine last night in the game I missed, and then he’s going to a Catholic junior high around the corner from where we live and doing well. So everyone’s doing well.
Q: Is there anything you learned here specifically that has carried over to the NFL?
A: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I think when I got here, I’ll be honest with you — I had never been a head coach. So everything I was doing here, I was doing things from guys I worked for, going by instincts. And one of the biggest things I learned here was the relationship with the players and how important it was to be honest with the players about what was going on here at that time or what was happening in their own lives, how they were playing, what was going on off the field. I just felt like as a head coach, I felt like one of the things I learned the most was trying to connect — it’s hard to connect with every player because there’s a lot of guys — but you have to connect with the players.
You can’t be their buddy, but you have to connect with them in a way where you have somewhat of a mentorship toward them. And I think that’s one thing I tried to do here and have always tried to do. And the other thing I learned here was about character. I learned about if you have guys that have great character that are mentally tough, that are physically tough, that love the game, that love to practice, that you’re going to win games. And I think that’s something I’ve tried to carry into Houston.
I think that having guys with high character — maybe the guy runs a 4.2 and this guy over here runs a 4.4, but the guy that runs a 4.2 is always in trouble and this guy that runs the 4.4 is a guy who worked hard, wants to try to get better every day. That’s what we had here; that’s what we had here. We had a bunch of guys that loved to practice, loved Penn State, and it was a good two years for that, for learning about how important those things were.