George O’Leary had a sneaking suspicion one day Bill O’Brien would end up somewhere with a football program of his own to lead.
After being set up by a mutual acquaintance — Jim Bernhardt, who currently serves as special assistant on O’Brien’s Penn State staff — a young O’Brien met a crucial standard when O’Leary sought a graduate assistant to join his staff at Georgia Tech in time for the 1995 season.
“George called Jimmy I think it was and said, ‘Do you know anybody that’s smart enough to get into graduate school at Georgia Tech and dumb enough to want to coach?’ And Jimmy said, ‘I got just the guy for you,’” O’Brien recalled.
And the student-teacher relationship between O’Brien and O’Leary began. It lasted for seven years in an official capacity as O’Brien served on O’Leary’s staff until the latter left for Notre Dame after the 2001 season. Their friendship has held up over the years with multiple coaching stops in between for both men.
On Saturday at Beaver Stadium, they’ll meet again — for the first time head to head.
“(I’ve) certainly kept in touch with Coach O’Leary over the years,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think either one of us are real big phone guys but especially after I became the head coach at Penn State I called him a few times just on different subjects like practice and different things he did schedulewise, travelwise. What he did at Georgia Tech and Central Florida.”
O’Brien said he relished the chance to coach on O’Leary’s staff, where meeting rooms helped produce some of the sport’s top coaches who would eventually ascend to head coaching duties elsewhere. Among them, Ralph Friedgen eventually took over at Maryland, and was succeeded by Randy Edsall, who was on O’Leary’s staff in 1998. Doug Marrone went on to serve a stint as Syracuse’s head coach and now is the head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
After five years with the New England Patriots, O’Brien became the latest O’Leary assistant to earn a head coaching job after coaching stops at Maryland and Duke.
“I think Billy has the same habits that all of the coaches that have been with me have. They have great work habits,” O’Leary said. “They’re always looking to get better and Billy had that right from the get-go. He was a young and enthusiastic guy that couldn’t get enough knowledge, worked at the game extremely hard. Usually good things happen to guys like that.
“He did it the right way. He worked his way up through the ranks and to the point where he’s at now as a very successful coach. He worked hard to get where he was at. I thought eventually, if he kept doing what he was doing he was going to advance pretty quickly.”
Lehman has surgery
Fifth-year senior tight end Matt Lehman underwent knee surgery on Tuesday, O’Brien said.
While O’Brien wouldn’t go into specifics regarding the injury, it will sideline Lehman for the remainder of the season. It is not known if Lehman will seek a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA. He cannot apply for a medical redshirt year until after the season.
Lehman was hurt early in Penn State’s game against Syracuse when he attempted to cut on a passing route. His left knee buckled and he had to be carted off the field. Lehman was not hit on the play.
Traffic Light System
O’Brien has said if Penn State fans have not seen a certain true freshman play by the third game, it is a likely indication that player will redshirt.
It is a process O’Brien and his staff evaluate on a weekly basis.
“We sit down as a staff on Thursday mornings and look at our depth,” O’Brien said. “We look at where we’re at injurywise and those kinds of things and talk about ... if he’s a red light, that means — as it relates to freshmen — we’re not playing him no matter what happens. If he’s a yellow light, that means it depends on what happens. If two or three guys go down, then this guy’s going to have to play. If he’s a green light, he’s playing. We definitely communicate with the player and try to communicate with the parents on what we’re thinking as it relates to that player, especially the freshmen. So it’s a difficult deal.”
What makes it more challenging is the unpredictable nature of the sport. With Mike Hull unable to play against Eastern Michigan, Penn State coaches had to put true freshman Brandon Bell in the game. Bell became the seventh true freshman on scholarship to play this season. He joined quarterback Christian Hackenberg, receiver Richy Anderson, tight end Adam Breneman, defensive backs Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith and defensive end Garrett Sickels.
Because they’ve played in the first two games, it doesn’t mean they still can’t redshirt, however. An injury to any of those players could allow them to apply for a medical hardship waiver.
Meanwhile, defensive end Tanner Hartman and Curtis Cothran, offensive linemen Brendan Mahon, Andrew Nelson and Parker Cothren, defensive back Kasey Gaines have not played and are still eligible for redshirt seasons, which aren’t officially announced until the conclusion of the season. Receiver DaeSean Hamilton is out for the season and will redshirt.
“That will be an evolving process as we go through these so-called sanction years,” O’Brien said. “That’s just the nature of the sanctions.”